Guantanamo Recidivism and the Myth That Keeps on Giving
Reports have emerged that a British Islamic State suicide bomber, Ronald Fiddler (aka Abu-Zakariya al-Britani), who detonated a car bomb near Mosul, Iraq, had been a detainee at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba from 2002 to 2004. Advocates for the prison are using the example to highlight the supposed danger posed by former detainees.
But the facts cuts against their argument. Indeed, national security experts say the existence of the prison harms national security.
Sebastian Gorka, the controversial deputy assistant to President Donald Trump, went on Fox News and claimed that “We know there’s at least 30 if not more than 40 percent recidivism rate from the people released at Gitmo. President Obama released lots and lots of people that were there for very good reason, and what happened? Almost half the time they returned to the battlefield.”
It’s hard to know where to start debunking this jumble of falsehoods. But let’s try.
To begin, President Bush, who said he wanted to close Guantanamo, transferred far more detainees out of the prison than President Obama: over 500, to Obama’s 197. Moreover, Bush did so without strict screening and evaluation processes. On entering office, the Obama Administration re-evaluated all the remaining detainees, first with the Guantanamo Review Task Force and again reviewed non-cleared detainees with the Periodic Review Board.
These evaluations were conducted by officials from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Departments of Justice, Defense, State, and Homeland Security. The Periodic Review Board, made up of senior members of the same agencies and offices, uses updated intelligence to examine periodically the threat posed by each detainee. Every detainee is reviewed again before his transfer and the Secretary of Defense must sign off on any release.
As a result of these additional checks, the rate of “recidivism” among former Guantanamo detainees has plummeted. According to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the rate of former detainees reengaging in terrorist or insurgent activities dropped from 21.2 percent among detainees transferred by the Bush Administration to 5.6 percent among detainees transferred by the Obama Administration. Similarly, former detainees suspected of reengaging (based on “unverified or single-source reporting”) dropped from 14.1 percent of Bush transfers to 6.8 percent of Obama transfers.
Even the classification of “reengaging” or “recidivism” is deceptive, since it presupposes that a detainee was involved in terrorist or insurgent activities before being captured and taken to Guantanamo. In fact, many detainees were taken to Guantanamo by accident. These were cases of mistaken identity and cases in which people were captured by local militias or police and turned over to U.S. troops for enormous bounties (Fiddler was likely turned over to the Americans after being freed from a Taliban prison.) Some detainees initially assessed as terrorist leaders were foot soldiers at most. The Department of Defense reports implicating detainee guilt have been repeatedly discredited, and virtually no detainees have stood trial for crimes.
Gorka’s flagrant inflation of Guantanamo recidivism statistics is a scare tactic, just as it was a scare tactic when members of Congress used inflated recidivism numbers as a reason for unnecessary transfer restrictions that prevented the prison’s closure. President Trump, who has vowed to “load it up with some bad dudes,” may be relying on these misrepresentations to formulate his plans regarding Guantanamo.
But national security experts, including Republican and Democratic officials and former U.S. military leaders, have repeatedly called for Guantanamo to be closed, noting that the prison risks U.S. security, wastes money, lessens American influence, and stains the country’s reputation. President Trump and his staff would do better listening to the experts than believing everything they hear about Guantanamo.