The Magazine

Catch and Release

The Guantanamo Recidivism Problem.

Dec 28, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 15 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Last spring, in an interview with 60 Minutes, Barack Obama criticized his predecessor over the detainees at Guantánamo Bay. That wasn't new. What was surprising was one of the arguments the president made. When Steve Kroft pointed out that some of those released had been working to recruit others to jihad, Obama agreed.

Well, there's no doubt that we have not done a particularly effective job in sorting through who are truly dangerous individuals that we've got to make sure are not a threat to us, who are folks that we just swept up.

A classified Defense Intelligence Agency report leaked to the New York Times in May supported that claim. Return to the Battlefield showed that 74 detainees transferred or released from Guantánamo had returned to jihad. That's one in seven--a recidivism rate of 14 percent.

So the problem, according to Obama, was that the Bush administration was too lenient. The obvious solution: Apply greater scrutiny to detainees under consideration for release and slow the pace of transfers. But the Obama administration went the opposite direction. Having promised to shutter the detention facility at Guantánamo within one year, the administration has lowered the threshold for detainees eligible to be shipped out and is expediting the procedures for transferring or releasing them.

A total of 31 Guantánamo detainees have been transferred or released since Obama took office.

Among them are several men who acknowledged -receiving training in al Qaeda's notorious "al Farouq" camp. One, Binyam Mohamed, was slated to participate in the next wave of al Qaeda attacks on American soil in 2002. Another, Ahmed Zuhair, was convicted in absentia of participating in terrorist attacks in Bosnia in the late 1990s and almost certainly participated in the assassination of William Jefferson, an American working for the United Nations. Several -others that have been released have admitted to training at a camp at Tora Bora under Abdul Haq, a member of al Qaeda's shura council and a senior al Qaeda leader the Treasury Department has designated as a terrorist.

And dozens more are coming. On December 3, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told a congressional committee that more than half of the detainees remaining at Gitmo have been approved for transfer or release--116 of 210.

The 210 detainees who are still there are not wayward goatherds. Most are known jihadists. Many of them have trained in al Qaeda camps or stayed at an al Qaeda safe house. An overwhelming majority was considered too dangerous to release during the intensive vetting at the end of the Bush administration.

The Defense Department has now produced an updated version of Return to the Battlefield. According to four separate sources familiar with the study, the rate of recidivism is increasing. One source said there has been a "spike" in the number of former detainees involved in jihad against the United States and its allies. Another called the increase "significant" and "deeply troubling."

But the Obama administration--despite its -self-congratulatory claims of transparency--is refusing to release it. A Pentagon spokesman tells us the latest report is classified and there are no plans to release it.

Republicans in Congress want it out. On December 18, Senator Kit Bond of Missouri, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, sent a letter to Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair asking for release of the report:

As the administration moves forward with plans to release or transfer detainees from the secure facility at Guantánamo Bay to third countries, it is important for the American people to understand fully the dangers previously-released detainees continue to pose to our national security. Moreover, because the administration has decided to import terrorist detainees into the U.S.--including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and future residents of Thomson prison--their ultimate fate will be determined by U.S. judges and juries. The American people should be aware of the likely threat these terrorists would pose if a court decided to release any one of them into our nation's communities.

And Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, has also asked, according to his spokesman, that "the recidivism rate be made available to the American people." It has been in the past.

The Bush administration released the first recidivism study in June 2008. President Obama has promised to run "the most transparent administration in history." But when it comes to the DIA recidivist study, it is not even as transparent as its predecessor. Many of the recidivists, moreover, are already known--there is no reason that the government should classify those details that can be sourced to newspaper accounts.

In February, for example, the Saudi Kingdom published a list of its 85 most-wanted terrorists. At least 11 of them were once detained at Gitmo. Said al Shihri was held at Guantánamo. He is now the deputy leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an al Qaeda affiliate that the Obama administration has told us is one of the strongest in the world. Ibrahim Rubaish was held at Gitmo, too. He is now the chief ideologist for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and is responsible for providing the theological justifications for al Qaeda's terror. Two other members of the Saudi 11 have been killed in shootouts.

Every month, it seems, we learn about more Gitmo detainees who have returned to jihad. In June 2008, the DoD reported that 37 former detainees were "confirmed or suspected" of returning to terrorism. On January 13, 2009--seven months later--Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said that number had climbed to 61. In May 2009, when the last report was leaked to the New York Times, the DoD had found that same metric had risen further to 74--exactly double the Pentagon's estimate just 11 months before. At that rate, the Pentagon is identifying on average more than three former Gitmo detainees who are thought to have returned to terrorism each month.

If ex-Guantánamo prisoners are rejoining the fight, just as the administration plans to release more of those prisoners, shouldn't the American public know this?

--Stephen F. Hayes