Facts Hard to Come by on Guantanamo Detainees’ Dangers

Some say email to senator was not a complete representation of what the government knows

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said she" fought tooth and nail" to get transparency from the Obama administration. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said she" fought tooth and nail" to get transparency from the Obama administration. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 20, 2016 at 1:54pm

If U.S. officials have a reliable assessment of how many Guantanamo Bay detainees are likely to be jihadists after being transferred to other countries, they won’t reveal it to the public.

The risk of Guantanamo prisoners returning to the fight has been a critical national security issue and will remain one for the next president and Congress. But Washington policymakers can’t even agree on what the official assessment of that danger is.

A big reason is even unclassified information about the detainees is often shrouded in secrecy. It’s not only withheld from the press. It is also not disclosed even after Congress demands in law, as it did last year, that as much of the data as possible be made public.

“I fought tooth and nail to get the bare minimum of transparency from this administration, even though that transparency was required by law, and I’ll keep pushing them to be honest and upfront with the American people, who deserve nothing less,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican on Armed Services, said in a statement to CQ Roll Call.

As President Barack Obama transfers many of the remaining Guantanamo prisoners to other countries, Republicans have assailed him, saying he put U.S. lives at risk in a rush to fulfill a campaign promise. Detainees released under Obama have so far had a lower recidivism rate than those freed during the term of President George W. Bush — more than three times lower rates under Obama of confirmed new engagements in terrorism.

Still, scores of prisoners freed under both presidents are believed to have returned to the fight, and at least a dozen have even attacked Americans in Afghanistan.

Republicans regularly say 93 percent of Guantanamo detainees pose a high risk of returning to terrorism, and they cite the Pentagon as the source of that information. That talking point was in evidence last month during House floor debate ahead of passage of a bill that would temporarily bar transfers of any Guantanamo detainees. Likewise, the House’s Defense spending bill would restrict further transfers or releases in fiscal 2017.

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“Let’s not forget, the individuals still left in Guantanamo are the worst of the worst,” said Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., during a Sept. 15 House debate. “The Pentagon told Senator Ayotte that 93 percent of the detainees left at Guantanamo were ‘high risk’ for returning to terrorist activities.”

Jackie Walorski, sponsor of the ban, struck a similar note in floor remarks that day.

“As a recently released, unclassified report on Guantanamo detainees highlighted, the individuals remaining at Gitmo today represent truly the worst of the worst of the post-9/11 era,” the Indiana Republican said.

The 93 percent figure derives not from a report, per se, but from an April 29 email to Ayotte from the Pentagon’s legislative affairs office.

The Pentagon email says “7 % of detainees are assessed as ‘medium risk’ and 93 % are assessed as ‘high risk.’ None of the 107 detainees assessed was identified as ‘low risk.'” The 107 inmates refers to the prison population at Guantanamo last November.

The email, the full contents of which have not previously been disclosed, doesn’t make clear if the assessment reflected current assessments of detainees or, alternatively, earlier assessments that might no longer hold true.

Ayotte’s aides say she has every reason to think the emailed answer was current and complete since it came from the office responsible for conveying the Defense Department’s positions to Congress.

Yet a Pentagon spokeswoman declined to clarify whether or not the April email contained the latest assessment of detainee risks.

Officials are not so hesitant to undercut the email on other grounds. They say the information Ayotte received was not a complete representation of what the government knows. However, those officials will not say what it is the government knows — in other words, what the latest, accurate, complete figures are.

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Paul Lewis, the Pentagon’s special envoy for closing Guantanamo, told Ayotte in a previously unpublicized July 25 letter that JTF-Guantanamo figures are based on “limited intelligence reporting and do not reflect an all-source Intelligence Community product.” He said “the most comprehensive understanding of each detainee,” including a threat assessment, is compiled by two other organizations: the 2010 Executive Order Task Force panel, which determined more than half of the 240 detainees at Guantanamo at the time could be released or transferred; and the National Counterterrorism Center under the Director of National Intelligence.

But officials do not make all those detainee assessments, some of which are classified, available to the public.

Congress, though, asked the Pentagon last year for an openly available evaluation of JTF-Guantanamo’s assessment of each detainee’s risk of returning to the fight if released–including whether that assessment had changed over time. Section 1037 of the fiscal 2016 defense authorization law ordered the Pentagon to provide up-to-date risk assessments for each and every Guantanamo detainee in a report that would be unclassified “to the maximum extent practicable.”

But congressional aides say the report did not provide that information, at least not in an unclassified format. The Pentagon email to Ayotte appears to be a summary of the overall finding of the otherwise classified Section 1037 report, not exactly the detailed, unclassified report Congress had sought.

A Senate Armed Services Committee spokesman confirmed that the committee only received the information in classified form.

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Congress did get, after weeks of prodding by Ayotte, an unclassified chart detailing the terrorist activities that landed each of the detainees in prison to begin with, and Ayotte has posted that document on her website. But the chart lacked any assessments of the risk of individual detainees returning to terrorism upon transfer.

The debate will continue in the year ahead. Hillary Clinton, like Obama, wants to close Guantanamo. But with Republicans in charge of either congressional chamber, many suspect that will not happen.