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Congress Receives Misleading Report About Guantanamo 'Recidivism'

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The Fiscal Year 2010 Intelligence Authorization Act required the Director of National Intelligence to compile and provide to them a report on the "recidivism" of former detainees at Guantánamo Bay prison. An unclassified summary of the report is available here.

This summary includes no names with which to check the accuracy of the assessment that 13.5 percent of former detainees are confirmed and 11.5 percent are suspected of turning to terrorism or insurgency after their release. What is most disturbing is that the report refers to those activities as "reengagement" and "recidivism" as though all the detainees who have ever spent time in Guantánamo Bay were terrorists before their capture. Congress needs to know that the vast majority of the men were sold to U.S. forces by foreign entities for huge bounties, and that most allegations proffered by the bounty hunters turned out to be false. The lack of competent battlefield tribunals demanded by the Geneva Conventions to distinguish between enemy fighters and innocent bystanders perpetuated the errors.

The report's failure to distinguish between recidivists and converts prevents Congress from acknowledging the effects of wrongful detention and torture at Guantánamo, followed by a release without the U.S. government's exoneration or assistance, on men who had no previous record of terrorism or insurgency. It perpetuates the incorrect assumption by many in Congress and in the U.S. that everyone at Guantánamo was a terrorist who does not need to be charged and tried: just held forever. In fact, yesterday the House of Representatives narrowly approved a measure attached to the omnibus spending bill which, if also approved by the Senate, would bar any funds to bring any detainees to the U.S., even for trial. The vote was taken after the intelligence report's release, and some members may have cited the intelligence report to justify their support for keeping Guantánamo Bay prison open permanently.

Congress members' grandstanding against the closure of Guantánamo focuses on a few hundred men as the problem and ignores the much greater danger, frequently reiterated by former interrogators such as Matthew Alexander, that for every prisoner at Guantánamo, there are hundreds or thousands of others who are taking up arms against the U.S. because of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. That danger can only increase if Congress or the president decides to keep wrongfully held detainees captive forever because there is a small chance that, even if they did nothing wrong in the past, they may take revenge on the U.S. if they are released.

The intelligence report's presumption of previous guilt relieves Congress from its obligation to look at, and act on, the reality that the existence and practices of Guantánamo more than likely led men who were not terrorists or insurgents to take up arms against the U.S. The average 2.5-year gap between a prisoner's release and "the first identified reengagement reports" suggests the possibility that some may have tried first to return to their previous lives, families, and careers or to gainful employment at least. Later, however, after finding that prospect hopeless due to physical or mental ailments caused or exacerbated by their incarceration, property lost as their families sold their homes to survive during the absence of their only breadwinner, or the stigma of Guantánamo, they may have decided to avenge the country that had ruined their lives and their family members' lives.

Congress and the public can get a better idea of what life is like for former Guantánamo prisoners by reading the results of a survey conducted in 2008 by the Human Rights Center and the International Human Rights Law Clinic, both at the University of California, Berkeley, in partnership with the Center for Constitutional Rights. The reports of the survey are entitled "Guantánamo and Its Aftermath" and "Returning Home."

I'll close with a story of one former detainee, recorded in the first publication, that continues to haunt me:

The family of [a] destitute and unemployed respondent forced him to leave home, and his wife returned to her family for support. 'I have a plastic bag holding my belongings that I carry with me all the time,' he explained. 'And I sleep every night in a different mosque. And that is my situation.'

There is no way to know whether this man has taken up arms or become a suicide bomber, but it's time for Americans and our representatives in Congress to ask ourselves what we would do with our lives if we were in his position.

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