Too late, the damage is already done.
On May 21, the New York Times published a front-page story, entitled, “1 In 7 Detainees Rejoined Jihad, Pentagon Finds” (or, in the web version, “1 in 7 freed detainees rejoins fight, reports says”), in which Elisabeth Bumiller, relying on an unpublished Pentagon report, stated that “74 prisoners released from Guantánamo have returned to terrorism, making for a recidivism rate of nearly 14 percent.”
Claiming that the report “provides new details concluding 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,” Bumiller also played straight into the hands of right-wing commentators by adding, “The conclusion could strengthen the arguments of critics who have warned against releasing any more prisoners as part of President Obama’s plan to shut down the prison by January 2010.” The use of “could” was presumably meant to imply some sort of objectivity, but in reality it might as well have been replaced with the self-fulfillingly prophetic use of the word “will.”
Critics — essentially, anyone aware of the Seton Hall Law School’s excellent work in debunking the Pentagon’s numerous “recidivism” reports (PDF) — immediately denounced the story. On Think Progress, for example, Ken Gude wrote that Bumiller “discards any semblance of journalism and merely serves as a conduit for unnamed Pentagon officials to claim without any supporting evidence that 74 released Guantánamo detainees are ‘engaged in terrorism.’”
Within hours the Times amended the headline to the bewildering “Later Terror Link Cited for 1 in 7 Freed Detainees,” and Bumiller appeared on MSNBC, conceding that “there is some debate about whether you should say ‘returned’ because some of them were perhaps not engaged in terrorism, as we know — some of them are being held there on vague charges.”
This was a start –- as there is clearly a world of difference between “returning to terrorism” and “turning to terrorism after not being a terrorist but being treated in the most inhumane manner for years as an ‘enemy combatant’ without rights in an experimental prison designed to be beyond the law” — but it did not address the more fundamental problem of whether there was any truth to the Pentagon’s claims.
On May 28, the Times allowed Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann of the New America Foundation to write an op-ed criticizing Bumiller’s article, in which they concluded, from an examination of the report (PDF), that a more probable figure for recidivism — based on the fact that there were “12 former detainees who can be independently confirmed to have taken part in terrorist acts directed at American targets, and eight others suspected of such acts — was “about 4 percent of the 534 men who have been released.”
This went some way to apologizing for the damage caused by uncritically publishing Pentagon propaganda on its front page, and on Friday the Times went one step further, and published the following Editor’s Note:
A front-page article and headline on May 21 reported findings from an unreleased Pentagon report about prisoners who have been transferred abroad from the American detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The article said that the Pentagon had found about one in seven of former Guantánamo prisoners had “returned to terrorism or other militant activity,” or as the headline put it, had “rejoined jihad.”
Those phrases accepted a premise of the report that all the former prisoners had been engaged in terrorism before their detention. Because that premise remains unproved, the day the article appeared in the newspaper, editors changed the headline and the first paragraph on the Times Web site to refer to prisoners the report said had engaged in terrorism or militant activity since their release.
The article and headline also conflated two categories of former prisoners. In the Pentagon report, 27 former Guantánamo prisoners were described as having been confirmed as engaging in terrorism, with another 47 suspected of doing so without substantiation. The article should have distinguished between the two categories, to say that about one in 20 of former Guantánamo prisoners described in the Pentagon report were now said to be engaging in terrorism. (The larger share — about one in seven –applies to the total number described in the report as confirmed or suspected of engaging in terrorism.)
That’s 5 percent, then, which is certainly more appropriate, but as I stated at the start of this article, the damage has already been done. As Gregg Mitchell noted in the Huffington Post yesterday, “here’s what [former Vice President Dick] Cheney said the day after the story was published at the American Enterprise Institute. As with the Iraq run-up stories, he took the Times‘ non-facts and exaggerated them”:
Keep in mind that these are hardened terrorists picked up overseas since 9/11. The ones that were considered low-risk were released a long time ago. And among these, we learned yesterday, many were treated too leniently, because 1 in 7 cut a straight path back to their prior line of work and have conducted murderous attacks in the Middle East. I think the President will find, upon reflection, that to bring the worst of the worst terrorists inside the United States would be cause for great danger and regret in the years to come …
When a front-page story in the Times only fuel more lies from Cheney, who is on a mission to portray the failed Guantánamo project as something noble, bold and essential, in an attempt to silence calls for his prosecution as the “Vice President for Torture,” you can tell that something has gone seriously wrong.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009. Visit his website at: www.andyworthington.co.uk.