Guantánamo and Recidivism: New Report Debunks Government’s Inflated Claims


On Monday, the Center for Policy and Research at Seton Hall University School of Law in New Jersey released a new report, “National Security Deserves Better: ‘Odd’ Recidivism Numbers Undermine the Guantánamo Policy Debate” (PDF), which analyzes the fundamental problems with the claims made by the Pentagon and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) regarding the numbers of alleged “recidivists” freed from Guantánamo — in other words, those who, in the words of the DNI, have been involved in “planning terrorist operations, conducting a terrorist or insurgent attack against Coalition or host-nation forces or civilians, conducting a suicide bombing, financing terrorist operations, recruiting others for terrorist operations, and arranging for movement of individuals involved in terrorist operations.”

As I have been explaining since May 2009, when the New York Times published a misleading front-page story claiming that 1 in 7 released prisoners had engaged in recidivism, there have been two main problems with the recidivism claims: firstly, that, over the last three years, little effort has been made to distinguish between “confirmed” and “suspected” cases of recidivism; and secondly that, as the claims became more outrageous in 2010 and 2011, with completely unsubstantiated allegations that 1 in 5 of the released prisoners were recidivists, and then 1 in 4, the mainstream media unquestioningly repeated these claims, even though they were not backed up with even a shred of evidence.

Last month, in my article, “Guantánamo and Recidivism: The Media’s Ongoing Failure to Question Official Statistics,” I challenged the latest claims made by the DNI — that 27.9 percent of the prisoners released from Guantánamo were recidivists — by noting that although the DNI claimed that 95 (15.9%) were described as “Confirmed of Reengaging,” and 72 others (12%) were described as “Suspected of Reengaging,” the lack of evidence for these claims was deeply troubling.

This was because, as I explained, in January 2011, when the New America Foundation issued its own report (PDF) challenging the DNI’s claims in December 2010 that 81 former prisoners (13.5 percent) were “confirmed” and 69 (11.5 percent) “suspected” of “reengaging in terrorist or insurgent activities after transfer,” the authors concluded, based on an assessment of available public documentation, that “the true rate for those who have taken up arms or are suspected of doing so is more like 6 percent, or one in 17,” with another 2.2 percent “engaged or suspected to have engaged with insurgent groups that attack or attempt to attack non-US targets”; in other words, 49 men in total, with just 36 “engaged or suspected to have engaged with insurgent groups that attack or attempt to attack the United States, US citizens, or US bases abroad.”

As I proceeded to explain:

There is a huge gulf between this analysis (of 36 men confirmed or suspected of hostile engagement with US interests) and the current claims by the DNI, in which 167 men are described as confirmed or suspected of [recidivism]. In addition, my own research over the last few years has provided no reason for believing the figures produced by the Director of National Intelligence. All available reports, for example, indicate that there are only a small number of problematical ex-prisoners from any countries except Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, and, according to Afghan and Saudi officials, the number of “recidivists” from these two countries is no more than 45 in total.

In the Seton Hall report, the authors focused on an important statement made by Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, who is the Public Affairs Officer for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense, and who, as I reported in March, told CNN that he “took exception” to media reports “characterizing the current recidivism rate at 28%.” He said that “the intelligence bar for someone confirmed of returning to terrorism is much higher,” as CNN described it, and, in his own words, explained, “Someone on the ‘suspected’ list could very possibly NOT be engaged in activities that are counter to our national security interests.”

Seton Hall added further damning information from Lt. Col. Breasseale’s comments in March, noting that he also stated:

[T]his document [the latest DNI assessment] makes a distinction between “Confirmed” v. “Suspected.” This is particularly relevant because there was confusion in some early media reports conflating the two, coming up with this odd 27-28% number. To be sure, “Confirmed” is more consistent with our actual intelligence data and “Suspected” is a much lower bar, triggering an additional review that is really more akin to a sort of “early watch” system.

With this important distinction established, Seton Hall Center for Policy and Research Fellow and Report co-author Lauren Winchester noted, “The government’s supposed Confirmed is no more than 16%, and the number, since President Obama took office, is just over 3%.”

It is, of course, hugely important to have these kinds of figures established, especially because, in February, a Republican Congressional report issued by the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee (PDF) deliberately failed to distinguish between the alleged “confirmed” and “suspected” cases, highlighting a figure of 27 percent, and annoying the Democrats on the committee to such an extent that refused to sign it, and instead issued a damning minority report (PDF).

