How Accurate Are The New Gitmo Recidivism Numbers?

Yesterday speaking with reporters, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said that an upward trend in Guantanamo Bay recidivism -- from 11 to 14 percent in May of last year -- had not "reversed itself." According to Luis Martinez*, the rate is now 20 percent. Morrell was quick not to cast blame on the Bush administration, saying that "there was intense scrutiny in the past, just as there is intense scrutiny now," although an anonymous administration official quoted by ABC news said that none of the detainees released by the current administration have returned to the fight. The idea that Bush said "terrorism" a lot and still released detainees who may have been dangerous may be a difficult thing for some conservatives to cope with.

Unfortunately, the report is still classified, so there's no opportunity for an independent analysis. The issue of the recidivism of suspected terror detainees has gained attention given the potential role that former Gitmo detainees released by the previous administration may have played in the failed alleged bombing attempt by Umar Abdulmutallab.

In the past the Department of Defense's recidivism figures have come under intense criticism for inflating the numbers. An independent study by Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann of the New America Foundation found that the 14 percent number was likely incorrect:

Contrary to recent assertions that one in seven, or 14 percent, of the former prisoners had "returned to the battlefield," our analysis of Pentagon reports, news stories, and other public records indicates that the number who were confirmed or suspected to be involved in anti-U.S. violence is closer to one in 25, or 4 percent.

A January 2009 Seton Hall report accused the Department of Defense of including several detainees who had participated in a film critical of Guantanamo Bay of being among the “at least thirty former GTMO detainees [who] have taken part in anti-coalition militant activities after leaving U.S. detention.”

Donald Black, a spokesman for the Defense Intelligence Agency, said this morning that -- while he couldn't discuss the still classified Gitmo recidivism report -- former detainees who had participated in "propaganda" that the DoD had "never counted those as having 'returned to the fight.”

According to the Seton Hall report, the DoD press release that did so has since been removed. But it still seems to me that until the report is declassified and the numbers can be evaluated independently, they should be taken with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, plans to close Guantanamo Bay haven't been discarded, and they shouldn't be. The fact that a very small number of Gitmo detainees, relatively speaking, have recidivated, is no reason to maintain a national security liability and terrorist recruitment tool like Gitmo functioning.

-- A. Serwer

*Previously, I erroneously attributed the report to Jake Tapper.

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