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A Simple Question

A response to Benjamin Wittes and Robert Chesney.

2:45 PM, Jul 15, 2011 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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The task force clearly approved a large number of detainees for transfer who were not approved for transfer by the Bush administration. The Guantanamo Review Task Force’s own final report says that 59 of the 240 detainees it reviewed “were approved for transfer or release by the prior administration but remained at Guantanamo by the time the Executive Order was issued.” That is just 25 percent of the detainees remaining at Gitmo in late January 2009. Compare this to the 156 detainees – or 65 percent – approved for transfer by the task force.

Does Wittes think that the Bush administration would have transferred the other 97 detainees (40 percent) approved for transfer by the task force, or at least a “significant number” of them? If so, what leads him to think this? The fact of the matter is that they were not approved for transfer by the Bush administration as of January 2009. Within one year, they were approved for transfer by Obama’s task force.

This is not intended to be a defense of the Bush administration’s handling of detainee transfers – far from it.

As I’ve reported, the Bush administration did transfer a large number of “high” risk detainees who JTF-GTMO recommended for continued detention in DoD custody. I think this is what Wittes was trying to get at – that the Bush administration itself made a lot of risky transfers and probably would have engaged in more. Fair enough – and I’ve been critical of those transfers.

However, Wittes does not draw a logical conclusion from this observation (assuming it is the one he intended). The consequences of the Bush administration’s transfers have been disastrous. For example, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) benefited greatly from the Bush administration’s “high” risk repatriations of Saudis. The Taliban’s Quetta Shura is also populated by more than one former Gitmo detainee, including the most dangerous Taliban commander on the planet – Mullah Zakir. (Full disclosure: I recently spoke at length about Zakir during a briefing held by the House Armed Services Committee.)

Does this mean, then, that if the Bush administration’s transfer policies were seriously flawed (and they were), then the Obama administration gets a pass if it also makes “high” risk transfer decisions? That is gist of Wittes’ argument. It is illogical. One seriously flawed transfer policy does not justify another.

Wittes adds: “What’s more, the additional risk the task force was willing to assume largely involved Yemenis and was in many cases contingent on conditions improving in Yemen–which they have not done. Almost none of this additional risk has been realized in practice, for reasons Bobby, Matthew Waxman and I laid out in this briefing paper on Yemeni transfers.”

So, Wittes concedes that the task force was willing to assume “additional risk.” This was the whole point of my original post – to ask why this is the case. It is a perfectly reasonable question.

The Yemenis were a big part of the “additional risk” the task force was willing to assume. But the Yemenis are not the whole story. By my calculation, based on the task force’s final report, there were 51 Yemenis not approved for transfer by the Bush administration but who were approved by the task force for transfer or conditional detention (which allowed for transfers to other countries). In addition, there were 46 detainees of other nationalities the task force approved for transfer but who had not been previously approved for transfer.

In other words, the task force was willing to accept more risk across the entire Gitmo population, not just the Yemenis.

Finally, Chesney’s post has almost nothing to do with the issues at hand. For Chesney, this is apparently personal. Chesney argues that anyone who “attacks” Olsen must also be willing to “condemn” the officials “who approved the release of a much larger group of GTMO detainees between 2002 and 2008,” as well as the military officials in Iraq and Afghanistan who let thousands of detainees go free. 

I have not “attacked” or “condemned” Olsen, or any other official. Ironically enough, as discussed above, I have repeatedly questioned the first item on Chesney’s list – Gitmo transfer policy from 2002 to 2008. And I will continue to do so in the future. (Chesney’s mention of detainee releases in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, conflates all sorts of issues that have no bearing on the matter here.)

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