The New York Times, which helped sell the Iraq War with a bogus story about aluminum tubes for nuclear centrifuges and withheld evidence of illegal spying on Americans for more than a year, is again mishandling a sensitive story in a way that panders to the Right.
The Times lead story for its Washington Edition on May 21 was headlined, “1 in 7 Detainees Rejoined Jihad, Pentagon Finds,” and starts out by reporting that a Pentagon study has concluded that “about one in seven of the 534 prisoners” transferred out of the Guantanamo Bay prison “returned to terrorism or militant activity.”
But that is not what the Pentagon can possibly know. Beyond the weaknesses in the Pentagon’s evidence, which is only noted deep inside the Times article, there is the unsupported assertion by the Times that the detainees have “returned” to violent activity, thus assuming that the freed prisoners had previously been engaged in terrorism or other extremism.
Even assuming that the study is correct about one in seven engaging in militant activity after release, the evidence is lacking about the prisoners previous acts of terrorism because – if such evidence existed – the Bush administration presumably would not have released them.
In other words, the most that the Times should have reported is that the Pentagon study claimed that one in seven engaged in militant activities after leaving Guantanamo. It is entirely possible that some ex-prisoners became radicalized and joined with extremists because of their sometimes brutal treatment in U.S. custody at Guantanamo.
The Washington Post was more careful in its report about the findings, stating that the Pentagon study “found that 27 Guantanamo detainees released to other countries since 2002 had been confirmed as subsequently engaging in terrorist activities and another 47 are strongly suspected of doing so.” The Post did not claim that the detainees had “returned” to militant activity.
The Times also appears to have backed away from the headline and opening paragraph of its Washington Edition. The version on the Times’ Web site later in the morning had a headline reading “Later Terror Link Cited for 1 in 7 Freed Detainees” and the lead paragraph was phrased differently, removing the “returned” language, though the word is still used deeper in the story.
Despite those changes, the version in the Times’ Washington edition resonated across the nation’s capital, becoming fodder for the cable political shows and talk radio. For instance, in previews before President Barack Obama’s speech on terrorism policies Thursday morning, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews repeated the phrasing about detainees “returning” to terrorism.
The distinction is important especially given how the issue of Guantanamo has been framed by Vice President Dick Cheney and other right-wing political leaders, as necessary to hold detainees even if their potential danger to Americans is vague and unproven. The argument seems to be that it is safer to hold six Muslims who aren’t a danger than to release one who might be.
The second paragraph of the May 21 Times story by Elisabeth Bumiller points out that “the conclusion [about the one in seven] could strengthen the arguments of critics [of Obama’s plan to close Guantanamo] who have warned against the transfer or release of any more detainees.”
The Times article also claims that the Pentagon report’s release was delayed since its completion in December because it was considered “politically radioactive under Mr. Obama,” a claim that has further fueled the Right's anger and has added to the report's presumed credibility.
While the alleged cover-up is addressed high up in the article, you need to read almost to the end – the 17th paragraph – to learn how thin the Pentagon’s case is about the freed detainees engaging in any violence.
“Among the 74 former prisoners that the report says are again engaged in terrorism, 29 have been identified by name by the Pentagon, including 16 named for the first time in the report,” the Times said.
“The Pentagon has said that the remaining 45 could not be named because of national security and intelligence-gathering concerns. ...
“The Pentagon has provided no way of authenticating its 45 unnamed recidivists, and only a few of the 29 people identified by name can be independently verified as having engaged in terrorism since their release.
“Many of the 29 are simply described as associating with terrorists or training with terrorists, with almost no other details provided.”
Only five “have engaged in verifiable terrorist activity or have threatened terrorist acts,” the Times reported, including two who were identified as Said Ali al-Shihri, a leader of al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch, and Abdullah Ghulam Rasoul, an Afghan Taliban commander.
In other words, the Bush administration – as it was heading for the door – threw together a report that offered few details and made leaps of logic, including the assumption that the released detainees had actually been terrorists earlier.
That would beg the question why the Bush administration released them in the first place, a point not explained by the Times article. But the assumption must be that the Bush administration had little or no evidence linking the detainees to verifiable terrorist activities before their release.
The Times story also makes no reference to the judgment of some U.S. military commanders that the image of Guantanamo has aided al-Qaeda’s recruitment and cost American soldiers their lives.
As former Navy general counsel Alberto Mora told the Senate Armed Services Committee in June 2008, “there are serving U.S. flag-rank officers who maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq – as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat – are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.”
Nor does the Times article address the possibility that the released detainees turned to terrorism in reaction to their mistreatment at Guantanamo, that the prison may have served as its own recruitment center much the way regular prisons sometimes turn minor offenders into hardened criminals.
Despite the shortcomings of the Times article – and the Pentagon report – both were cited widely by Washington pundits, much as happened in 2002 when the Times fronted what turned out to be a false story about Iraq buying aluminum tubes for nuclear centrifuges.
The weaknesses in that case were buried deep inside the article, too, opening the door for Cheney and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice to cite the Times article as proof of an Iraqi nuclear bomb program and thus justification for invading Iraq.
The Bush administration’s catch phrase became: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”
Times executives also cooperated with President George W. Bush in withholding an article about his secret program of warrantless wiretaps targeting some Americans.
The article was ready before Election 2004, but the Times spiked it at Bush’s request and only published it in December 2005 because the author, James Risen, was set to release the information in a book the next month.
Now, the Times is feeding a new mini-hysteria on the danger of releasing Guantanamo detainees no matter how little evidence there is against them – if there is a possibility that one in seven might later join up with militants.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on May 22, 2009.