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Shayana Kadidal Headshot

The Myth of Return to the Battlefield from Guantanamo

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The New York Times last night joined the parade of news organizations credulously reporting the utterly undocumented claims of Bush Defense Department holdover officials that large numbers of released former Guantanamo detainees had "returned to terrorism or militant activity."

The story indicates that the Times has seen a copy of the report. But had Times Pentagon correspondent (and Condee Rice biographer) Elizabeth Bumiller seen any names? Apparently, 74 detainees are claimed to have returned to "the fight" (up from the 5, 7, 10, 12, 31, 61, and other unsupported totals the military has issued over the years). But 45 names they won't release. (Which it to say, those claims are nonsense -- compare the "43 suspected of returning to the fight" from DOD's Jan. 14 press conference.) As to the others, "29 have been identified by name by the Pentagon, including 16 named for the first time in the report." If so, that means 13 were previously named. Luckily we have a report from the Pentagon from July, 2007 which names names, and includes the "anti‐coalition militant activities" the detainees are supposed to have participated in. Included: three English detainees whose "militant" activity was participating in the making of Michael Winterbottom's movie The Road to Guantanamo and seeking damages for their torture in U.S. courts, and five Uighurs, shipped off to Albania to forestall a court hearing on their release in 2006 and living in a run-down refugee camp there, whose crime was to complain to Tim Golden of the same New York Times about their miserable condition.

In fairness, the July 2007 report's preamble claims that "anti‐coalition militant activities" can include "participat[ion] in anti‐US propaganda or other activities"--but the report never bothers to sort out the total number of those who have "returned to the battlefield" through the militant activity of ... typing. Or talking to a reporter. The gaudy numbers reported previously (generally without names) have undoubtedly included all those few released detainees who dared complain about what they had experienced.

Bumiller apparently didn't scrutinize the Seton Hall Law School report tearing apart the military's earlier claims. Nor did she check the names herself, at least as far as the story shows. But, lest you think no reporting at all was involved in her Times story, she did bother to do the math -- dividing 74 into the total number of released detainees (534) to come up with a "recidivism rate" -- which she then compares to the rate in US prisons! (Wow -- that part counts as *actual research*!)

Since the Times prides itself on its use of the English language (if not content), let's stop to explain a fine point to the editors here. "Recidivism" implies a prior crime, just like "return to the battlefield" implies the detainees were there once before. That's simply not true for 96% of the detainees, who the military's own records show were not captured on anything resembling a traditional battlefield.

What about actual names? Here, as best as I can tell, are the stories that are specific enough to be worth further analysis:

* Mullah Shazada: an Afghan killed on the battlefield on May 7, 2004, supposedly bragged to his people that he had been at Guantanamo under a completely assumed identity, and managed to get released. Conveniently, there's no way to verify a story like this, which could easily be the sort of thing a fighter makes up to increase his street cred.

* Abdullah Al Ajmi: A Kuwaiti who was released, lived a relatively normal life for three years, then vanished and allegedly blew himself up in Mosul, taking several Iraqi soldiers with him. According to his lawyer, when he first met Ajmi he was a polite young man, who left Guantanamo so damaged that his lawyer tried to warn the authorities that he needed help -- to no avail. The fact that the stigma of Guantanamo made him unmarriageable was apparently a major factor in his decline.

* Two Saudi guys who appeared in a video wearing tight camouflage t-shirts and claiming to be the new leaders of Al Qaeda in Yemen: Abu Hareth Muhammad al-Oufi and Sa'eed Ali al-Shihri. However, al-Oufi turned himself in to Saudi authorities after the Saudis made an appeal to their families and the families apparently called out for their kids to return, raising the question: how dangerous can a momma's boy really be?

Note that all of these men were released not by a court order, but by the Bush administration's own haphazard internal process. Perhaps if that administration had shown a commitment to charging and trying detainees, some of these men might be serving sentences for conduct prior to their detention. But instead, the Bush admin showed a mindless commitment to expanding executive power -- deciding to hold men as long as they could to prove a point about presidential power, not to make us safer.

Of course, there are limits to how long any country can hold foreign nationals in preventive detention: eventually the diplomatic costs will always get so high that the executive will have no choice to release them. And, of course, that's not a bad thing when there's no evidence justifying someone's detention. As the President has said repeatedly, the costs - both in terms of diplomatic and popular cooperation and goodwill overseas - far outweigh the risk of releasing individuals about whom we may have incomplete information. President Obama would do well to consider his own words when deciding whether to go forward with the preventive detention scheme he proposed today in his speech to the nation.

The president I still am hopeful about. The Times, not so sure. Will they print a front-page retraction to match the print headline "1 in 7 Rejoins Jihad, Pentagon Finds"?

UPDATE: See Spencer Ackerman's slow dissection of Bumiller's claims here and here.

UPDATE II: Bumiller backtracks (sort of, and ever so slightly) here.

UPDATE III: Bumiller herself called me this afternoon to indicate: (1) she spoke at length to the author of the Seton Hall report, and read two of their three prior reports, and (2) that she did scrutinize the names on the report, and that it was "unclear" whether the names of the Tipton 3 or the five Uighurs sent to Albania were among the 29 names listed. She suggests I write to the Times' public editor. (For good measure, I apologized for being snippy in the above, and promised to follow up as she suggested.)