New York Times finally apologizes for false Guantánamo recidivism story

6.6.09

The New York Times' dubious Guantanamo headline Too late, the damage is already done.

On May 21, the New York Times published a front-page story, entitled, “1 In 7 Detainees Rejoined Jihad, Pentagon Finds” (or, in the web version, “1 in 7 freed detainees rejoins fight, reports says”), in which Elisabeth Bumiller, relying on an unpublished Pentagon report, stated that “74 prisoners released from Guantánamo have returned to terrorism, making for a recidivism rate of nearly 14 percent.”

Claiming that the report “provides new details concluding that about one in seven of the 534 prisoners already transferred abroad from the detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has returned to terrorism or militant activity, according to administration officials,” Bumiller also played straight into the hands of right-wing commentators by adding, “The conclusion could strengthen the arguments of critics who have warned against releasing any more prisoners as part of President Obama’s plan to shut down the prison by January 2010.” The use of “could” was presumably meant to imply some sort of objectivity, but in reality it might as well have been replaced with the self-fulfillingly prophetic use of the word “will.”

Critics — essentially, anyone aware of the Seton Hall Law School’s excellent work in debunking the Pentagon’s numerous “recidivism” reports (PDF) — immediately denounced the story. On Think Progress, for example, Ken Gude wrote that Bumiller “discards any semblance of journalism and merely serves as a conduit for unnamed Pentagon officials to claim without any supporting evidence that 74 released Guantánamo detainees are ‘engaged in terrorism.’”

Within hours the Times amended the headline to the bewildering “Later Terror Link Cited for 1 in 7 Freed Detainees,” and Bumiller appeared on MSNBC, conceding that “there is some debate about whether you should say ‘returned’ because some of them were perhaps not engaged in terrorism, as we know — some of them are being held there on vague charges.”

This was a start –- as there is clearly a world of difference between “returning to terrorism” and “turning to terrorism after not being a terrorist but being treated in the most inhumane manner for years as an ‘enemy combatant’ without rights in an experimental prison designed to be beyond the law” — but it did not address the more fundamental problem of whether there was any truth to the Pentagon’s claims.

On May 28, the Times allowed Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann of the New America Foundation to write an op-ed criticizing Bumiller’s article, in which they concluded, from an examination of the report (PDF), that a more probable figure for recidivism — based on the fact that there were “12 former detainees who can be independently confirmed to have taken part in terrorist acts directed at American targets, and eight others suspected of such acts” — was “about 4 percent of the 534 men who have been released.”

This went some way to apologizing for the damage caused by uncritically publishing Pentagon propaganda on its front page, and on Friday the Times went one step further, and published the following Editor’s Note:

A front-page article and headline on May 21 reported findings from an unreleased Pentagon report about prisoners who have been transferred abroad from the American detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The article said that the Pentagon had found about one in seven of former Guantánamo prisoners had “returned to terrorism or other militant activity,” or as the headline put it, had “rejoined jihad.”

Those phrases accepted a premise of the report that all the former prisoners had been engaged in terrorism before their detention. Because that premise remains unproved, the day the article appeared in the newspaper, editors changed the headline and the first paragraph on the Times Web site to refer to prisoners the report said had engaged in terrorism or militant activity since their release.

The article and headline also conflated two categories of former prisoners. In the Pentagon report, 27 former Guantánamo prisoners were described as having been confirmed as engaging in terrorism, with another 47 suspected of doing so without substantiation. The article should have distinguished between the two categories, to say that about one in 20 of former Guantánamo prisoners described in the Pentagon report were now said to be engaging in terrorism. (The larger share — about one in seven –applies to the total number described in the report as confirmed or suspected of engaging in terrorism.)

That’s 5 percent, then, which is certainly more appropriate, but as I stated at the start of this article, the damage has already been done. As Gregg Mitchell noted in the Huffington Post yesterday, “here’s what [former Vice President Dick] Cheney said the day after the story was published at the American Enterprise Institute. As with the Iraq run-up stories, he took the Times‘ non-facts and exaggerated them”:

Keep in mind that these are hardened terrorists picked up overseas since 9/11. The ones that were considered low-risk were released a long time ago. And among these, we learned yesterday, many were treated too leniently, because 1 in 7 cut a straight path back to their prior line of work and have conducted murderous attacks in the Middle East. I think the President will find, upon reflection, that to bring the worst of the worst terrorists inside the United States would be cause for great danger and regret in the years to come …

When a front-page story in the Times only fuel more lies from Cheney, who is on a mission to portray the failed Guantánamo project as something noble, bold and essential, in an attempt to silence calls for his prosecution as the “Vice President for Torture,” you can tell that something has gone seriously wrong …

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

16 Responses

  1. the talking dog says...

    Well, fortunately, Ms. Bumiller apparently has no “opinions,” and so the thought-police (more accurately, the loyal corporate whores) who run The Grey Lady can trust in her “objectivity,” just not her “accuracy.”

    Funny how it used to be the other way ’round, when an “explanatory note” like this: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2008/02/07/new-york-times-editors-note-on-guantanamo-article-on-tuesdays-front-page/ would have been inconcievable if (as was the case) the ACTUAL FREAKING STORY WAS ACCURATE (which, of course, the NY Times verified was the case!)

    And this, boys and girls, is The New York Times. We don’t even want to imagine what happens, say, in broadcast or cable newsrooms, or other publications.

