On May 1, 2009, Republican senator Christopher Bond wrote to President Obama with questions about the handling of detainees from Guantánamo Bay. Bond, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was concerned about reports that an increasing number of transferred detainees were going “back to the battlefield to kill American soldiers.” He asked a series of specific questions about the detainees and the process for releasing or transferring them.
Almost a full year later, on April 19, 2010, Bond received a response from the Justice Department, which Obama had designated as the lead agency on the detainee task force. Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legislative Affairs Ronald Weich wrote offering a vague description of detainee review process and promising that the detainee task force made its decisions only after a “careful examination of the available and relevant information pertaining to each detainee.”
Blah, blah, blah.
For more than a year, Obama officials, with the Justice Department in the lead, have hidden crucial information on detainees from the public. They have refused to discuss the decisions of the Guantánamo Bay task force or to identify the 60 individuals who serve on it. They have declined to provide information on the detainees that have been transferred or released. And they have ignored repeated requests for specifics on the growing number of former detainees who have returned to jihad—terrorists that the U.S. military is now fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and beyond.
The recidivist group is growing. The Weekly Standard has learned that the Pentagon has an updated version of its “Return to the Battlefield” report, which tracks Guantánamo Bay recidivism. The percentage of known or suspected recidivists is now “north of 20 percent,” according to a source familiar with the latest data.
In June 2008, when the Pentagon released its first report, the estimated number of recidivists was just 37. In January 2009, that figure had climbed to 61. By April 2009, it was 74. In February 2010, following reports in this magazine and other media outlets that the number of recidivists had spiked, White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan acknowledged that the recidivism rate had reached 20 percent. A stunning 112 of the 560 detainees who had been transferred or released had returned to jihad. In just a year and a half, the estimated number of Gitmo recidivists tripled.
Brennan had a ready response. “I want to underscore the fact that all of these cases relate to detainees released during the previous administration and under the prior detainee review process,” Brennan said. “The report indicates no confirmed or suspected recidivists among detainees transferred during this administration, although we recognize the ongoing risk that detainees could engage in such activity.” It is a fair point, though a strikingly political one for a counterterrorism adviser.
Given these problems, one might reasonably expect the rate of transfers and releases to slow, or to halt altogether. To the contrary, the Obama administration just decided it was going to do it smarter. “We believe that significant improvements to the detainee review process have contributed to significant improvements in the results,” Brennan said.
Or maybe it’s just that not enough time has passed. “It typically takes 12-13 months for us to obtain enough information to count someone as a recidivist,” says Representative Pete Hoekstra, ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. Typically, but not always.
According to reporting by frequent Weekly Standard contributors Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, in December 2009, the Obama administration returned an Afghan named Abdul Hafiz to his home country. Hafiz had been sent to Guantánamo after he was implicated in the murder of a Red Cross worker. U.S. Special Forces apprehended Hafiz in 2003. Despite the fact that U.S. intelligence officials had determined that Hafiz was a suspect in the charity worker’s murder and had ties to senior Taliban leaders, the Obama administration released him. Hafiz is now a Taliban commander and reportedly hunting charity workers once again.
Sources familiar with the updated “Return to Battlefield” report tell us there may well be other Obama-era recidivists on the list. The Weekly Standard has requested a copy of the report—and have made such requests repeatedly since the fall—but are not optimistic that we’ll get one. Still, we haven’t given up hope.
Neither has Senator Bond.
“I hope President Obama will prove his commitment to transparency by shining light on the dangers Gitmo graduates pose to our national security. If this administration is going to move forward with releasing these terrorists after we now know that more than one in five return to the battlefield, the American public have a right to know the details.”
On April 19, the same day that Bond received his non-response response from the Justice Department, nearly a year after he sent his initial letter, Robert Gibbs reiterated Obama’s commitment to open government.
“This is the most transparent administration in the history of our country,” the press secretary insisted.
—Stephen F. Hayes