A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Cheney’s Gitmo Recidivism Claims

Former Vice President Dick Cheney used his May 10 appearance on CBS’ "Face the Nation" to, once again, strongly defend the Bush administration’s handling of alleged terrorists taken into U.S. custody. At one point, to back up his characterization of Guantanamo Bay detainees as ultra-bad guys, Cheney claimed that detainees sent home from Gitmo had already demonstrated significant recidivism: "We released hundreds already of the less threatening types. About 12 percent of them, nonetheless, went back into the fight as terrorists."

In January 2009 a Pentagon spokesman said that 61 former detainees were "confirmed or suspected" of returning to the fight, about 11.5 percent of the more than 530 who have been released so far. We spoke to a defense official who said that new figures from mid-March show a higher recidivism rate — 27 confirmed and 47 suspected, for a combined total of 14 percent of former detainees returning to terrorist activity.

The Defense Department defines a former detainee as being "suspected" of returning to the fight if "significant reporting indicates a former Defense Department detainee is involved in terrorist activities, and analysis indicates the detainee most likely is associated with a specific former detainee or unverified or single-source, but plausible, reporting indicates a specific former detainee is involved in terrorist activities" (italics in original). Cheney’s claim is based on official figures, but it would have been more accurate to say that 12 percent of former detainees are either confirmed or suspected of having gone "back into the fight." Even the soon-to-be released, updated DOD figures show that only about 5 percent of former detainees are confirmed to have returned to the fight.

Seton Hall law professor Mark Denbeaux, who has represented two Gitmo detainees, doubts that the numbers are even that high. In his reports on Guantanamo, Denbeaux, who has testified at three congressional hearings, argues that the DOD has inflated its recidivism counts. He says that some of the individuals named as recidivists were never interned at Gitmo, and that others were not accused of violent activity but only of speaking out against detainment conditions. Specifically he cites the so-called Tipton Three, subjects of the docu-drama "The Road to Guantanamo," and five released and resettled Uighurs (Chinese Muslims), one of whom wrote a critical opinion piece in the New York Times.

The Pentagon official we spoke to said it’s "entirely false" that malcontents are counted as recidivists. Denbeaux points to a September 2007 DOD document on recidivism that refers to "dozens" of detainees who have "returned to militant activities, participated in anti-US propaganda or other activities," and cites the Uighurs and the Tipton Three as examples. The document also says that 30 ex-detainees have "taken part in anti-coalition militant activities," which are not further defined. Denbeaux interprets this to mean that the Uighurs and the Tipton Three are counted among the 30 recidivists. We’re not so sure. We contacted DOD to ask for clarification on this memo and the department’s working definition of recidivism, but we have not yet received a response.

Cheney also claimed that already-released detainees were specifically the "less threatening types," and that those still incarcerated would present a higher recidivism risk.

Cheney, May 10, 2009: The group that’s left, the 245 or so, these are the worst of the worst. This is the hard core. You’d have a recidivism rate out of this group of maybe 50 or 60 percent. They want to get out because they want to kill more Americans.

Denbeaux disputes this idea as well, finding that the remaining detainees are little different from those already released, except that they come from nations less willing to accept their return. His analysis shows that the released detainees had a similar makeup to the total Guantanamo population in terms of how many were accused of being "associated with," "members of," or "fighters for" terrorist organizations. It’s true that those who remain in Guantanamo include such infamous characters as reported 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But Denbeaux’s analysis, if correct, casts doubt on the idea that most of the remaining detainees are many times worse or more likely to engage in terrorist activity than those previously released.