Civil Liberties  
comments_image Comments

The Pentagon Won't Stop Spewing Propaganda About Prisoners Released From Guantánamo

Why won't the Pentagon engage in honest, grown-up debate about the perceived dangerousness of prisoners at Guantánamo?

For several years now, one organization in the US government has persistently undermined attempts to have a grown-up debate about the perceived dangerousness of prisoners at Guantánamo, and the need to bear security concerns in mind whilst also trying to empty the prison and to bring to an end this particularly malign icon of the Bush administration's ill-conceived response to the 9/11 attacks.

That organization is the Pentagon, and its habit of issuing announcements regarding the alleged recidivism of prisoners released from Guantánamo -- without documentation to back up its claims -- has also exposed a startling lack of journalistic integrity in the mainstream media. Although the Pentagon had regularly drip-fed alarmist reports about recidivism into the media during the Bush administration, which were picked up and reported despite their lack of sources and their often contradictory nature -- as explained in a detailed report by researchers at the Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey ( PDF) -- the propaganda war has become noticeably more bold under President Obama.

The first report under Obama, issued on May 21, 2009, gained high-profile approval when, to its shame, the New York Times uncritically published a front-page story entitled, “1 In 7 Detainees Rejoined Jihad, Pentagon Finds,” in which Elisabeth Bumiller, relying on an advance copy of a Pentagon report, stated that “74 prisoners released from Guantánamo have returned to terrorism, making for a recidivism rate of nearly 14 percent.”

In fact, the Pentagon had only provided names and “confirmation” for 27 of the 74 prisoners cited in the report, and there were doubts about the recidivism of some of the 27 prisoners named in the report, as was revealed a week later, when the Times allowed Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann of the New America Foundation to write an op-ed criticizing Bumiller’s article, in which they concluded, from an examination of the report ( PDF), that a more probable figure for recidivism -- based on the fact that there were “12 former detainees who can be independently confirmed to have taken part in terrorist acts directed at American targets, and eight others suspected of such acts” -- was “about 4 percent of the 534 men who have been released.”

The Times later apologized by publishing an Editor’s Note, noting that its original article should have stated that "about one in 20 of former Guantánamo prisoners described in the Pentagon report were now said to be engaging in terrorism," but as I explained at the time, the damage had already been done, as it led directly to the following assertion by former Vice President Dick Cheney, discussing the prisoners still held at Guantánamo:

Keep in mind that these are hardened terrorists picked up overseas since 9/11. The ones that were considered low-risk were released a long time ago. And among these, we learned yesterday, many were treated too leniently, because 1 in 7 cut a straight path back to their prior line of work and have conducted murderous attacks in the Middle East.

More importantly, the Times story conveniently appeared on the front page on the day that President Obama delivered a major national security speech at the National Archives, reviving the much-criticized Military Commissions at Guantánamo (which he had suspended on his first day in office), and also alerting the world to his depressing plans to hold some prisoners at Guantánamo indefinitely without charge or trial. These developments were profoundly dispiriting to those who hoped that Obama would thoroughly reverse and repudiate the Bush administration's innovations regarding detention policies and trials for prisoners seized in the "War on Terror."

See more stories tagged with: