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U.S. senators fighting to close Guantanamo Bay won a small victory late last month despite opposition from their colleague Saxby Chambliss.
Senate Democrats joined forces with a handful of Republicans to successfully defend their bid to ease restrictions on transferring detainees out of the controversial military prison. The changes have yet to clear Congress.
But the victory may be a sign that support for closing Guantanamo is growing. \Chambliss, who opposes current efforts to close Guantanamo, warned during a Senate floor debate that the proposed changes could free terrorists to strike again.
"These are not abstract theories; they are facts. The recidivism rate is nearly 29 percent and has been climbing steadily since detainees began being released from Guantanamo," the Georgia Republican said.
PolitiFact Georgia decided to unleash the AJC Truth-O-Meter to determine whether those really are the "facts."
The proposal to alter detainee transfer rules is part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014, which would provide defense funding. Chambliss, who is vice chairman of the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, co-sponsored a failed amendment that would have prevented the changes.
How many former detainees have returned to terrorism is a central issue in the Guantanamo debate.
A low recidivism rate could breathe life into President Barack Obama’s attempt to fulfill his 2008 campaign promise to close the prison. (We gave him a Promise Broken rating on the Obameter in August.) A high rate could kill it.
But tracking former Guantanamo detainees isn’t as easy as counting prisoners released from a state penitentiary. The calculation relies on intelligence that the government keeps classified.
Critics complain that the figures are impossible to verify because the names of re-offenders are not released. A few may have been branded as recidivists for merely criticizing the U.S. Some former prisoners may never have been terrorists in the first place, they say.
A semiannual report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence addresses some of these criticisms by giving more precise descriptions for what counts as returning to terrorism.
When an ex-detainee is "confirmed of re-engaging" in terrorism or insurgency, intelligence gatherers have found a "preponderance of information" showing the former prisoner is directly involved in activities such as planning attacks, financing operations or recruiting for terrorist groups.
The group does not include those who only make anti-U.S. statements or call other former prisoners to talk about old times.
When an ex-detainee is "suspected of re-engaging," intelligence gatherers have "plausible but unverified" evidence or "single-source reporting" showing the former prisoner is directly involved.
According to the latest ODNI report, which was released in September, 100 of 603 released detainees were "confirmed of re-engaging," or about 16.6 percent.
An additional 74, or 12.3 percent, were "suspected of re-engaging."
Add them together and you get 28.9 percent, or "nearly 29 percent," as Chambliss said.
As part of our assessment of the senator’s statement, we also considered whether the number of "re-engaging" ex-detainees is "climbing steadily."
During the George W. Bush years, 532 detainees were released, according to the report. Of those, 97 were "confirmed of re-engaging," while 70 were suspected of it.
Under Obama, 71 detainees were released. Three were confirmed as returning to terrorism. Four are suspected. In other words, the total number has increased under Obama, but his percentage is lower than the Bush administration’s.
So, did Chambliss get it right?
A spokeswoman for Chambliss says it’s common to combine the categories because ex-detainees often switch from the "suspected" to "confirmed" designation. Also, she says, intelligence gatherers have to detect some level of terrorist activity before it classifies someone as "suspected."
But The Washington Post pointed out that when Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess Jr., then the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testified before Congress in February 2011, he corrected Chambliss when the senator used a recidivism figure that combined the classifications.
Burgess said the figure "would not be confirmed by the Defense Intelligence Agency in terms of having returned to the fight or re-engaged."
In addition, the ODNI report makes clear that ex-detainees classified as "suspected of re-engaging" may not have done so. Chambliss’ decision to combine them with confirmed terrorists gives the impression that the data support his argument more forcefully than it actually does.
Chambliss’ assessment that the rate of recidivists is "climbing steadily" also has some weaknesses. The number of suspected or confirmed recidivists has grown by a half-dozen or so since Obama took office, but his percentage is lower than that of the Bush administration.
PolitiFact’s definition of "Half True" means that a statement is at least partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.
We think Chambliss’ claim fits the bill.
We rate his statement Half True.
Congressional Record, 113th Congress (2013-2014), Senate Debate, Page: S8162, Nov. 19, 2013. www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CREC-2013-11-19/pdf/CREC-2013-11-19-pt1-PgS8158-2.pdf#page=5
The Library of Congress, National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014, SB 1197, accessed Nov. 25, 2013.
The Library of Congress, National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014, Senate Amendment 2255, accessed Nov. 25, 2013.
U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, "Summary of the Reengagement of Detainees Formerly Held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba," Sept. 5, 2013.
Email exchange, Lauren Claffey, spokeswoman, U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Nov. 25 and 26, 2013
The Washington Post, The Fact Checker column, "Spinning how many Guantanamo detainees have ‘returned to the fight,’ " Nov. 21, 2013.
PolitiFact.com, The Obameter, "Close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center," Aug. 2, 2013.
Seton Hall University School of Law, Center for Policy & Research, "National Security Deserves Better: ‘Odd’ Recidivism Numbers Undermine the Guantanamo Policy Debate," March 23, 2012.
U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, hearing transcript, Feb. 16, 2011.
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