Opponents to Gitmo Transfers Distort the Facts

Last week’s transfer of 15 detainees—12 Yemenis and three Afghans—from the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay to the United Arab Emirates was the largest detainee transfer the Obama Administration has carried out, and a major step in clearing out the prison. This is great news, as Guantanamo continues to be a costly blot on the United States’ reputation and makes counterterrorism more difficult, according to national security leaders. But, not surprisingly, some in Congress are not happy about it.

Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) released a report about the transferred detainees, saying that the Obama Administration “continues to irresponsibly release detainees.” Ayotte has done her best to portray the remaining Guantanamo detainees as too dangerous to release, and claimed many of them are guilty of crimes, despite almost none ever being charged or tried.

Ayotte’s profiles of the detainees are based on a Department of Defense (DOD) document culled from various unclassified sources. These sources include Bush Administration-era detainee review hearings called Administrative Review Board (ARB) hearings, as well as intelligence assessments for each detainee created by Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO), the DOD group tasked with running operations at the island prison. Ayotte and others have long asserted that the remaining Guantanamo detainees are highly dangerous individuals who pose a threat to the United States, and have based these points largely on the Bush-era JTF-GTMO assessments.

But, as we have pointed out, the JTF-GTMO assessments are unreliable and often inaccurate, to the point that even federal courts (which usually trust the government’s assertions) have sometimes rejected them as erroneous. They are based largely on reporting from other detainees, some of which was the result of torture, and some of which was provided in exchange for more favorable treatment in the prison.

When President Obama came into office, he instituted the Guantanamo Review Task Force, which took another look at the intelligence on each detainee. Since that time, the Obama Administration has also set up the Periodic Review Board (PRB) system. The PRB is made up of senior representatives of the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, and State, as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

All cleared detainees have been reviewed by these agencies, determined to not be “a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States,” and approved for transfer by the Secretary of Defense. Since these mechanisms have been put in place, the rate of detainees participating in terrorist/insurgent activities after their release has plummeted.

The PRB has been more thorough than previous detainee assessments, especially the JTF-GTMO reports. In several cases, the PRB has noted that detainees JTF-GTMO thought were important al Qaeda or Taliban figures were actually victims of pointed out.

Ayotte’s profiles of the recently released detainees include information from the PRB hearings, but conveniently leave out all the mitigating factors that the PRB also considers when evaluating the threat that each detainee may pose. This includes whether the detainee still has ties to terrorist/insurgent networks or individuals, whether he has a support network waiting for him on release, his behavior while at Guantanamo, and any transfer destination country’s ability to monitor his activities and/or provide him with rehabilitation, among other factors.

For example, Ayotte notes that two of the recently released detainees (Yemenis Bashir Nasir ‘Ali al-Marwalah and Ayyub Murahid Ali Salih) trained with al Qaeda and possibly engaged in combat, but neglects to include that according to the PRB there was no evidence that either actually engaged in combat with U.S. forces alongside al Qaeda. In fact, the major reason that they were brought to Gitmo was that they were part of a group arrested in Pakistan which the United States erroneously believed was plotting specific attacks in Karachi. The PRB acknowledged this error. Ayotte did not.

By leaving out these key details, Ayotte and others opposed to closing Guantanamo distort the truth about the detainees. It is true, as Ayotte has noted, that greater transparency is needed regarding the detainees’ pasts. Charlie Savage of the New York Times has called for the Obama Administration to release the Guantanamo Review Task Force records, but to counter the JTF-GTMO misinformation being spread by Congressional opponents and pundits. This would be a valuable step towards having an honest debate about the detainees.

After this latest transfer, 20 cleared detainees remain at Guantanamo, and it’s likely that more will be cleared as the PRB evaluates those slated for indefinite detention. The Obama Administration should continue transfers, while being as transparent as possible. Meanwhile, Ayotte and others should stop dishonestly demonizing detainees that U.S. intelligence and military officials have determined can be safely transferred.


Published on August 19, 2016


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