11.9.01

1 in 7

In Guantanamo Bay on May 21, 2009 at 8:05 am

Pentagon alleges that 1 in 7 transferred from Guantanamo Bay returned to terrorism:

An unreleased Pentagon report concludes that about one in seven of the 534 prisoners already transferred abroad from the detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has returned to terrorism or militant activity, according to administration officials. 

The conclusion could strengthen the arguments of critics who have warned against the transfer or release of any more detainees as part of President Obama’s plan to shut down the prison by January. Past Pentagon reports on Guantánamo recidivism have been met with skepticism from civil liberties groups and criticized for their lack of detail.

The Pentagon promised in January that the latest report would be released soon, but Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said this week that the findings were still “under review.”

Two administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said the report was being held up by Defense Department employees fearful of upsetting the White House, at a time when even Congressional Democrats have begun to show misgivings over Mr. Obama’s plan to close Guantánamo.

Pentagon officials said there had been no pressure from the Obama White House to suppress the report about the Guantánamo detainees who had been transferred abroad under the Bush administration. The officials said they believed that Defense Department employees, some of them holdovers from the Bush administration, were acting to protect their jobs.

The report is the subject of numerous Freedom of Information Act requests from news media organizations, and Mr. Whitman said he expected it to be released shortly. The report, a copy of which was made available to The New York Times, says the Pentagon believes that 74 prisoners released from Guantánamo have returned to terrorism or militant activity, making for a recidivism rate of nearly 14 percent.

The report was made available by an official who said the delay in releasing it was creating unnecessary “conspiracy theories” about the holdup.

A Defense Department official said there was little will at the Pentagon to release the report because it had become politically radioactive under Mr. Obama.

“If we hold it, then everybody claims it’s political and you’re protecting the Obama administration,” said the official, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. “And if we let it go, then everybody says you’re undermining Obama.”

Previous assertions by the Pentagon that substantial numbers of former Guantánamo prisoners had returned to terrorism were sharply criticized by civil liberties and human rights groups who said the information was too vague to be credible and amounted to propaganda in favor of keeping the prison open. The Pentagon began making the assertions in 2007 but stopped earlier this year, shortly before Mr. Obama took office.

Among the 74 former prisoners that the report says are again engaged in terrorism, 29 have been identified by name by the Pentagon, including 16 named for the first time in the report. The Pentagon has said that the remaining 45 could not be named because of national security and intelligence-gathering concerns.

In the report, the Pentagon confirmed that two former Guantánamo prisoners whose terrorist activities had been previously reported had indeed returned to the fight. They are Said Ali al-Shihri, a leader of Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch suspected in a deadly bombing of the United States Embassy in Sana, Yemen’s capital, last year, and Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul, an Afghan Taliban commander, who also goes by the name Mullah Abdullah Zakir.

The Pentagon has provided no way of authenticating its 45 unnamed recidivists, and only a few of the 29 people identified by name can be independently verified as having engaged in terrorism since their release. Many of the 29 are simply described as associating with terrorists or training with terrorists, with almost no other details provided.

“It’s part of a campaign to win the hearts and minds of history for Guantánamo,” said Mark P. Denbeaux, a professor at Seton Hall University School of Law who has represented Guantánamo detainees and co-written three studies highly critical of the Pentagon’s previous recidivism reports. “They want to be able to claim there really were bad people there.”

Mr. Denbeaux acknowledged that some of the named detainees had engaged in verifiable terrorist acts since their release, but he said his research showed that their numbers were small.

“We’ve never said there weren’t some people who would return to the fight,” Mr. Denbeaux said. “It seems to be unavoidable. Nothing is perfect.”

Terrorism experts said a 14 percent recidivism rate was far lower than the rate for prisoners in the United States, which, they said, can run as high as 68 percent three years after release. They also said that while Americans might have a lower level of tolerance for recidivism among Guantánamo detainees, there was no evidence that any of those released had engaged in elaborate operations like the Sept. 11 attacks.

In addition to Mr. Shihri and Mr. Rasoul, at least three others among the 29 named have engaged in verifiable terrorist activity or have threatened terrorist acts.

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