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.