Last 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story entitled, “1 In 7 Detainees Rejoined Jihad, Pentagon Finds,” in which Elisabeth Bumiller, relying on an unpublished Pentagon report, stated that “74 prisoners released from Guantánamo have returned to terrorism, making for a recidivism rate of nearly 14 percent.”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, 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, 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; the latter’s 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.