Guantánamo Recidivism: Mainstream Media Parrot Pentagon Propaganda (Again)


The PentagonLast May, the New York Times uncritically published a front-page story entitled, “1 In 7 Detainees Rejoined Jihad, Pentagon Finds,” in which Elisabeth Bumiller, relying on an unpublished Pentagon report, stated that “74 prisoners released from Guantánamo have returned to terrorism, making for a recidivism rate of nearly 14 percent.”

While right-wingers seized on the story as proof that no one should ever be released from Guantánamo, anyone with any sense realized that the Times had just published a propaganda piece on its front page, as the Pentagon had only provided names and “confirmation” for 27 of the 74 prisoners cited in the report.

A week later, 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.”

Eventually, the Times apologized by publishing an Editor’s Note, which featured the following admission:

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.

As I explained at the time, however, “That’s 5 percent, then, which is certainly more appropriate, but … the damage has already been done,” as it led directly to the following assertion by former Vice President Dick Cheney, discussing the prisoners still held at Guantánamo:

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.

The Seton Hall Law School, which has been studying the Pentagon’s recidivism reports for many years, also criticized the article — and the Pentagon’s own figures — in its own report (PDF), in which the authors noted:

The latest “Fact Sheet” drafted by the Department of Defense (“DOD”), dated April 7, 2009 claims that 74 out of more than 530 former Guantánamo detainees have “reengaged in terrorist activities.” Undermining that claim is the further assertion that out of the 74, only 27 are considered “confirmed” recidivists. The total shrinks further since only 15 of the alleged 27 are named in the document, and only 13 of these 15 can be shown to have actually been detained at Guantánamo. Even assuming that the DOD’s number of 13 “confirmed” recidivist former Guantánamo detainees is accurate, this number represents virtually no change over [reports issued in] the past year, and remains a far cry from the alleged 74. The April 2009 report marks the fourth list of names issued by the DOD since 2007, and, in an ongoing trend, each of these “partial” lists has proven rife with errors, inconsistencies, and inflated statistics.

Despite this, two US officials, “speaking on condition of anonymity,” as Reuters described it, announced on Wednesday that a “new Pentagon assessment showed the percentage had grown to 20 percent.” Although no further information was provided by the officials — such as facts and figures — Reuters nevertheless uncritically ran an article entitled, “One in 5 ex-Guantánamo detainees joining militants,” and other media outlets also joined in, including Bloomberg, FOX News, Voice of America and the Associated Press, whose story was picked up by USA Today and — oh dear! — the New York Times, which failed to notice that the following line might encourage people to remember what happened in May: “The rate of those returning to militancy was first reported early last year to be 11 percent. In April it was 14 percent.”

Here are the opening paragraphs of the Bloomberg article, and those responsible, as with those at the other outlets responsible for uncritically disseminating this kind of unsubstantiated reporting — without referring to the New York Times scandal in May, and without waiting to examine any actual evidence — ought to be ashamed of themselves:

As many as one in five former Guantánamo Bay detainees are suspected of or are confirmed to have engaged in terrorist activity after their release, US officials said, citing the latest government statistics.

The 20 percent rate is an increase over the 14 percent of former inmates an April Pentagon report said were thought to have joined terrorist efforts, said the officials, who requested anonymity. The officials didn’t provide the numbers on which the 20 percent is based.

Really? They didn’t provide any numbers? Is that any wonder? Could it be because this is nothing more than a pack of lies and distortions, which demonstrates only that those who call themselves responsible reporters are, in fact, nothing of the sort?

A question worth asking might have been why this “1 in 5” statistic was mentioned now, just a day after President Obama conceded that no more cleared Yemeni prisoners would be repatriated for the foreseeable future. Obama was reacting with cowardice to the unprecedented uproar regarding the alleged contact between Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be Christmas plane bomber, and terrorists in Yemen, including a Saudi released from Guantánamo by George W. Bush, but the timing of this new “report” suggests that there are some in the Pentagon who are more than happy to see Guantánamo remain open for as long as possible.

“Does Barack Obama know about this?” and “Does he care?” might also be a couple of apposite questions to ask as well.

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 I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on Truthout. Cross-posted on Uruknet.

13 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Here are a few comments from Truthout:

    An anonymous reader wrote:

    Excellent. Any author who writes about go#@amned lies from the Pentagaon/Mega Media is a hero.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Another anonymous reader wrote:

    If they were not terrorists, they must have sworn to become one after being abused for such a long time. Most criminals become hard core in prison and some become sworn enemies of the state, even in the US society. We need to spend money on mental institutions and release most of the drug addict and petty drug dealers. If we legalize pot and other narcotics similar to cigarettes and alcohol, we will free a lot of people and use that money for treating the hard criminals as permanent mental patients. We need to use their labor to support themselves instead of paying via easy money obtained by exhorting taxpayer (mostly, working poor)… Is anyone listening to reasonable solutions: NO! Why rock the boat? How many decent people have the means to run for a political office? All decent people seems to shy away from public life because neither their opinion nor their efforts count in the lopsided system of values developed through corporate politics and economics. You may want to see George Carlin’s interviews on U-Tube to see the picture… Best to you guys…

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    dcx2 wrote:

