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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

McCain’s Gitmo Exaggeration

Sen. John McCain exaggerated when he claimed that about 25 percent of prisoners released from Guantanamo have returned to terrorist activities in “leadership positions.”

He said May 5  on “Fox News Sunday“:

McCain: And, by the way, about a quarter of those who have been released from Guantanamo have gone back into the fight, and in leadership positions. So we really have to be very careful about that.

That’s an exaggeration, on a couple of counts.

  • First, only 16 percent of all the prisoners ever released from Guantanamo have been confirmed as “returning to terrorist activities” of any sort, according to the most recent report by the Director of National Intelligence. To get to his “about a quarter” figure, McCain is adding in another 12 percent of released prisoners whom U.S. intelligence officials list as “suspected” of returning to terrorist activities, based on “plausible but unverified” reporting or “plausible” reports from a lone source. It would have been accurate if McCain said a quarter of those released from Guantanamo have gone back into the fight or suspected to have gone back into the fight.
  • Furthermore, by no means all of those who are confirmed or suspected are in “leadership positions” as McCain claimed. To make the list, a former prisoner could be a participant in an attack or bombing, and not necessarily involved in the planning.

McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona, says he agrees with President Barack Obama that the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba should be closed. On “Fox News Sunday,” he criticized the administration for failing to present any “coherent plan” for dealing with those now imprisoned there, and cautioning that “we really have to be very careful” and not “send them back into the fight where they can kill more Americans.”

It is worth noting that the vast majority of the recidivists to whom McCain referred were released when George W. Bush was president.

Only 7 percent of the 71 prisoners released since Obama took office are either confirmed (three) or suspected (two) of returning to terrorist activities.

By contrast, nearly 31 percent of the 532 prisoners released under Bush later were confirmed (94) or suspected (70) of returning to the fight.

Our source is the unclassified report that the Director of National Intelligence is required by law to release at least every six months: “Summary of the Reengagement of Detainees Formerly Held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.” The most recent version was published March 4.

— Brooks Jackson