Media advance falsehood that Pentagon has confirmed that 61 former Guantánamo detainees have returned to battlefield

››› ››› JEREMY HOLDEN

Since President Barack Obama signed an executive order requiring that the Pentagon's detention facilities at Guantánamo be closed within a year, numerous media figures and outlets have repeated or failed to challenge the claim that 61 former detainees held there have returned to the battlefield. In fact, the figure, which comes from the Pentagon, includes 43 former prisoners who are suspected of, but have not been confirmed as, having "return[ed] to the fight."

Since President Barack Obama signed an executive order requiring that the detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay be closed within a year, numerous media figures and outlets -- including CNN's Campbell Brown, MSNBC's Chris Matthews, Fox News' Sean Hannity, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and ABCNews.com -- have repeated or failed to challenge the claim that 61 former detainees held at Guantánamo have returned to the battlefield. Hannity, the Globe, and the Los Angeles Times, in particular, falsely asserted that the Pentagon has confirmed this figure. In fact, as Media Matters for America documented, according to the Pentagon, the 61-detainee figure includes 43 former prisoners who are suspected of, but have not been confirmed as, having "return[ed] to the fight." Indeed, during a January 13 press conference, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell stated: "The new numbers are, we believe, 18 confirmed and 43 suspected of returning to the fight. So 61 in all former Guantanamo detainees are confirmed or suspected of returning to the fight." Additionally, as Daily Kos contributing editor Joan McCarter noted, Seton Hall University School of Law professor Mark Denbeaux has disputed the Pentagon's figures, asserting: "Once again, they've failed to identify names, numbers, dates, times, places, or acts upon which their report relies. Every time they have been required to identify the parties, the DOD has been forced to retract their false IDs and their numbers."

Media repeating or failing to challenge the claim that 60 or more Guantánamo detainees have returned to the battlefield include:

  • During the January 22 edition of Fox News' Hannity, speaking with Kate Obenshain, vice president of the Young America's Foundation, Hannity falsely asserted: "But we know, Kate, 61 Gitmo detainees that have already been released, according to the Pentagon, went right back to the battlefield with their fanaticism."
  • The Boston Globe falsely asserted in a January 23 article: "Pentagon statistics show that of the hundreds of detainees that have been released from Guantanamo since it opened in early 2002, at least 61 have returned to terrorist activities."
  • The Los Angeles Times falsely reported on January 23: "The Pentagon has said that 61 former detainees have taken up arms against the U.S. or its allies after being released from the military prison in Cuba."
  • On January 23, the San Francisco Chronicle uncritically reported: "Republicans also claimed that 61 detainees already released have been 'found back on the battlefield.' "
  • During the January 22 edition of CNN's Campbell Brown: No Bias, No Bull, Cliff May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, asserted of Guantánamo detainees, "Many hundreds have been released. About 60 of them -- a little more than that -- have returned to the battlefield." Brown did not challenge May's assertion.
  • During the January 22 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, Matthews failed to challenge Sen. Kit Bond's (R-MO) claim that "we know already that more than 60 of the people who have been released have been killing our troops, our Americans and civilians on the battlefield."
  • A January 22 ABCNews.com article by Jake Tapper, Jan Crawford-Greenburg, and Huma Kahn uncritically reported House Minority Leader John Boehner's (R-OH) statement: "Do we release them back into the battlefield, like some 61 detainees that have been released we know are back on the battlefield?"

By contrast, The New York Times reported on January 23 that "[a]lthough the Pentagon has said that dozens of released Guantánamo detainees have 'returned to the fight,' its claim is difficult to document, and has been met with skepticism."

From the January 22 edition of CNN's Campbell Brown: No Bias, No Bull:

BROWN: So, Peter, let me just start with you on this question. Two hundred and forty-five people estimated -- suspected terrorists at Gitmo. Who are these people? I mean, are we talking about the worst of the worst? Who's still being held there? What are they suspected of?

