Earlier this month, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released its bi-annual assessment of the “reengagement” of released Guantánamo Bay detainees. The numbers are often cited without nuance on Capitol Hill to show how dangerous it is to release detainees, and the most recent numbers will likely be used the same way. But upon closer look, these new numbers are actually encouraging, and reflect the more robust detainee evaluation process instituted by the Obama administration upon entering office in 2009.
The report, produced with input from the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency, lays out the ODNI’s evaluation of how many former detainees are confirmed to have reengaged in terrorist or insurgent activities, how many are suspected of reengagement, how many are deceased, and how many are in prison. The numbers are also broken down into pre-January 22, 2009 release and post-January 22, 2009 release, to distinguish Bush administration releases from the Obama administration’s.
The most recent numbers cover the period between January 15 and July 15, 2015, and include the release of six more detainees. They show that the percentage of former detainees released under President Obama and “confirmed of reengaging” has decreased to less than five percent (down from 5.2 percent). Compared to the percentage of those detainees released under President Bush (around 20 percent), it also shows a dramatic improvement. The total percentage of former detainees “confirmed of reengaging” has also remained at a steady 17.9 percent since the last evaluation.
Despite these favorable developments, it’s likely that opponents of closing Guantánamo will use other figures (one additional former detainee is confirmed of reengaging and the number of suspected former detainees has risen slightly for both pre- and post-2009 releases) to claim that releasing detainees, even those cleared by a rigorous interagency process, is too big a risk to the United States.
In making these arguments, policymakers often conflate both the “confirmed” and “suspected” categories and the detainees released pre- and post-2009 to claim that “one in three” Guantánamo detainees released have become recidivists. But this just isn’t the case. For one thing, the terms “recidivism” and “reengagement” are specious, implying previous engagement in terrorist or insurgent activity. Given that many past Guantánamo detainees were not involved in these activities before being captured (as acknowledged by at least one Bush administration official) — and almost none have been proven guilty of participating in terrorism — these designations are misleading, and continue the myth of Guantánamo detainees being guilty-by-imprisonment. It would be better to discuss these figures as what they are: the ODNI’s claims of detainees’ possible post-release engagement in terrorist or insurgent activities.
But more importantly, ODNI’s definition of a “suspected” recidivist is based on “plausible but unverified or single-source reporting indicating a specific former GTMO detainee is directly involved in terrorist or insurgent activities.” According to one Pentagon official, individuals in this category “could very possibly not be engaged in activities that are counter to our national security interests.” This seems like pretty thin sourcing for policymakers to base a definitive claim of recidivism on, especially when the ODNI does not provide any additional information on which detainees it evaluates could be involved in terrorist or insurgent activities.
Moreover, the separation of the numbers by date reflects an important distinction. When entering office, the Obama administration instituted a revamped evaluation process for the risk posed by detainees, streamlining it and ensuring that all relevant agencies (including the Defense, State, and Homeland Security Departments, the CIA, FBI, and ODNI) would have input and make decisions unanimously on whether or not to approve a detainee for transfer. This process — along with the Periodic Review Board (PRB) process started in 2013 to reevaluate the threat posed by detainees slated for indefinite detention — is more deliberative and rigorous than the Bush administration’s criteria for evaluating the risk of release. The Obama administration’s process has cleared 53 current detainees, and those men certainly shouldn’t be held any longer based on former detainees’ behavior or lawmakers’ misinterpretation of ODNI data.
The threat assessments that lawmakers have relied upon (which were produced by Joint Task Force-Guantanamo, or JTF-GTMO, under the Bush administration) are out of date and unreliable, largely based on information provided by other detainees. At least some of this information was coerced and other pieces of information in these files may also have been given as a result of detainees wanting to make themselves appear useful to their interrogators, gain their favor, and even get themselves out of trouble and receive favorable treatment. Multiple federal judges have voiced doubts about the credibility of these statements, and confusion over the evaluations’ veracity led one JTF-GTMO commander to warn his staff that “[a]ny information provided should be adequately verified through other sources before being utilized.” A better evaluation process is in place now, and it shows in the numbers.
The claims made by those who oppose releasing detainees are not backed up by the new ODNI numbers, and these numbers certainly don’t make a case against releasing cleared detainees. The 53 cleared detainees have been evaluated by all relevant agencies on an individual basis, and have been deemed suitable for transfer based on the merits of their own cases. The Periodic Review Board process should continue evaluating those other detainees who have been designated for indefinite detention. The process seems to be working.