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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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My suggestion that Matthew Olsen answer questions about his work on the Guantanamo Review Task Force during his Senate confirmation hearing has clearly struck a nerve at the Lawfare Blog. There are two posts replying to my original piece – one by Benjamin Wittes and another by Robert Chesney.


Neither author challenges my central finding: the task force Olsen headed approved a large number of “high” risk detainees, as deemed by Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO), for transfer. Wittes concedes: “Joscelyn is, to be sure, not wrong that the task force recommended people for transfer who previous reviews had considered ‘high risk.’” Moreover, as I wrote previously, JTF-GTMO recommended that about 75 percent of the detainees held in late January 2009 be retained in the Department of Defense’s custody, whereas the task force recommended that 65 percent be transferred.

Nothing in either Wittes’s or Chesney’s posts changes this reporting. Instead, both authors offer unconvincing reasons why no one should be concerned about this state of affairs. They are not the least bit curious as to why the task force came to the conclusions it did, or why these conclusions differed by a wide margin from JTF-GTMO’s recommendations. Wittes says he was "worried" that anyone would even dare raise this issue.

Much of Wittes’s post is devoted to congratulating himself for recommending that a task force be set up in the first place. Wittes writes, “I have a small personal stake in this brewing dispute. I called for a task force very much like the one Olsen ended up heading even before Obama was elected.” Later he adds, “And I stand by the administration’s decision to go through every detainee…and make its own determination regarding whom it did and whom it did not need to continue detaining.”

That’s great. It is also entirely irrelevant to my post as I never questioned President Obama’s decision to establish a new task force. Obama had every right to do so. I am, however, questioning the task force’s transfer decisions.

Wittes claims there is no reason to worry, however. The task force did its work “with open eyes, having reevaluated old evidence, looked at new evidence, and assessed certain resettlement opportunities that were not available to the prior administration.” Wittes adds: “To put it simply, the Guantanamo task force did a really good job on an important project. It generated options for dealing with individuals and a certain analytical clarity regarding the status which different detainees should occupy in the future.”

How, exactly, did Wittes come to these conclusions? Was he a member of the task force with access to its work? (Perhaps he was, but I don’t see any mention of it in his post.) Most importantly, does Wittes know what criteria the task force chose to employ (or was given by the Obama administration) when determining which detainees to transfer?

Towards the end of his post, Wittes has a long paragraph packed with various claims that I will break down and respond to here.

Wittes writes: “And importantly, the Obama administration has not, in fact, transferred any significant number of people from Guantanamo that the prior administration would not also have transferred had it had the chance. The difference in practice between the two administrations is largely one of opportunity, not attitude.”

First, the Obama administration’s detainee transfers came to a grinding halt for a number of national security-related and political reasons beyond the administration’s control. So, most of the detainees the administration intended to transfer, per the task force’s approval, have not in fact been transferred. Still, the Obama administration has already transferred dozens of “high” risk detainees and it is doubtful that Wittes knows which of these detainees the Bush administration would have transferred and which ones it would not have.

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