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January 23rd, 2009
06:06 PM ET

The worst of the worst?

Program Note: Tune in to hear more from CNN National Security Expert Peter Bergen tonight on AC360° at 10pm ET.

Ken Ballen, Terror Free Tomorrow
Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Expert

Controversy over the Bush Administration’s policy to detain “enemy combatants” at the military’s Guantanamo Bay prison has raged since the facility first opened in 2002. The controversy has been fueled primarily by the lack of legal protections afforded the detainees and allegations of their mistreatment, much of which was subsequently confirmed by the FBI.

Now that President Obama has ordered the prison camp to be closed, additional new controversy swirls around the claim made earlier this month by the Pentagon that 61 Guantanamo detainees are believed to have returned to terrorism.

But that number became a little less alarming when the Pentagon clarified that only 18 of the 61 have been confirmed to be engaging in terrorism, while 43 are “suspected of returning to the fight.”

In other words, according to the Pentagon’s own assessment, of the 520 detainees who have been released, less than 4% have engaged in terrorism. That percentage is quite low, especially contrasted to the more than two-thirds of American prisoners who return to crime within three years of their release from prison.

The Department of Defense has supplied no substantiation for any of its recent assertions about the numbers of detainees engaging in terrorism, and in the past has rather broadly defined what “returning to the fight means” to include acts such as former detainees criticizing the United States after their release from Guantanamo; a not unnatural reaction to years of confinement in a prison camp without charge.

Some detainees released from Guantanamo have undoubtedly engaged in terrorist activists such as Said Ali Al Shiri, a Saudi who was released in September 2007. Like all other Guantanamo detainees released to Saudi custody, he entered a comprehensive reeducation program managed by the Saudi Ministry of the Interior. Of the 75 or so Guantanamo detainees that have gone through this program and have subsequently been released, al Shiri is the first one known to have returned to terrorism. After al Shiri was released last year, he left Saudi Arabia for Yemen and is now allegedly a leader of al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate.

Similarly, Abdulalh Salih al Ajimi, a Kuwaiti held in Guantanamo for three years, conducted a suicide attack on April 26 2008 in the Iraqi city of Mosul killing six, including two Iraqi police officers.

And Abdulalh Mehsud, a Pashtun from Pakistan’s tribal areas spent two years in Guantanamo. He was released in March 2004 and promptly kidnapped two Chinese engineers working in the tribal region. Mehsud subsequently rose to become a leader of the Pakistani Taliban and was eventually killed by Pakistani forces on July 24 2007.

But these are exceptional cases because the overwhelming majority of Guantanamo detainees were never really “enemy combatants” in the first place.

Given the fog of propaganda surrounding the Guantanamo prisoners –who Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once famously described as “the worst of the worst"– it may be surprising to learn that, according to the Pentagon itself, only 5 percent of all detainees at Guantanamo were ever apprehended by U.S. forces to begin with.

Why is that? Almost all of the detainees were turned over to American forces by foreigners, either with an ax to grind, or more often for a hefty bounty or reward. After U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, a reward of $5,000 or more was given to Pakistanis and Afghans for each detainee turned over.

While rewards can be a valuable law enforcement tool, they have never in the past absolved law enforcement authorities of the necessity of corroborating the information that motivated the reward. But the U.S. military accepted the uncorroborated allegations of the award claimants with little independent investigation.

At a very minimum, the Pentagon’s reward policy should have led to heightened scrutiny by the U.S. military of those turned over and not instead to years of confinement.

Now, under much pressure, the Pentagon has released more than 500 detainees over the past three years, while 245 remain. Based on statistics about the fate of other released prisoners around the world, it would not have been surprising if many of the released detainees had resumed their lives of terrorist crimes and illegal warfare.

After all it is a sad fact of our justice system that once a criminal is released from prison, they usually commit additional crimes relatively soon. The latest numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics show that more than two-thirds of all state prisoners are re-arrested for serious new crimes within three years.

Terrorists are criminals too—indeed ideologically committed ones. Every reasonable expectation would lead to the conclusion that following release from prison, the rate of recidivism for terrorists should be as high, if not higher, as other criminals.

But only a handful of released Guantanamo detainees have gone back to terrorism or the battlefield.

For years Pentagon officials have claimed that the recidivism rate for Guantanamo releases is around seven percent, yet information released by the Pentagon in May 2008 undercuts that claim. The Department of Defense published a list of named released detainees who had subsequently engaged in militant or terrorist activities anywhere in the world that showed that thirteen had done so, a recidivism rate of just 2 percent.