PETER BERGEN (CNN national security analyst): Well, 60 of them have been cleared by -- for release by the Bush administration. You've got about 100 Yemenis in there. Yemen is a country with a rather inadequate prison system, so they haven't been back -- sent back to Yemen. You've got 20 high-value Al Qaeda people in there, who are certainly serious terrorists, and then some other people that we don't really have a good sense of: are they really engaged in terrorism or are they there -- are they sort of innocent? And that's, of course, one of the things that's happening with this 120-day review process is to look at all these cases and say who should be released, who should be held, who should go to some form of trial, whether it's a military trial or a trial in a federal court.

BROWN: And Cliff, give us your view on this. I know you are obviously a big supporter of President Bush's policies. When Guantánamo Bay shuts down, do you believe that Americans are going to be at greater risk?

MAY: Well, we don't know that yet. I give President Obama great credit for the symbolism of today. People just hearing about this story probably think he is or has closed Guantánamo down. He hasn't. His advisers now have a year to figure out what to do with the dangerous terrorists who are there.

Don't forget, people -- I've been to Guantánamo. It's not the place that's the problem, it's those who are there. Some can be released. Many hundreds have been released. About 60 of them -- a little more than that -- have returned to the battlefield. What is a great danger -- and the young woman you had on expressed it -- is once they come to the U.S., they will have the constitutional rights due Americans.

Some of them -- Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was one of the masterminds of 9-11 -- you want to be careful that you don't have lawyers immediately saying, "OK, now they have to be released because they have to go to the -- you don't have evidence against them. Their confessions were coerced. You have to reveal your intelligence sources." We don't want these people living in Atlanta. We don't want them living in Miami, New York, or even Hollywood.

BROWN: You disagree.

BERGEN: But that's kind of an absurd point.

JEFFREY TOOBIN (CNN senior analyst): I disagree. I disagree --

BROWN: Hold on, Peter.

TOOBIN: -- completely. We have a legal system in this country that has tried Zacarias Moussaoui. It has tried the "Blind Sheikh." We have had terrorism trials. These people are in prison. Our legal system is completely capable --

MAY: Let me --

TOOBIN: We're talking about maybe 40 trials. That is the way the system is supposed to work, not through these secret detentions and endless holding people without charges. Let the system work. We've got a system -- a legal system here that's done us very proud.

From the January 22 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

MATTHEWS: But we begin with Senator Bond. Senator Kit Bond joins us from Capitol Hill. Senator Bond, what is your thinking when you heard that Barack Obama's going to close Gitmo?

BOND: Well, I think it's irresponsible to say you're going to close Gitmo without having a plan. What are you going to do with the hardened terrorists that are there? I can't think of any town or city in Missouri who wants to have hardened criminals, illegal combatants like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed or Abu Zubaydah coming into their community.

Now, if you don't bring them back to the United States, if you release them, we know already, that's more than 60 of the people who have been released have been killing our troops, our Americans and civilians on the battlefield. If you really want to bring them back to the United States, people in Missouri and Kansas believe Gitmo is just fine. Folks in San Francisco want it closed. I'd suggest you put them in Alcatraz.

MATTHEWS: Well, why wouldn't you imprison somebody after holding a trial or execute them? Why don't we do it by law? What's the problem with doing it the usual way?

From the January 22 edition of Fox News' Hannity:

PAT CADDELL (Fox News contributor): Well, that's my -- I happen to agree with you about that, Sean. I think -- President Bush wanted to close Gitmo. I think Gitmo has become a real stain, but the problem is: Where do you put these people? I'll tell you what, in Charleston, we do not want them in the brig. You know, we -- these people are really dangerous, some of them. Some of them -- and I think we should have gone over to the trial process. But what do you do? Put them in Fort Sumter? Put them in Alcatraz? I don't know. But I'll tell you what -- or give them to [Rep.] Mr. [John] Murtha [D-PA]? But the point is, the country is upset about this. They're against it.

HANNITY: Terrorists do not deserve constitutional rights.

PAT BOONE (entertainer and conservative activist): No.

HANNITY: They don't deserve their day in a civilian court. Pat, we've never done this in the history --

BOONE: No.

