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Pentagon’s Claims of Gitmo Recidivism Don’t Add Up

Researchers at Seton Hall and New America Foundation track the Pentagon's claims that released Guantanamo detainees 'returned to battle.'

As the Obama administration struggles to decide what to do with roughly 200 remaining detainees held at Guantanamo Bay prison, the Pentagon says more of those previously released may now be on the path to terrorism.

The day after President Obama announced the United States would stop releasing Guantanamo prisoners to the country of Yemen, a Pentagon spokesman said the number of recidivist detainees — those who allegedly returned to terrorist activity — had increased.

A similar report that surfaced in May said 1 in 7 detainees likely returned to battle. Now, the Defense Department says that number has risen to 1 in 5 without offering additional evidence.

Professor Mark Denbeaux, director of the Seton Hall Law School Center for Policy and Research, has analyzed similar Pentagon claims previously made about Guantanamo recidivism and found them to be false.

"This is the 46th time the government has spoken on the question of recidivism," Denbeaux said. "It's the fourth time the DoD has. Their numbers have changed every time. At no point have they ever matched names with numbers. There is the following statement. We have no names. We have no numbers. We have approximate percentages for which we have some trends, and it's an inexact science."

The last claim by the Pentagon in April involved less than half the confirmed cases and only 15 named suspects, two of whom were never held at Guantanamo, according to Denbeaux.

The researchers noted that "returning to the fight" has included speaking critically of the U.S. detention policy. It has also included five Uighur separatists — members of a Chinese Muslim community seeking independence from China — who have been peacefully staying in an Albanian refugee camp, but one of whom wrote The New York Times asking the American government to respect the right of habeas corpus.

Seton Hall researchers detailed their findings here.

Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiederman at the New America Foundation conducted a similar analysis of the government's claims.

"Our analysis - based on previously released Pentagon reports, news stories, and other publicly available documents - indicates that when threats to the United States are considered, the true rate for those who either have taken up arms, or may have, is barely 4 percent, or 1 in 25," the report states.

Pentagon spokesperson Major Tanya Bradsher said the recent 20 percent estimate is "not a figure DoD has released." Press reports came from unnamed sources, though Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morell confirmed at a press briefing an upward trend in terrorist recidivism.

"In terms of the number of named individuals in the Apr '09 report, that is meant to be a sample of the 74 individuals reported -- the names of the others cannot be released in an unclassified report for operational security reasons," Bradsher wrote in an e-mail.

Andy Worthington, author of The Guantanamo Files, which chronicles the stories of nearly 800 prisoners held at Guantanamo, called the Pentagon's recidivism claims "absolutely implausible." His research shows the vast majority of Guantanamo detainees were never involved in terrorism to begin with, and it's unlikely that even torture would drive someone to commit a terrorist act.

"The only way we could possibly have a figure of more than 100 having gone back to the battlefield is if a huge number of these Saudis and Afghans have done this," Worthington said. "I haven't seen any evidence this is the case whatsoever."

The vast majority of the nearly 800 detainees originally held at Guantanamo were released under George W. Bush. Obama inherited 242 detainees. So far, he's released or transferred 44. There are 198 remaining with about 92 from Yemen, of which 40 have been cleared for release, according to The New York Times.

Worthington said it's more likely the Bush administration released a handful of detainees who were in fact senior members of the Taliban.

"The Bush administration released them without talking to anybody in the Afghan government," said Worthington, who's not alone in thinking ulterior motives rest in the release of these Pentagon statements.

Despite evidence to the contrary, the recent reports were accepted by the mainstream media. The New York Times, which apologized for its reporting in May that uncritically analyzed the Pentagon's hazy data, reported this latest story with more caution while still conveying the Pentagon's message.

Denbeaux said releasing such information has succeeded in slowing down plans to close the prison.

"It's kind of bizarre," Denbeaux said. "It's almost like the Defense Department is exaggerating and making up its failures instead of telling the truth, and whoever leaked this so-called story was very effective at making sure Guantanamo stays open longer."

In May, Dick Cheney used the Pentagon's claims to argue Guantanamo should remain open. "One in seven cut a straight path back to their prior line of work and have conducted murderous attacks in the Middle East," the former vice president said in a speech.

Worthington offers a more cynical explanation. "The only darker way of looking at this is that Barack Obama is in on this as well, that the way he's presented his plans to close Guantanamo is a façade," he said.

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