The Cable

Is the Gitmo recidivism rate really 20 percent?

As Washington works itself into a tizzy over whether to release Guantánamo prisoners following the underwear bomber incident (President Obama announced earlier this week that he wouldn’t transfer any of them back to Yemen "at this time"), news of a secret Pentagon report is being bandied about as proof that "recidivism" of released GTMO prisoners ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

As Washington works itself into a tizzy over whether to release Guantánamo prisoners following the underwear bomber incident (President Obama announced earlier this week that he wouldn’t transfer any of them back to Yemen "at this time"), news of a secret Pentagon report is being bandied about as proof that "recidivism" of released GTMO prisoners is on the rise.

Oh, how easily we forget that the whole idea of measuring the recidivism of Guantánamo detainees was debunked last May. The original baseline for saying that the trend of recidivism is on the rise was founded in this front-page New York Times article by Elisabeth Bumiller, which stated that the Pentagon had found that one in seven, or 14 percent, of released GTMO prisoners had "returned to terrorism or militant activity."

There were several problems with the reporting, not the least of which was that there is no way to determine if the alleged militants "returned" to the fight because there were never proper legal procedures at Guantánamo to determine if the prisoners were guilty in the first place.

That language was removed from the story after Bumiller’s piece was torn apart by the Times‘ public editor Clark Hoyt, who said the article was "seriously flawed and greatly overplayed."

Moreover, as Hoyt pointed out, the one in seven number failed to distinguish between those who were "suspected" of militancy and those who were "confirmed" to have done something violent. "Had only confirmed cases been considered, one in seven would have changed to one in 20," Hoyt wrote.

Independent analyses put that number even smaller. Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann at the New America Foundation looked into the numbers even further and found that both confirmed and suspected military rates of released Guantánamo prisoners as of last summer was one in 25, or about 4 percent.

But none of that critical analysis made it into this Jan. 7 LA Times article by Julian E. Barnes and Christi Parsons, which cites a new and also secret Pentagon report to argue that now 20 percent of released Guantánamo prisoners have "resumed extremist activity."

The story says that both conservatives and liberals dispute the figures (although I haven’t seen where the number is said to be an underestimation), but fails to point out that the 14 percent figure from May was disputed by the very paper that reported it.

Bloomberg’s story on the report did a better job of explaining that the numbers are suspect, at best.

In an interview with The Cable, Bergen noted that beside the fact that the numbers are inflated, the Pentagon’s insistence on classifying the underlying information makes the numbers wholly unverifiable.

"The 14 percent is based on a ‘trust us, we can’t tell you,’" said Bergen, adding that the 20 percent figure in the LA Times story "defies credulity."

When a Guantánamo prisoner joins the fight against America, that’s a huge propaganda coup for the extremists and they tend to announce it in a way that’s noticeable, he added. "I’m enormously skeptical that there are these levels of releases joining the fight because I think we would know about it."

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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