In fact, based on the Pentagon’s own May 2008 account of the released detainees who had “returned to terrorism” there are only six instances where an inmate released from Guantanamo actually took up arms against the United States, a recidivism rate of around 1%.

When recidivism rates for criminals typically run in the more than 60 percent range, and at Guantanamo you have a rate of only 1-2 percent, that means you don’t have much of a criminal (or in this case terrorist) population to begin with.

We are not saying that there are no terrorists being detained at Guantanamo. Khalid Sheik Mohammad, the operational commander of the 9/11 attacks, and others who were transferred to Guantanamo from secret overseas CIA prisons in 2006 are certainly members of al Qaeda’s hard core.

What we are saying is that for the vast majority of individuals detained at Guantanamo not only were they not terrorists, but they were likely innocent of any crime.

Editor's note: Ken Ballen is a former federal prosecutor and president of the non-profit organization Terror Free Tomorrow. Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, and author, Holy War Inc. and The Osama bin Laden I Know.

soundoff (84 Responses)
  1. Barkat Shah

    Obama's stand for suspending and closing the inhuman Guantanamo jail is remarkable, The previous administration has been run by the narrow minded facist leadership, which has made all the world insecure, knowing their background,reading and meeting some returned from Guantanamo indicates that it was a plea characterized by the non-pashtun warlords in Afghnistan who entrusted innocent Pashtuns as Taliban and Al-Qaeda personal to the US army, they paid huge money for each alleged member they detained. So it is not in black and white, we should also know that "A terrorist is a person who has gun but no Aeroplan".

    January 26, 2009 at 5:44 am |
  2. FredIII

    So in the first week of this new presidency we are releasing terrorist and increasing options / availability for abortions.....Yes, we can!!!

    January 25, 2009 at 12:50 pm |
  3. cliff

    Clearly if one life is lost due to the release of a Gitmo detainee then the move was a mistake. If many are lost then the move was criminal.
    The real question: is it worth the risk of either? The answer is obvious.
    Is it possible that there are detainees at Gitmo whom are innocent? Yes. Doesn't matter now. We can't close the barn doors once the horses have escaped. My answer may sound harsh, but logically, considering all the options on the table it may be the most prudent.
    Set up a processing/trial center in an allied country, could even be Iraq.
    Charter an airliner large enough to transport all detainees. Enroute, the pilot bails and the plane disappears. The detainees are gone. It's perceived internationally as an accident. The possible innocent detainees will have sacrificed their lives in the interest of Western security as so many American and Canadian soldiers have done already. They would be an unfortunate cost.

    January 25, 2009 at 12:11 pm |
  4. earle,florida

    Why not build a federal prison in Alaska next to Palin's township? These guys hate the cold, so let-em freeze,or is that to harsh,...

    January 24, 2009 at 6:42 pm |
  5. Dominic

    Larry–they may be terrorists but they are still human beings.

    January 24, 2009 at 4:22 pm |
  6. Matt F.

    Recidivism rates are a ludicrous statistic in these cases. Everyone knows who the 600-ish Guantanamo guys ARE. The prision population in the U.S. numbers in the millions...and is therefore statistically anonymized. They're not going back to terrorism–well–duh!!

    We'll NEVER know if they were or weren't "combatants"–because we're morons for dealing with them the way we did. Don Rumsfeld–the biggest idiot of all!!!

    January 24, 2009 at 11:43 am |
  7. Mike, Syracuse NY

    Did it ever occur to anyone that the low repeat rate of those who were released is because they were largely cleared of suspicion, while those who remain in GITMO are the hard core with clearer evidence? Afterall, why release them in the first place if you think they are guilty. It seems like the process is working, doesn't it? I have little tolerance for those crying about the rights of these people. What about the rights of the 3000 dead on 9/11? What about the rights of their families? On the question of trial, you don't have trials for foreign combatants in a war. The fact that they are a foreign combatant is enough. In WWII we held hundreds of thoudsands of POW's without trial for the duration of the conflict. In this case, the combatants don't have the courage to fight openly as uniformed fighters. They hide among the innocent as one of them. So yes, it's harder to sort out who is guilty or who is not. Hence all the more reason to be sure that those released are innocent. By the way this comparison to US prisons is bogus too. Those released from prisons after doing their time were found guilty in the first place. THEY ARE PROVEN CRIMINALS! Hence a high repeat rate. We aren't releasing those from GITMO who are proven guilty, we are releasing those who are proven innocent. Hence, you would expect a low recidivism rate. It's only the ones we get wrong who go back to terrorism. Those we haven't released, are those with stronger evidence. Those advocating the release of the GITMO detainees need to go to NYC and look into the hole that used to be the WTC. Then they need to go to a VA hospital and see some of our soldiers who have been maimed by these 'innocents'. You whining liberals make me puke.

