Cliff Sloan, the bureaucrat responsible for winding down the terrorist detention center at Guantanamo for the past 18 months, takes to the pages of the New York Times to laud progress during his tenure and downplay the perceived challenges in finishing the job.
One of his main arguments suffers from some fatuous logic. He cites former Vice President Dick Cheney’s report that 30% of those released are “confirmed” or “suspected” to have returned to Islamic terrorism after their release as a “deeply flawed” exaggeration because only half of those fall into the “confirmed” category. Great, so only 15% of the released detainees certainly returned to terrorism! (Thankfully, some of these have been killed or recaptured, and others have bounties on their heads, which should certainly give us pause in praising the wisdom of releasing anyone.)
He claims as some sort of success that fewer still of those more recently released have returned to the battlefield:
Of the detainees transferred during this administration, more than 90 percent have not been suspected, much less confirmed, of committing any hostile activities after their release. The percentage of detainees who were transferred after the Obama-era review and then found to have engaged in terrorist or insurgent activities is 6.8 percent.
By definition, the more recent the sample size we are examining at any point in time, the lower the percentage of recidivism will be. This obvious logic seems lost on Sloan. Among terrorists who were released yesterday, the recidivism rate is zero! Complete success! Naturally it takes time for released terrorists to escape Uruguay, Kazakhstan, Qatar, or wherever they are sent from Guantanamo, be debriefed, reintegrate into the terrorist network to resume their calling to jihad, and come to the attention of our intelligence agencies.
Reasonable people can disagree about our Guantanamo policy. There are legitimate arguments to be made about efficacy, cost, and even due process. (Though Sloan’s quote from an anonymous “high-ranking security official from one of our staunchest allies on counterterrorism” that “The greatest single action the United States can take to fight terrorism is to close Guantanamo” seems like a non sequitur.)
Most Americans probably agree with the maxim that it is “better for 100 guilty men to go free than for one to be wrongly convicted.” But this applies to American criminal defendants subject to U.S. constitutional protections. It is easy to make the opposite argument—or at least to prescribe the presumption of guilt—when it comes to foreign terrorists captured on the battlefield taking up arms against the U.S. and its interests.
In any event, the citation of 6.8% of those released having definitively returned to terrorism in a relatively short time should be a red flag, not a celebration of success. Not only does all evidence and logic inform us that that number will necessarily increase as time goes on, but there is no doubt that a principle of diminishing returns applies. Presumably the 127 Muslim terrorists still detained at Guantanamo are the most risky cases, which is why they haven’t been released so far.
Let’s not throw around small-sounding (and artificially deflated) numbers as a means to take credit for the perhaps relatively lower-hanging fruit in an effort to obscure the grave risks of releasing terrorists back into the war against our civilization.