HANNITY: -- of the country. And for all the --

BOONE: These are military prisoners, they are not U.S. citizens. And they are suspected terrorists and murderers. I think we should do what the Israelis have done, which -- from time to time, they simply release them, send them back where they came from.

Now, you know, you scald a dog, and he may not want to attack you again. And if they let these guys go, and the Israelis know it when they let them go, it's --

HANNITY: Wait a minute. He's --

BOONE: If we meet them again, they may not be taken prisoner; they'll be killed.

HANNITY: Well, wait a minute. But we know, Kate, 61 Gitmo detainees that have already been released, according to the Pentagon, went right back to the battlefield --

BOONE: Yeah.

HANNITY: -- with their fanaticism.

KATE OBENSHAIN (vice president of Young America's Foundation): Well, that's the problem.

BOONE: Yeah.

OBENSHAIN: You know, this was a nice campaign promise. It invigorated the base for Obama. But the problem is, it has real, lasting consequences. And, you know, there is a reason why we haven't had another 9-11 attack, and a lot of people think it's because of the information that was secured during those --

HANNITY: Absolutely.

OBENSHAIN: -- interrogations.

From the January 22 ABCNews.com article:

The president's sweeping orders effectively dismantled the Bush administration's system for handling terrorists, prompting criticism that his actions were shortsighted and dangerous.

Republicans such as Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, have expressed concern about where the detainees will go and say there are lots of questions still to be answered.

"I think the first thing we have to remember is that we're talking about terrorists here," Boehner said at a press conference this afternoon. "Do we bring them into our borders? Do we release them back into the battlefield, like some 61 detainees that have been released we know are back on the battlefield? And do we release them to get back and rejoin this fight? ... I'm concerned that some will be let go too soon, could end up back on the battlefield."

Cornyn argued that closing Guantanamo could bring terror suspects to America and put the country at risk.

"Clearly, these are not the kind of people you would want to put in our city jails or our state prisons," he said.

From the January 23 Boston Globe article:

Critics of the reforms, including the top House Republican, John Boehner of Ohio, argued yesterday that some of the 245 detainees now at Guantanamo could pose clear threats to national security if released. Pentagon statistics show that of the hundreds of detainees that have been released from Guantanamo since it opened in early 2002, at least 61 have returned to terrorist activities.

"The real fear is what do you do with these terrorists and if you make it clear you are going to close Guantanamo and you don't have a policy in place to deal with those who are housed there, what do you do?" asked Boehner, who with other House Republicans quickly filed a bill seeking to bar federal courts from ordering Guantanamo detainees to be released into the United States. "I'm concerned that some of these let go too soon could end up back on the battlefield. There are a lot of unanswered questions."

From the January 23 Los Angeles Times article:

There are 245 detainees in the prison. The question of what to do with them is a delicate one that balances the desire to close a facility widely seen as damaging to international standing with the risks of releasing prisoners who many think still pose a serious threat.

The Pentagon has said that 61 former detainees have taken up arms against the U.S. or its allies after being released from the military prison in Cuba.

Citing that concern, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the fundamental challenge was "figuring out how do we close Guantanamo and at the same time safeguard the security of the American people."

Some Republicans accused the White House of acting rashly and without sufficient concern for the potential risks.

"This is an executive order that places hope ahead of reality -- it sets an objective without a plan to get there," Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.

From the January 23 San Francisco Chronicle article:

House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the Obama commission leaves open the question of where Osama bin Laden would go if he were caught.

Rep. Jane Harman, the Venice (Los Angeles County) Democrat who chairs the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence and Terrorism, dismissed GOP complaints as "the fear card" because at most 60 Guantanamo prisoners could wind up in U.S. prisons, where they would face prosecution, probably in federal courts.

Harman said if evidence is tainted by torture, prosecutors will have to establish new evidence, but said this should not be difficult given the cases. Others, she said, would be sent to foreign countries for prosecution there.

Bond scoffed at the idea, saying other countries have been unwilling to accept detainees. Republicans also claimed that 61 detainees already released have been "found back on the battlefield."

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