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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump Official’s Misplaced Gitmo Blame

Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to President Donald Trump, botched two facts when speaking on Fox News about a released Guantanamo Bay detainee responsible for a recent suicide bombing in Iraq:

  • First, Gorka wrongly suggested the man was released by President Barack Obama. He was transferred from Gitmo under President George W. Bush in 2004.
  • Gorka then wrongly claimed that among detainees released by Obama, “almost half the time, they returned to the battlefield.” According to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, about 12.4 percent of those transferred from Gitmo under Obama are either confirmed or suspected of reengaging.

Gorka, a deputy assistant to the president and a member of the Trump administration’s Strategic Initiatives Group, was the subject of a front page story in the Washington Post on Feb. 21 that ran under the headline, “Gorka’s views on Islam drive Trump’s security agenda.

Washington Post, Feb. 21: For years, Gorka had labored on the fringes of Washington and the far edge of acceptable debate as defined by the city’s Republican and Democratic foreign policy elite. Today, the former national security editor for the conservative Breitbart News outlet occupies a senior job in the White House and his controversial ideas – especially about Islam – drive Trump’s populist approach to counterterrorism and national security.

On Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” on Feb. 22, Gorka was asked about Jamal al-Harith (also known as Abu-Zakariya al-Britani), a former detainee at Guantanamo Bay who perpetrated a recent suicide bombing in Iraq for the Islamic State or ISIS.

Steve Doocy, “Fox & Friends” co-host: President Obama spent eight years trying to shut down Gitmo while saying detainees returning to terror posed little threat to the United States. But one of them just carried out a suicide bombing in Iraq. Abu Zakariya al-Britani, a British national released from Gitmo who later was able to travel to Syria and join up with ISIS as well, has killed himself. Here to discuss it is deputy assistant to President Trump, Dr. Sebastian Gorka … Does it surprise you that this ISIS suicide bomber in Iraq was a former Gitmo detainee?

Gorka: Unfortunately, it doesn’t. If you look at the great work done at the Long War Journal, people like Tom Joscelyn, we know there’s at least 30 if not more than 40 percent recidivism rate from the people released at Gitmo.

So President Obama released lots and lots of people that were there for a very good reason, and what happened? Almost half the time, they returned to the battlefield.

This individual, not only was he released, he was given compensation of more than $1 million by the British government who claimed he had been maltreated. An then he goes and executes a suicide attack in Iraq.

Thomas Joscelyn at the Long War Journal — who was cited by Gorka in the “Fox & Friends” interview — wrote an in-depth piece about al-Harith on Feb. 22. (The Long War Journal is a website published by a nonprofit media company that provides reporting on and analysis of the “Global War on Terror.”) Al-Harith’s death, Joscelyn wrote, “brings to an end one the strangest stories in the history of the detention facility at Guantanamo.”

According to leaked U.S. Defense Department documents published by the New York Times, al-Harith was once accused by the Taliban “of being a British or American spy.” He was transported to Gitmo in February 2002 “because he was expected to have knowledge of Taliban treatment of prisoners and interrogation tactics.” In September 2002, a commander at Gitmo recommended that he be released “based on the assessment that detainee was not affiliated with Al-Qaida or a Taliban leader.”

However, the document says it was later learned that al-Harith “was probably involved in former terrorist attack against the U.S.”  In July 2003, the assessment was made that al-Harith was “affiliated with Al-Qaida,” and that he “possesses a high threat to the U.S., its interests and allies.” The report recommended that he not be considered for release or transfer.

Nonetheless, al-Harith was transferred to Britain in 2004 “following intense lobbying by [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair’s Labour government,” the Telegraph reported. Once in Britain, al-Harith was released without charges. Al-Harith was one of a group of Gitmo prisoners who filed a lawsuit against several U.S. officials claiming torture and cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment, among other things. But the lawsuit was ultimately dismissed. Al-Harith fared better in his settlement from a similar case brought against Britain.

As Gorka said in the “Fox & Friends” interview, the British government paid al-Harith, a British national, “more than $1 million.” The one-million pound settlement was paid after al-Harith filed a lawsuit claiming “cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment,” according to the New York Post.

But Gorka got two other key points wrong. In context, Gorka suggests that al-Harith was released from Gitmo by Obama. He was not. Al-Harith was transferred out of Gitmo to Britain on March 9, 2004, under Bush.

Gorka also misrepresented the number of detainees released by Obama who “returned to the battlefield.” Said Gorka: “So President Obama released lots and lots of people that were there for a very good reason, and what happened? Almost half the time, they returned to the battlefield.”

According to the government’s latest “Summary of Reengagement of Detainees Formerly Held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba,” Obama had transferred 161 Gitmo detainees as of July 15, 2016. Of those, nine were “confirmed of reengaging” in terrorist activities and another 11 were “suspected of reengaging.” That’s a total of 12.4 percent — not nearly “almost half,” as Gorka put it.

The number and rate of reengagement is far higher among those transferred or released under Bush. According to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which produces the reengagement report, Bush transferred or released 532 Gitmo detainees, and 188 of them were either confirmed or suspected of reengaging in terrorism. That’s just over 35 percent.

Under Obama and Bush, combined, about 30 percent of the detainees transferred or released from Gitmo are either confirmed or suspected of reengaging.

Joscelyn, of the Long War Journal, told us via email that “the Obama administration’s Guantanamo Review Task Force evaluated all 240 detainees remaining as of Jan. 2009 and did not recommend any for outright release. 156 of the 240 (65 percent) were recommended for transfer (meaning certain security precautions were envisioned), or conditional detention until transfer (the “conditional” detainees in this category were 30 Yemenis). The remaining 84 were: 1) recommended for detention under the law of war because they were too dangerous to transfer, but prosecution was deemed infeasible (48 detainees), or 2) Referred for prosecution (36).”

“The Obama administration ultimately transferred dozens of even those detainees the GRTF initially said shouldn’t be transferred,” said Joscelyn, who believes “some, perhaps many” of those men were “highly questionable.”

“Therefore, I’d say it is true the Obama administration transferred dozens of detainees who were there for good reason,” Joscelyn said. “But thus far the [Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s] recidivism rate for Obama transfers is 12.4 percent.”

Joscelyn said he expects the recidivism rate for Obama-era transferees to climb, as it “takes time for the government to detect recidivists” and because even by “the Obama administration’s own assessments, a good number of these transferred detainees were deemed dangerous.”

That may be, but the current statistics don’t back up Gorka’s claim of a reengagement rate of almost 50 percent. That’s much higher than the rate under Bush, which is much higher than the rate under Obama.