Spinning how many Guantanamo detainees have ‘returned to the fight’

November 21, 2013

(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“The recidivism rate is nearly 29 percent and has been climbing steadily since detainees began being released from Guantanamo. This includes nearly 10 percent of detainees who have returned to the fight after being transferred by the current administration following the administration’s extensive review of each detainee.”

– Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), statement on the Senate floor, Nov. 19, 2013

During a debate in the Senate over whether to loosen restrictions on transferring detainees out of Guantanamo Bay, Sen. Chambliss made two statements about the rate of recidivism (return to terrorist activity) that are worth exploring.

The dispute over these numbers has been long and complex, and we won’t review that history, but readers might benefit from learning what “returned to the fight” means. For the purpose of examining the numbers, we will assume that each detainee had a solid reason for being there, though of course that is also hotly debated.

The Facts

Since 2012, the Director of National Intelligence has released a semi-annual report on the rate of recidivism. The report has a total number and then also divides it between the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

The numbers have two categories: “confirmed of reengaging” and “suspected of reengaging.”

Confirmed is self-explanatory. Here’s how the report defines suspected: “Plausible but unverified or single-source reporting indicating a specific former GTMO detainee is directly involved in terrorist or insurgent activities.  For the purposes of this definition, engagement in anti-US statements or propaganda does not qualify as terrorist or insurgent activity.”

The report shows that 16.6 percent of the 603 detainees transferred are listed as confirmed and 12.3 percent are suspected. Add that together, and you get 28.9 percent. That’s Chambliss’s “nearly 29 percent.”

But nearly all of the detainees confirmed or suspected of militant activities were released during the Bush years. The numbers have plunged since Obama took office five years ago, as Chambliss indicates by saying that “nearly 10 percent of detainees who have returned to the fight.” Of the detainees released by Obama, 4.2 percent are confirmed and 5.6 percent are suspected.

Put another way, only 3 percent of all detainees confirmed of returning to terrorism were released by Obama — and just 5 percent of those in the “suspected” category.

So why does Chambliss say the rate has been climbing steadily? An aide pointed to the fact that the overall rate has increased since these reports have been released regularly starting in 2012.

Actually, the major reason for the change in the numbers is that five more detainees released by Bush have been confirmed as returning to terrorism. There have also been two detainees released by Obama added to the suspected list, but no more additional detainees have been confirmed.

“It generally takes some time before it can be determined whether detainees have reengaged, so it is expected that the number of recidivists among the detainees who were released post-2009 will only continue to rise as it has done in the past,” the aide said.

The aide also defended Chambliss’s use of the term “returned to the fight” to refer to detainees who are simply suspected of returning to terrorism.

“This does not automatically mean that he is a fighter—an individual can be directly involved in terrorist activities in a number of ways, from being a financier, a provider of materials to make bombs, a suicide bomber—the options are almost endless, but at the end of the day, it means that he is not just a bystander to terrorist activity,” the aide said. “A detainee is not a recidivist, even a suspected one, if he is indirectly involved or thinking about being involved.  The only variable between suspected and confirmed is the level of information that the intelligence community has to prove that this is the case.”

The aide pointed to a statement that Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. made before Congress in 2011, responding to a question from Chambliss:

“You’re quite right about the recidivism rate. It’s on the order of 27 percent. There have been 599 detainees that have been repatriated from Guantanamo; some 161 of them either confirmed or suspected to be recidivists.”

But note that Clapper was careful to say “confirmed or suspected.” At another congressional hearing in 2011, the director of defense intelligence at the time, Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess Jr., pushed back against Chambliss when the senator used the “returned to the fight” language:

“In regards to the first part of your question, the 25 percent figure that you mention is a combination of both confirmed and suspected. So the whole 25 percent would not be confirmed by the Defense Intelligence Agency in terms of having returned to the fight or reengaged.”

A Pentagon spokesman has also said: “Someone on the ‘suspected’ list could very possibly not be engaged in activities that are counter to our national security interests.”

It’s worth noting that the administration has not been especially transparent—for perhaps understandable reasons—about how it has made these “confirmed” or “suspected” determinations. Earlier this year, the New America Foundation came up with a much smaller figure—8.8 percent—when researchers tried to identify detainees confirmed to be or suspected of engaging in militant activities.

The Pinocchio Test

There are many ways to look at this data. Clearly, some officials, such as Clapper, and some news organizations have combined the numbers as Chambliss did.

But Chambliss’s  remarks veered into being misleading when he failed to specify that this figure contained both people confirmed and suspected of returning to terrorism. Instead, he used a pejorative umbrella term—“returned to the fight”—that the officials compiling this data say is not correct.

Moreover, by saying the number is steadily climbing, Chambliss appears to be punishing this administration for the mistakes of the previous one. No matter how you slice it, the rate has dropped under the Obama administration, which even Chambliss appears to acknowledge by citing the 10 percent figure.

Two Pinocchios

 


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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.
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Glenn Kessler · November 20, 2013