The prisoner swap that freed US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has attracted an enormous amount of controversy. Much of it is silly partisanship; Republican Sen. John McCain–remember him, the media's beloved "straight talker"–endorsed a prisoner swap with the Taliban until he was against it.
One of the other issues that has been raised concerns the five Taliban prisoners who were freed from Guantanamo in exchange for Berghdal's return. Many claim they are especially dangerous, high-level Taliban leaders; experts disagree about this (Afghan Analysts Network, 6/4/14). The oft-repeated fear is that these loyal Taliban, once allowed to return to Afghanistan, will "return to the battlefield." This is a familiar argument for essentially keeping Guantanamo prison open in perpetuity.
This is not a new media phenomenon; in 2009, the New York Times bungled the numbers that had been released by the US government (FAIR Action Alert, 5/27/09), glossing over the distinction between those "confirmed" and those "suspected" of engaging in "terrorism or militant activity"–a rather vague category whose precise meaning was up for grabs (Washington Independent, 1/23/09).
These problems still exists. In the Wall Street Journal (6/4/14), Maria Abi-Habib wrote:
By January 2014, about 29 percent of 614 detainees released from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba had returned to violence, according to the Director of National Intelligence.
That is incorrect. The DNI's report lists 16.9 percent of the freed detainees as having been "confirmed of re-engaging." That 29 percent figure includes 12.1 percent who are "suspected of re-engaging," a category that describes "plausible but unverified or single-source reporting."
But even the accounts that get the distinction right should be viewed in context. On ABC World News (6/3/14), Brian Ross warned that the freed Taliban could go back to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, where fighters are
still engaged in fierce combat with US soldiers. A US intelligence report from this year found that 29 percent of freed Guantanamo detainees are confirmed or suspected to have rejoined the fighting.
As the Christian Science Monitor's Dan Murphy reported (3/6/14), this recidivism rate is actually quite low when compared to, say the US prison population. He points out that it might not be surprising, since many of the prisoners were not engaged in violence to begin with; they were delivered to the US and imprisoned without charges for years.
That's something to keep in mind whenever one hears discussions about "returning to the battlefield"; according to one review (12/10/07) of the Pentagon's Combatant Status Review Tribunal records, only 4 percent of available summaries "alleged that a detainee had ever been on any battlefield."
The idea that the government numbers reflects people either actually or possibly "fighting" is also dubious. The DNI report describes "financing," "recruiting" and "arranging for movement" as activities that constitute "involvement in terrorist or insurgent activities"–as long as these actions are related to "terrorism," a word so flexible it's been used by British authorities to justify detaining Glenn Greenwald's husband. It's easy to imagine that taking part in a fundraiser for the wrong charity would get you placed on this list.
So to clarify, the numbers being thrown around reflect activities that the government says it merely suspects as well those it claims to have confirmed, and these activities may or may not include what would normally be thought of as violence, and even some of those who are said to "return" to violence may have previously been nonviolent before they spent years in an illegal prison. Once we're clear what these numbers mean, it's worth noting that as the chart above shows, they've dropped substantially since January 2009, when Obama became president.
This didn't stop the Fox News Channel's Special Report (6/2/14)–you know, their straight newscast–from airing reporter Catherine Herridge's claim:
Since 2008, the number of detainees confirmed or suspected of returning to the battlefield has climbed to nearly one in three.
That's turning even a very murky reality upside down.