Tuesday, the day after the Obama administration announced that it had sent 15 Guantanamo Bay detainees to the United Arab Emirates, State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner claimed that "very few" of those previously released, representing a "very small" percentage, had returned to terorist activities.
Toner's contention is patently false, but the establishment press, based on Google News searches, has been content to let it slide.
Transcript (bolds are mine):
REPORTER: I have two questions. The first is about Gitmo. I was wondering if you can guarantee the American people that the 15 detainees released this week won’t go right back out into the battlefield to fight against and target Americans, and if not, why continue to release them?
MARK TONER: Well, uh, good question. I think that we’ve talked about this before, but what’s important is that any time—so, as we scale down Gitmo and hopefully one day close it all together, the detainees have been vetted through what is a very rigorous process, and I can assure you that it’s a very rigorous process, looked at all of the, you know, whether they would return to the battlefield. Recidivists, recidivism, I guess, is the terminology used.
Is it 100 percent foolproof? Have there been no cases or zero cases of this happening? Well, no. There have been cases of it, but very few. I don’t know the percentage in front of me, but it’s incredibly small. By and large, these detainees that have been sent to various countries and governments who have accepted them, have worked very hard to maintain surveillance of these individuals, to keep track of them, keep an eye on them, if you will, to ensure that they no longer pose a security threat to anyone, not just the American people, but to anyone.
That is something that we take very seriously. These governments who take these detainees on and find them homes and resettle them also take it very seriously, because it’s on their home soil that these people are living. That’s, I think, step one in any kind of plan to close Gitmo, where you relocate the detainees. I think security, safety of innocent civilians is foremost.
Toner didn't genuinely answer the "Can you guarantee safety?" question, to which the only acceptable answers would have been "yes," "no" or "I don't know."
When he didn't get an answer, the reporter, in an exchange not seen in the video, posed a strong follow-up question. Toner volunteered that the Defense Department has detailed information on the activities of released detainees. But at the moment of truth, when he could have at least extracted a promise from Toner to deliver that information or direct him to where it is, the reporter threw Toner a lifeline by going to an absurd, pre-planned apples-to-oranges comparison question about how the Gitmo return-to-terrorism rate compares to U.S. prison recidivism rates:
QUESTION: And I have another question --
... QUESTION: -- Gitmo. So what is – how many cases where the former Gitmo detainees were actually caught in attacking or planning attacks on the United States? Do you have any record of that?
MR TONER: How many --
QUESTION: How many incidents? You said that there were some incidents, but you don’t think they --
MR TONER: Yeah, I don’t. There is – you know what? And I’m not trying to – we can get you this, but the Department of Defense also puts out recidivist rates.
QUESTION: Okay, this --
MR TONER: Again, they’re relatively small.
QUESTION: Yeah, it’s a difficult word to pronounce: recidivism rate. And compared, let’s say, to American prisoners in American prisons. I mean, how does it compare?
MR TONER: I don’t --
QUESTION: In my understanding, it’s a lot less.
MR TONER: I don’t, but that doesn’t sound unrealistic to me.
The U.S. prison recidivism rate of 68 percent within three years of release is a serious problem in its own right, but in a conversation about terrorists returning to plotting attacks which might involve killing hundreds or thousands of innocent people, who cares?
In its coverage of the 15 detainees' release, the Associated Press included the following paragraph:
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence says 5 percent of Guantanamo prisoners released since Obama took office have re-engaged in militant activities and an additional 8 percent are suspected of doing so. That compares with 21 percent confirmed and 14 percent suspected during the Bush administration.
Though clearly bad news, the comparison of administrations is misleading. The truth is surely that the figures relating to those released during the Bush administration include returns or suspected returns to terrorist activities "during" and after the Bush admininstration's tenure. The figures relating to those released during the Obama administration are almost certain to increase substantially during the next eight years, as the Bush-related figures surely did.
As of March, the "incredibly small" return-to-terrorism rate Toner couldn't (or wouldn't) cite was not so "incredibly small":
118 of 676 former prisoners released under both presidents ... are now confirmed to be reengaging in terrorism, while another 86 are suspected of doing so.
That works out to 17 percent confirmed and another 13 percent suspected.
It's not unreasonable to believe that Mark Toner, who has been in State Department positions for at least the past five years, knows that the percentage of released detainees who return to terrorism is not "incredibly small." It's also not unreasonable to believe that most of the reporters at Toner's briefing knew he wasn't telling the truth, but decided that the American people don't need to know that.
Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.