    Even these lies and distortions should be embarrassing to anyone who investigates recidivism rates. Consider this. The recidivism rate for criminals convicted in a court of law with due process, in the UK and the US, is pretty close to 50%. Now we can be reasonably sure that due process gets us the bad guy the vast majority of the time, so let’s assume that 1 in 2 bad guys will stay bad even after being in jail. Compare this to Gitmo’s recidivism rate. Give them the benefit of the doubt and use their inflated numbers, so let’s run with 20%. Given the 1-in-2 estimate above, this means that perhaps 40% of the people in Gitmo actually belonged there. Mind you, these are “hard core terrorists”, “the worst of the worst”, and their (inflated!) recidivism rate is less than half of that for convicted criminals, most of whom are in jail or prison due to non-violent drug offenses…

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Another anonymous reader wrote:

    Even if it is propaganda, 14% is a very low figure considering the torture and abuse we put them through, and the fact that for people suffering from alcoholism, drug abuse, sex additions, and over all destructive behavior only have a 5% chance of recovery no matter what form of detox or rehab they go through.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    And another wrote:

    It’s possible that some of that 14% were first time terrorists, not recidivist (what an odd term for it) recruited BY their experiences in Guantanamo.

  6. On Democracy Now! Andy Worthington Discusses Guantánamo, Yemen, Lies, Hysteria and the False Recidivism Report « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] to Critics and Suspends Prisoner Transfers, Yemenis in Guantánamo are Victims of Hysteria and Guantánamo Recidivism: Mainstream Media Parrot Pentagon Propaganda (Again) — but was delighted to have the opportunity to discuss them with Amy and Juan, as they […]

  7. The Liberty Voice » Web-Only Content » “On Democracy Now! Andy Worthington Discusses Guantánamo, Yemen, Lies, Hysteria and the False Recidivism Report” says...

    […] to Critics and Suspends Prisoner Transfers, Yemenis in Guantánamo are Victims of Hysteria and Guantánamo Recidivism: Mainstream Media Parrot Pentagon Propaganda (Again) — but was delighted to have the opportunity to discuss them with Amy and Juan, as they […]

  8. Diana 1976 says...

    I think it’s an important point that the experience in Guantanamo would be enough to turn a person into a terrorist even if he were not one to begin with. No case better illustrates that than the Canadian, Omar Khadr, captured in Afghanistan at age 15 having been raised by his father primarily in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in an environment that virtually guaranteed an Al Quaeda involvement of some kind, and held for over seven years in Guantanamo.

    But what then should the government do with terrorists that it has, in effect, produced, either wholly or in part, itself?

    To my mind it is impossible to release them for security reasons but it’s clear that they deserve to held in the most humane conditions possible. While they don’t technically meet the definition of prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions, that is exactly how they should be treated. The rules for treatment of prisoners of war as described in the Conventions are based on the idea that they will be treated in the best manner possible, in every way, short of being released until the war is over. In this case that has to mean until or unless the individual has certainly no intention and no reason to rejoin a terrorist cause and that may well mean indefinitely, although I would think release with close surveillance and security measures could be possible for some.

    This is why it’s so ironic that, with the reforms instituted, Guantanamo may well be a better environment for detainees than a US prison. And so. for all his promise of ensuring American security while applying values such as respect for human rights and basic justice, Obama is doing these people no favours. This is because he has not addressed the mind set that has effectively dehumanized these people and he will blocked at every turn until he does.

    Dehumanization results from lumping people together within some feared or despised category with no regard for their individual story, circumstances or humanity. That’s what’s happened with the detainees. Obama will never get anywhere trying to apply human rights principles to them because in the minds of much of the public they simply are not humans but some evil sub-species. Surely Obama knows this, but does he care? Can he even afford to care or does it matter if he cares? Can he do anything about it anyway?

  9. Appeals Court Extends President’s Wartime Powers, Limits Guantánamo Prisoners’ Rights « says...

    […] layer of uncertainty to the prisoners’ future, in a week that was notorious for a barrage of lies and misinformation, and a promise by President Obama that he was freezing the release of all Yemeni […]

  10. Appeals Court Extends President’s Wartime Powers, Limits Guantánamo Prisoners’ Rights by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] layer of uncertainty to the prisoners’ future, in a week that was notorious for a barrage of lies and misinformation, and a promise by President Obama that he was freezing the release of all Yemeni […]

  11. Happy 8th Birthday Gitmo: an interview with watchdog Andy Worthington « Pluto Press – Independent Progressive Publishing says...

    […] in terrorist activities. You wrote a number of articles about these topics (see here, here and here, and also discussed them on Democracy Now! on Friday, and I was hoping in this interview to follow […]

  12. persnipoles says...

    It’s as if the 20% figure was the message, then 9.6 and 10.4 were chosen to keep it round… Surprising that these ‘estimates’ are increasing over time in contrast to e.g. 1991 story breaks: Saddam 6 Months from Nuclear Weapon, then the time estimate gos UP to 5yrs -apparently as real journalists went to work.

  13. Andy Worthington Interviewed by Sibel Edmonds and Peter B. Collins « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] of the prisoners to survive their horrendous ordeal without, as the Pentagon regularly alleges in unsubstantiated propaganda, taking up arms against their former oppressors on their […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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