    January 24, 2009 at 11:40 am |
  8. Roger L. Cotterman

    Barack Obama needs to understand that closing Gitmo, may prove to be one of the biggest mistakes that he can make.
    Sending these terrorists to either federal prisons across the United States, and releasing some of these individuals outright.
    There are people at Gitmo, who is responsible for the attacks in 9/11/ 2001, as well as those individuals who participated in the bombing of the USS Cole, costing the lives of 17 US Sailors, who will never get a chance to plead their case.
    The families of these 17 soldiers have been expecting justice, as the bombers get continuance after continuance, no doubt knowing that if a Democrat were elected that Gitmo would be closed.
    Where is the closure for these families and friends that have lost loved ones to the terrorists?
    How can anyone be certain that these people have not been involved in terrorism?, ans through interrogation of these individuals we can gain valuable information that could prevent another 9/11/2001 or Navy ship destroyed.

    January 24, 2009 at 10:31 am |
  9. James

    Larry is absolutely correct. This piece should be labeled an opinion piece and should not be read as legitimate investigatory journalism. The authors' premise is flawed and they have no facts (at least none they care to report) to back it up. I am intimately familiar with the records of the detainees that were held in Guantanamo from 2004 – 2005. I can say that the majority met the definition of "enemy combatant" as promulgated by the Administration. Now, if the authors want to take issue with that definition, that is a valid debate to have. If they want to argue that many detainees were not "the worst of the worst," that too is a valid debate. I wish they had chosen their issue more carefully.

    January 24, 2009 at 8:36 am |
  10. rike

    The practice of paying rewards for turning over alleged terrorists in regions where people are very poor and deprived and then not even investigating whether these allegiations were true, reminds me of the dark Middle Ages in Europe, the witch hunts, where you earned all of an alleged witch´s possessions by turning her in to the inquisition.It seems the Bush administration didn´t care whether they had the right people they just needed enough detainees to show for their efforts.Very strange, though, that Bin Laden managed to stay in hiding all these years.

    January 24, 2009 at 7:02 am |
  11. Jim

    Releasing these prisoners and closing Gitmo is a slap in the face to our military men and women who have put their lives on the line to take these guys out of circulation. What are we thinking...we built this place just for kicks? Noooo... We built this place to house terrorist who threaten this country's safety, and you know what?...there has has not been another attack an the US since. Hmmm...maybe by chance it is working.

    January 24, 2009 at 3:01 am |
  12. Bryan

    Oh, it's ok everyone! Only 4% of them are out there terrorizing people!

    January 24, 2009 at 2:54 am |
  13. Salim

    No guanta no war, no hate no terror...

    January 24, 2009 at 2:42 am |
  14. Greg Motayne

    Putting myself in one of the detainee's shoes, I would have to ask my self what I would do if

    a) I had been sold to a stupid American by an Afghan warlord,
    b) Most liely tortured,
    c) imprisoned illegally,

    etc. etc.

    Would I be angry and seeking revenge?

    You betcha.

    Stop making it sound like these people have a sickneess – who infected them?

    Greg

    January 24, 2009 at 2:35 am |
  15. Bill

    C'mon folks, get a clue!
    What did you think was going to happen if, after being held under grossly inhumane conditions, tortured, and given no hope from any quarter, you simply let these detaiinees go? Did you really believe that they were going to take up basket weaving, micro-finance, and goat herding?
    They hate us! They hate us more now than they did before their Cuban vacation. We did ABSOLUTELY nothing to make them think anything but that we were the "great Satan" that they originally imagined.
    We treated them, and, by proxy, their families, worse than animals get treated. Why are we so amazed when they turn around and want to kill us and our children?
    Oh, and here's another little wake-up call...US prisons are full of our own citizens being treated the same way. Don't be "shocked and awed" when these folks get out (and most will) and wreak a little of their own havoc ( and mistreatment) on the local gentry. They, too, hate the way they've been treated, and nothing has been done to convince them that their view of society is any different than their original personal paradigm.
    Sounds like the old tale of "chickens coming home to roost", doesn't it?

    January 24, 2009 at 2:30 am |
  16. Eric

    And how many released Gitmo prisoners does it take to carry out an attack on our homeland?