    Then again as I observed THIS VERY DAY on my own blog, http://thetalkingdog.com/archives2/001315.html, citing E.J. Dionne’s WaPo piece on the subject, there IS a distinct bias in American journalism. A RIGHT WING, CORPORATE ORIENTED bias. Explains… everything. Including the perpetuation of the myth of left-wing media bias. If Dick Cheney were capable of smiling at anything other than having a puppy to kick, he’d have smiled at the thought of “even the liberal New York Times” supplying his talking points for the day (probably by simply re-printing one of his own press releases, which one of his Pentagon allies chose to disseminate.)

    All just part of the “new playing field.”

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Morning, TD, and thanks for — ahem — reminding readers of that other Editor’s Note …

    Great article about the truth-telling op-ed in the Post, which I hadn’t come across, but is worth reading:
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/03/AR2009060303239.html

    This is Dionne’s introduction about how tilted the level playing field actually is:

    “A media environment that tilts to the right is obscuring what President Obama stands for and closing off political options that should be part of the public discussion.

    “Yes, you read that correctly: If you doubt that there is a conservative inclination in the media, consider which arguments you hear regularly and which you don’t. When Rush Limbaugh sneezes or Newt Gingrich tweets, their views ricochet from the Internet to cable television and into the traditional media. It is remarkable how successful they are in setting what passes for the news agenda.

    “The power of the Limbaugh-Gingrich axis means that Obama is regularly cast as somewhere on the far left end of a truncated political spectrum [and] the media play an independent role by regularly treating far-right views as mainstream positions and by largely ignoring critiques of Obama that come from elected officials on the left.”

    Providing examples, Dionne wrote:

    “While the right wing’s rants get wall-to-wall airtime, you almost never hear from the sort of progressive members of Congress who were on an America’s Future panel on Tuesday. Reps. Jared Polis of Colorado, Donna Edwards of Maryland and Raul Grijalva of Arizona all said warm things about the president — they are Democrats, after all — but also took issue with some of his policies.

    “All three, for example, are passionately opposed to his military approach to Afghanistan and want a serious debate over the implications of Obama’s strategy. “If we don’t ask these questions now,” said Edwards, “we’ll ask these questions 10 years from now — I guarantee it.”

    As TD wrote in his analysis of Dionne’s column, “Indeed, the whole concept of ‘he-said, she-said journalism,’ where ‘presenting both sides’ (meaning dueling partisan press releases), rather than ‘the news’ or, oh ‘the truth,’ now passes for ‘reporting,’ is itself a product of this right-wing media bias.”

    It’s a great point. As far as I’m concerned, the “objective” reporting of, for example, a story that is critical of the government, should involve writing it, calling up a spokesman who duly says, “No comment,” or “That’s wrong,” and then publishing it.

    Instead, as I mentioned above, this damaging Times story on the spectral recidivists included the kind of “objective” editorializing — in a news story — that only panders to the right-wing agenda: “The conclusion could strengthen the arguments of critics who have warned against releasing any more prisoners as part of President Obama’s plan to shut down the prison by January 2010,” which was hardly offset by the subsequent, balancing line: “Past Pentagon reports on Guantánamo recidivism have been met with skepticism from civil liberties groups and criticized for their lack of detail.”

    And as TD reminded me, not so long ago an Editor’s Note apologized for giving a byline to a certain writer whose article did not feature any editorializing whatsoever, but who was, apparently, not “objective” because he had, elsewhere, published a book, The Guantánamo Files, and several hundred articles in which he expressed “a point of view.”

  3. WILFRED QUIAH says...

    Waiting to see when the Americans will be awarded Noble prize for lying. Great nation and great liers great assholes.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    OK, I can’t resist it. Here’s another article looking at “objectivity,” written by Scott Horton of Harper’s in response to the Editor’s Note in the New York Times last February:
    http://harpers.org/archive/2008/02/hbc-90002331
    And this was a letter to the Times from FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting):
    http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2008/02/14/guantanamo-and-the-new-york-times-fair-sends-letter-to-public-editor/

  5. New York Times finally apologizes for false Guantánamo recidivism story by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

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  6. george in toronto canada says...

    Any bets that Elisabeth Bumiller is still pumping zionist B.S at the zionist Times?
    Watch this recent Utube video–she is a Isrone of them Israel Firster Cloned Zoombies
    Called “Feeling the Hate In Jerusalem on Eve of Obama’s Cairo Address”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uxt9HwfPwPo&eurl=http%3A%2F%2Fwhatreallyhappened%2Ecom%2F&feature=player_embedded
    God help us-if Israelies do have to settle all in USA

  7. Ed says...

    The FCM (Fawning Corporate Media) – as ray McGovern accurately terms it – strikes again! Our tax dollars already fund Pentagon propaganda and lies. We don’t need the NY Times and other media enhancing those lies.

  8. jeff davis says...

    George in Toronto offered a youtube video entitled:

    “Feeling the Hate In Jerusalem on Eve of Obama’s Cairo Address”.

    Clearly the people we see in this video are real trash. However it is unhelpful to create a video of a few drunken posturing teenage bigots and in so doing leave the impression that they are representative of all the Jews in occupied Palestine.

    Perhaps they are, and if so the inflammatory impact of the video is somewhat appropriate. Otherwise its just a case of distortion on top of distortion. Not useful.

    The world needs an accurate assessment of range of opinion among the Jews over there. An informed citizenry requires reality-based info.

  9. rewinn says...

    If, as the Pentagon alleges, criticizing the United States government is terrorism, I’d say we have a lot more than the ex-Gitmo prisoners to worry about.

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