NYT Reporter: Maybe 1 In 7 Detainees Didn’t “Return” To Terrorism

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New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller is now casting doubt on the claim in her front page story today, pounced on by the right and quickly picked up on cable, that one in seven detainees released from Guantanamo “returned to terrorism or militant activity.”

Appearing on MSNBC today, Bumiller said “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.”

Here’s the video of her exchange with Andrea Mitchell:

Bumiller’s claim is so striking because her A1 story in the print edition of the Times today, which ran under the headline, “1 In 7 Detainees Rejoined Jihad, Pentagon Finds” (emphasis ours), began:

“WASHINGTON – An unreleased Pentagon 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.

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.

Bumiller’s story relied on a Pentagon report obtained by the Times finding “74 prisoners released from Guantánamo have returned to terrorism, making for a recidivism rate of nearly 14 percent.”

The story was quickly picked up online and by cable news. Various right-wing outlets seized on the report. In the MSNBC segment, Andrea Mitchell noted the detainees “returned to jihad.”

But something bothered us yesterday: did Bumiller and her editors consider the possibility that a six-year stay Gitmo could actually create terrorists? That an innocent Afghan man embittered after being scooped up by the United States and unjustly imprisoned for years might actually become a terrorist?

As former Colin Powell chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson has written:

[L]argely unreported is that several in the U.S. leadership became aware of this lack of proper vetting very early on and, thus, of the reality that many of the detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value, and should be immediately released.

[The] philosophy that was developed to justify keeping many of these people … held that it did not matter if a detainee were innocent. Indeed, because he lived in Afghanistan and was captured on or near the battle area, he must know something of importance.

Wilkerson further points out the plausibility of a person facing harsh treatment for “seven years in jail as an innocent man” becoming a terrorist.

Bumiller and her editors seem to have realized the possibility that they might have gotten spun — though too late to change the front-page story in the print edition.

The paper has changed the lead and headline of the Web version of the story to reflect the uncertainty. The new headline reads: “Later Terror Link Cited for 1 in 7 Freed Detainees.” And the lead: “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, are engaged in terrorism or militant activity, according to administration officials.”

Compare that to the original version: “An unreleased Pentagon 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.”

The new version of the piece still uses “returned to terrorism” in the 12th paragraph.

None of this is to say we shouldn’t consider all of the national security implications of releasing Gitmo detainees. But we should consider it, too, if Gitmo has a hand in pushing formerly innocent people to join anti-American terrorist groups. And let’s at least get our historical facts straight.

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