    January 24, 2009 at 2:25 am |
  17. Buddy

    We are currently fighting a war on drugs. Let's say your 16 year old kid is in front of 7-11 trying to score some beer. He asks some shady guy to buy him some beer, and the store has video of it. Turns out that shady guy is a big time drug dealer, and now your son is accused of being a part of a major drug deal and get 20 years to life. Your son is breaking the law trying to get beer, and that drug lord is a scum bag. But is it worth your son going to jail for 20 years so we can get that one scum bag off the streets? And are there 20 more guys waiting to fill that drug dealers shoes once he is out of the picture? So now my son is in jail for 20 years for being a part of a major drug ring, the drug lord goes to jail, and a new drug lord fills the void. Most of the people in Gitmo are not major players, so where do you draw the line? Slippery Slope my friends

    January 24, 2009 at 2:18 am |
  18. Bill

    The partisan joy of "I told you so" isnt going to be such a joy when one of these killers puts a bullet into an american soldier. But I suppose maybe you can comfort yourself by saying that it's the fight against terrorism that creates terrorists, and that if we'd just let them have their way, the world would be a more equitable place.

    January 24, 2009 at 2:09 am |
  19. Sammy S, Conroe TX

    A lot of these men and women have no respect for human life but that should not influence our integrity and principles of better judgment, not only for the quality of human life but also to establish a system of order that does not destroy itself. Its not protecting society to make a beast out of a man or woman and return them to society. No human life should be expendable, to think human life is expendable in the grand design of things slows our advancement. We feed our primitive impulses of hate and anger, and before we know it we become the beasts. Society goes to fascism, genocide, and progress that only leads to its own destruction.

    January 24, 2009 at 2:04 am |
  20. John Siyumbu

    Am citizen of a 3rd world nation. Av heard and read of what happens at gitmo. It is what any humane person would call the worst of all barbaric acts. Especialy being done by the US authorities. Then again, terrorists have demöstrated worldwide they are BARBARIC. Maybe just releasing suspects should b done with utmost caution.

    January 24, 2009 at 1:58 am |
  21. Susan

    Total propaganda & rubbish! Why is this only now being mentioned? Only because Obama critics put it out there so as dicredit this honorable & righteous act of closing Rumsfelds' & Cheneys'& Wolfowitzs' Gitmo. Obama has higher morals(the ability to know right from wrong in Gods view) than the white supremists that were in the last administration. Logically, how are they able to track all these people. It's imposssible! Read between the lines! It doesn't make sense.

    January 24, 2009 at 1:37 am |
  22. Allen

    Gitmo was a great idea, you can not treat terrorist as soldier.
    We should continue gitmo and the torture of these killers
    if that is what we have to do to get intel on other terrorist
    it is idiotic to not see this.

    January 24, 2009 at 1:28 am |
  23. Osama Bin Laden

    It is true. As a matter of fact there is a vacation spot near Khost where hundreds of Arabs and other Muslim brothers spent their holidays in Afghanistan before the infidels came. Given the vibrant economy and cultural life of Afghanistan under Taliban leadership certainly we can give any non-Afghan the benefit of the doubt if they were captured there. I recall those young British men of Pakistani descent who decided to visit Afghanistan in the midst of the infidel invasion and ended up in Guantanamo. There was never any evidence. They simply happened to visit a country accused of harboring terrorists on the eve of the announced infidel onslaught and got caught in the middle. Surely if any of you went to Afghanistan when the infidels were running about you would want to carry AK-47's. Never mind one of those three admitted he had trained at a jihadist camp. He clearly had been confused.

    January 24, 2009 at 1:26 am |
  24. Bill D.

    Don't let them off the hook so easy! It is unbelievable the arrogance of the executives in charge of the banks and investment companies. Keep Guantanamo open and throw them there. $1m in renovations do they really think we are that stupid????

    January 24, 2009 at 1:15 am |
  25. Cesar Q.

    Yes, by all means, lets put these poor, misunderstood valiant men that war illegally captured on a supposed battlefield.

    I propose this, tramsfer all prisoners to specially made holding cells constructed on the large White House lawn. All trials can be held on the Senate floor, where the majority leader Harry "war is lost" Reid can serve as judge. The jury can consist of Dick Durbin, Barney Frank, Ted Kennedy, Barbara Boxer, and all the others that have been carping about GITMO. All trials will be public affairs, where the jury and judge can be clearly seen by the American public and witness their true justice and intelligence.They can vote their conscience and infs these men innocent or guilty.

    All prisoners found "not guilty" (or whatever they want to call it), can be released and allowed to start a new life in the U.S., hopefully in wonderful cities like San Fransisco, or, will have the choice of transportation to the country of their choice.

    And if ANY of these prisoners return to the battlefield, and happens to kill a young American Marine or Soldier, the President & Senators who wanted this insane policy of allowing combatants access to the American civilian judicial systen (first time in history of U.S.) can explain to the American people why they were released.

