How bad is the press’s reporting on Guantanamo? Many examples come to mind, but the most recent one is this Associated Press article by Kimberly Dozier.
Titled “US officials: Not so many Guantanamo re-offenders,” Dozier reports on the Director of National Intelligence’s (DNI’s) latest estimate of recidivism by former Guantanamo detainees. The new estimate, based on data available as of December 2011, shows an uptick from the DNI’s last publicly available statistics, which were released in December 2010. (Intelligence officials have provided updates in congressional testimony during the meantime as well.) The number of “confirmed” and “suspected” recidivists has increased from 150 to 167 during that one year span.
Why, then, does the AP claim the latest report shows there are “not so many Guantanamo re-offenders”? Dozier doesn’t compare the DNI’s latest estimate to its previous one. No, she compares it to a report published by Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) in February. (Full disclosure: I was interviewed by staffers working for that committee and am cited in the report.)
Here’s the rub: The statistics cited in the HASC report are basically the same as those published by the DNI yesterday. In fact, the HASC’s statistics are slightly less than the DNI’s published statistics.
After recounting the number of “confirmed” (95, or 15.9 percent of the total number of detainees transferred abroad) and “suspected” (72, or 12 percent of the total number of detainees transferred) recidivists included in the DNI’s total (167, or 27.9 percent of the total number of detainees transferred), Dozier reports:
A Republican congressional report in February added those two figures together, coming up with a much more dramatic rate of 27 percent of the roughly 600 detainees released returning to the battlefield.
How dastardly! The HASC Republicans have no shame!
There are several problems with this storyline.
First, the HASC report’s authors made it abundantly clear that the 27 percent figure in their report was the sum of “confirmed” and “suspected” recidivists. The 27 percent figure is cited on the very first page of text in the HASC report. Underneath it, the words “Suspected or Confirmed” are clearly visible. And in text that is set apart on the very same page we read (emphasis added):
As of September 2011, the US government believed that 27 percent of former GTMO detainees were confirmed or suspected to have been engaged in terrorist or insurgent activities.
The HASC report could not have been any clearer.
Second, while the latest “confirmed” and “suspected” figures released by the DNI were not summed together in the two pages released online yesterday, this is elementary school level math. Other press reports on the DNI’s latest estimate, as well as previous reports by the Defense Department, frequently added the suspected and confirmed totals together.
Third, there is no reason the two should not be added together, as long as you are clear about what you are doing (as the HASC report’s authors were). Just because some former Guantanamo detainees are “suspected” of reengaging in terrorist and insurgent activities, meaning the quality of intelligence is less than that for those who are “confirmed” to have done so, it doesn’t mean that many of them aren’t in fact fighting alongside al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their allies.
Indeed, as I have explained previously, the number of confirmed instances has grown in relation to suspected cases over time. Previously, the number of suspected former Guantanamo detainees outnumbered those confirmed to have rejoined the fight in the government’s reporting. Beginning in December 2010, the situation was reversed, with confirmed recidivists outnumbering those on the suspected list. That is still the case in the DNI’s latest estimate.
This is in no small part due to the fact that suspected recidivists have frequently become confirmed recidivists as more intelligence has been collected. A prominent example of this is Mullah Zakir – the Taliban’s top military commander. Zakir, who was once held at Guantanamo and then considered a suspected recidivist on an early Defense Department list, is unquestionably one of the most lethal Taliban commanders on the planet today. Zakir’s recidivism certainly has been “confirmed.” Upwards of a dozen U.S. Marines in Afghanistan, and many more civilians, have fallen victim to Zakir’s terrorist campaign.
Put differently: The number of confirmed recidivists grew more between December 2010 (when there were 81) and December 2011 (95 confirmed cases) than the number of suspected recidivists (69 vs. 72) during that same time. The growth in estimates, in other words, is coming primarily from confirmed instances.
In addition, sources familiar with the DNI’s recidivism reporting have told me that the intelligence on both confirmed and suspected recidivists is repeatedly scrubbed. Yes, some suspected recidivists are dropped off the list when additional intelligence does not become available, or intelligence analysts no longer believe they belong on the list for whatever reason. Still, the DNI’s analysts work to make sure suspected recidivists really do belong on the list – recognizing that, as with any intelligence estimate, there are vagaries.
Finally, the HASC report’s authors actually disaggregated previous estimates into the suspected and confirmed categories. There is even a handy chart showing the breakdown of confirmed and suspected recidivists in previous estimates. It is easy for the reader to see the proportion of each in the government’s estimates.
Instead of simply reporting on the increase in the number of former Guantanamo detainees turned recidivists, the Associated Press tried to make it seem that the HASC Republicans had pulled a fast one.
Such is the state of reporting on Guantanamo. It has long been this way.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.