As a result of research that I am currently undertaking, I expect to be able to demonstrate, in the not too distant future, that a more reliable figure for the alleged recidivism of former prisoners is closer to 10 percent than the 15.9 percent alleged by the government in the latest claims made by the DNI, but in the meantime I wholeheartedly recommend the Seton Hall report, which, as explained in a press release:

documents wild fluctuations — both up and down — in the number of released Guantánamo detainees said by the government to have re-engaged in activities that are counter to the United States’ security interests; shows that the government knew that GTMO was populated with “low level” detainees, but engaged in a public relations campaign to the contrary, claiming it housed “the worst of the worst”; and documents a sampling of hundreds of detainees who have returned to normal lives, including attending college, going to law school, working as electricians and even working as translators for American soldiers in Afghanistan, and warning the United States of a plot to send mail bombs into America, thereby thwarting the attempt.

Professor Mark Denbeaux, Director of the Seton Hall Law Center for Policy and Research, commented, “The HASC [House Armed Services Committee] spent one year producing a report that is misleading and perpetuates a falsehood. The shreds of justification  for GTMO disappear in the harsh truth: Once released, the so called ‘worst of the worst’ by and large return to the same peaceful lives they lived before their detention.”

Professor Denbeaux’s assessment is accurate, and is important not just to establish the lies that have been told by US officials about released prisoners, but also, more significantly, to pave the way for the release of prisoners still held — 89 of the 171 men still in Guantánamo — who have been cleared for release, but who are still held in large part because of the distorted claims about recidivism that have been cynically used over the last three years by those whose ulterior motive is to keep Guantánamo open forever, and to ensure that no one who is still there will ever be released.

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

14 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook yesterday, I wrote:

    Here’s my analysis of the latest report, by researchers at Seton Hall University School of Law, debunking the inflated claims of “recidivism” — “returning to the battlefield” — that have been touted by the Pentagon and the Director of National Intelligence, particularly over the last three years. This is hugely important as part of a process of refuting black propaganda used to keep Guantanamo open and to prevent the release of any prisoners.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Today, I reposted it, and wrote:

    I’m reposting this, as it seemed to pass a lot of people by — or maybe there is no longer much interest in whether or not US government officials have exaggerated claims that between 1 in 4 and 1 in 6 of the prisoners released from Guantanamo are “recidivists” — in other words, that they’ve “returned to the battlefield” or are involved in activities related to terrorism. I believe that these are distorted claims, and I’m pleased to publicize a new Seton Hall report that mirrors my conclusions.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Mezentian Gate wrote:

    in Amerika they worship their obama, and nothing he and his minions do can be subject to any adverse criticism —
    it is an election year after all

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Toia Tutta Jung wrote:

    Good idea with the explanation about “recidivism” Andy — I had to look it up, although the word is close to “reincidencia” in Portuguese. Shared and explained to friends who were confused about my interest in the people in Guantanamo. I tried to explain to them that things are not what the media and politicians — especially all those supporting USA — want us to believe. Brazilian people should know that, we’ve had CIA involved in all aspects of the military repression during the years of dictatorship.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Mezentian. You’re certainly right that many Democrats don’t want to criticize Obama or rock any boats — even when that involves blinding themselves to the injustices of Guantanamo, or even persuading themselves that what they criticized under Bush is fine under Obama. Many other Americans, of course, don’t support Obama at all, but Republicans have not shown themselves willing to repudiate what happened under Bush either.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Toia. I’m glad the explanation was useful — and I agree, given Brazil’s history, that people should be very wary of claims made by or on behalf of the CIA. Unfortunately, far too many people in far too many countries don’t seem to care. Your support and understanding is very much appreciated.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Mark C Lord wrote:

    Keep up the good work Andy. I’ve just started reading Castro’s (fairly) recent book arguing why Guantanamo should be closed and in that I have read some of the early ‘agreements’ setting the scene for the camp to be established, such as the Platt Amendment. The other article I’ve just shared on my facebook by Tarek Mehanna substantiates the argument for questioning what the USA are doing, contrary to what they argue they are ‘fighting for’.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Mark. Good to hear from you. Interesting to hear about Castro’s Guantanamo book, “Guantanamo: Why the Illegal US Base Should Be Returned to Cuba”:
    I’m slightly surprised that I missed that. Doesn’t seem to be available on, though …

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Mark C Lord wrote:

    Really? That’s where I got it

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    No, you’re right. here it is:
    Thanks also for mentioning Tarek Mehanna’s powerful statement, which I’ll be posting this weekend.

  11. arcticredriver says...

  12. arcticredriver says...

    The table in the recent recidivism report claims that two captives repatriated due to habeas corpus petitions were either confirmed or suspected of “re-engaging in support of terrorism”.

    The report claims
    “For the purposes of this definition, engagement in anti-U.S. statements or propaganda does not qualify as terrorist or insurgent activity.”
    But the Denbeaux studies cast doubt on that.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver. I noted that Lawfare had picked up on it. I feel a fatigue like Sisyphus …

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, and with good cause. In the WikiLeaks files, it became evident that all or most of the Bahrainis were regarded as having engaged in nefarious activity. They met at the house of a major politician, but one regarded as radical. It’s almost unbelievably tiresome and wrong that the lies persist after so long.

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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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