    Cesar
    Anaheim, CA (the OC)

    January 24, 2009 at 1:15 am |
  26. Jim S

    Anyone who thinks we are sitting here at higher safe grounds and thinking of these people getting out and killing more Americans, need to think with a brighter light on.

    Well, try to think about these prisoners as innocent people whose families are still wondering why their husbands, sons, brothers are in Guantanamo for no reason at all. Once you are done explaining some baloney story to the loved ones, then you can claim to have built a case against these people.

    Holding people without trial or a charge only creates more terrorists and ill wishers. This is time for US to not charge other countries of human rights violations, but instead start practicing rights and conventions at home and at their own operations abroad.

    Torture, confinement without charges, false accusations, these things happen in countries with bad human rights record and dictatorship! We being the supposed technological and military front runners have shown our lack of intelligence and tact by being utterly stupid and brain washing our soldiers into wrong actions and misleading our masses.

    America, lets stand against lies and stupidity and question why our men and women have to fight the wrong wars, imprison the wrong people, give out public funds to wrong corporations, say wrong things and make wrong friends!

    January 24, 2009 at 1:02 am |
  27. Joe Camper

    I don't see the reason of why Obama closed Guambo. Looking at the prison, we can see that the policies and practices of the prison is what was deemed "unconstitutional" and not the actuall prison structure. So why is the actuall prison being closed. In my opinion, the prison itself should be reformed instead of shutdown. Having even a 1% of the population reported to being back on the battlefeild seems somewhat disturbing. I know that our Constitution says that we are guarented to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. However in life or death situations where the core values of our nation are being threatened by a terrorist I believe that is is acceptable to go outside the norms of what are nation deems acceptable.

    January 24, 2009 at 12:52 am |
  28. Alex (Aliso Viejo)

    Torture is not an American option. Closure of Guantanamo's camps is a long awaited process from all over the world. It is simply against what America stand for. However, ample time to review each case should be alloted as decided by our President. In retrospect, no country wants them because of the accusations and there is also a chance terrorist goups wouldn't want them either for being compromised. A total dilemma but I think trying the detainees here in the United States will ensure a fair trial. However, it doesn't mean their native countries can simply wash their hands off them. They also need to be involved.

    January 24, 2009 at 12:47 am |
  29. Tundra

    Interesting "conclusions" that were drawn. Since a lower pecentage of prisoners released from GITMO returned to crime than our own legal system then the following MUST be true.

    1) They were innocent in the beginning
    2) The actual terrorist population was low

    OR

    The Saudi rehibilitation plan worked

    OR

    They were rehibilitated while at GITMO

    OR

    They had no desire to return and realized terror wasn;t theanswer

    Nah,
    They were innocent of course, from the beginning.

    January 24, 2009 at 12:44 am |
  30. David, TX

    If one of these men released were to come to America and commit an act of terrorism, would Obama take the blame or would that blame still be put on Bush?

    For the record, I sincerely hope Obama is doing the right thing and that we never have another terror attack on US soil. I'm for releasing innocent or repentant inmates, but I don't know if closing the prison is the right answer. I heavily disagree with some of Obama's ideas but I'll have to be fair and give him time before I decide Pass or Fail.

    January 24, 2009 at 12:42 am |
  31. Gary

    So, your point is that we should ignore the facts concerning those terrorist who have been released and returned to killing and maiming, because not everyone who has been released have done so, and because maybe some of the bad guys may not have been really really bad.

    Probably easy for you to be willing to take those risks since it is not likely the murders will be able to murder anyone that you know. It is always easier to take risks with other people’s lives.

    January 24, 2009 at 12:29 am |
  32. Patrick

    Gitmo was a logical step in the war on terror. It should only be closed if you can find a BETTER alternative. Sometimes we are stuck with only bad options. Just take a step back and think about it; do we really want to bring terrorists on US soil? Isn't it the President's job to keep them off of our soil?

    January 24, 2009 at 12:28 am |
  33. Bob

    Why do the authors assume the released detainees have not returned to terrorism. They do not know what these people are doing right now. Statistically, you can not create a ratio (%) based on incomplete sampling. The only real statistic that can be drawn is that of the people we have follow up information on; 100% returned to terrorism.

    Tell me if I missed something here.

    January 24, 2009 at 12:26 am |
  34. Jeff

    Well why not just all of them go. When one of them kills someone you love, maybe you'll feel different. I'm tired of all this crying about water boarding. I've been water boarded. It's not that bad. Certainly not as bad as some of these arm-chair critics say it is.

    January 24, 2009 at 12:15 am |
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