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The Risks of Gitmo Transfers

The New York Times gets it wrong.

10:40 AM, May 29, 2010 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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The New York Times has now published its take on the Guantanamo Review Task Force’s final report. (See here and here for the back story.) Of the 240 detainees held at Gitmo on Obama’s first day, and subject to the Task Force’s review (two detainees were not), the Times writes:

Thirty were Yemenis who have been deemed safe to release as individuals but will continue to be held until security conditions in Yemen stabilize.

This is not true.

Footnote 5 (on page 7) of the report reads (emphasis added): 

“The Guidelines further provided that a detainee should be deemed eligible for release if he does not pose an identifiable threat to the national security of the United States. Other than the 17 Chinese Uighur detainees, who were approved for ‘transfer or release,’ no detainees were approved for ‘release’ during the course of the review.”

That is, except for the Uighur detainees, who are treated peculiarly and have an separate legal history, no other detainees were “approved for release.”  

As I wrote previously: 

The Task Force distinguishes between detainee “releases” and “transfers.” Release “is used to mean release from confinement without the need for continuing security measures in the receiving country.” Transfer “is used to mean release from confinement subject to appropriate security measures.” The distinction is an important one. 

None of the thirty Yemenis mentioned by the Times were placed in the approved for “release” category. All of them were placed in the approved for “transfer” category.

The chief reason the Task Force placed them in what it calls “conditional” detention is that Yemen cannot provide the “appropriate security measures” that are required to transfer them.

According to the Task Force, the 30 Yemeni detainees “are not approved for repatriation to Yemen at this time, but may be transferred to third countries, or repatriated to Yemen in the future if the current moratorium on transfers to Yemen is lifted and other security conditions are met.”

The Times’s misreporting on these 30 Yemeni detainees is not unique. The press continually gets this wrong. Virtually every time a detainee is transferred from Gitmo, the press reports that he has been “cleared for release.” (To be fair, I have mistakenly used this phrase in the past, although not in the same manner.) The implication of this phrasing is that the detainees in question are either innocent or no longer a threat. Neither implication is true.

The truth is, the Task Force made it clear that no detainees (other than the Uighurs) have been “approved for release.” The 156 total detainees who have been approved for transfer (126 approved for transfer, plus 30 Yemenis in “conditional” detention) are all considered to pose at least some risk. 

As the Task Force explained, “It is important to emphasize that a decision to approve a detainee for transfer does not reflect a decision that the detainee poses no threat or no risk of recidivism.”

The head of the Task Force, Matthew Olsen, elaborated on this in an earlier interview with BBC News. “No decision about any of these detainees is without some risk,” Olsen said. 

The detainees approved for transfer by the Obama administration are, quite simply, the ones they are willing to assume “some risk” on.

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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