WASHINGTON — National security officials insisted at a hearing on the status of Guantanamo Bay today that detainees returning to terrorism after being released from the prison is more a problem of the Bush administration.
The number of detainees at Gitmo was at 242 when President Obama took office, and is now at 122 as detainees have been sent to places ranging from Estonia to Sudan.
Brian McKeon, the principal deputy undersecretary of Defense for policy, said of the remaining detainees 54 are eligible for transfer, 10 are being prosecuted or have been sentenced, and 58 are being reviewed.
“A primary concern that we have regarding a potential transfer is whether the detainee will return to the fight or otherwise re-engage in acts of terrorism or acts that threaten U.S. persons,” McKeon told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence splits recidivism data into pre-Obama and Obama-era statistics. As of the most recent public data from July, McKeon said, “the total number is 17.3 percent confirmed of re-engaging, 12.4 percent suspected of re-engagement, for a total of 29.7 percent confirmed or suspected.”
“Before January 2009 — that is, those transferred in the last administration — the numbers show 19 percent confirmed and 14.3 percent suspected of re-engaging, for a total of 33 percent. The data after January 2009 shows that 6.8 percent confirmed of re-engaging, 6 out of 88 transfers, 1.1 percent suspected, for a total of 7.9,” he said, adding that confirms the “rigor” of Obama’s new transfer process.
“We take any reports of suspected or confirmed re-engagement very seriously and work in close coordination with our partners to mitigate re-engagement or take follow-on action. I cannot discuss the specific security assurances we received from foreign governments with any specificity in an open session. I can tell you that among the types of measures we seek are the ability to restrict travel, monitor, provide information, and reintegration or rehabilitation programs.”
The next declassified update of recidivism numbers is expected to be released next month.
McKeon acknowledged they’ve “transferred a number of people recently,” but “it’s probably too soon to say whether they’ve re-engaged or not because they’re still getting settled.”
Nicholas Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the committee they’re concerned that Guantanamo “features in terrorist propaganda, it features in terrorist recruitment, and we assess it has continued significant resonance in the population that our terrorist adversaries are trying to recruit among.”
Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) chided Rasmussen for not coming to the hearing prepared with the risk levels of the remaining detainees.
“I think it’s safe to say many of them are in the medium or high risk category,” Rasmussen said.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) chided McKeon for not coming to the hearing prepared with information on how many who have returned to terrorism are suspected of carrying out attacks on U.S. personnel, including the Benghazi attack.
Both McCain and Ayotte questioned why officials weren’t willing to reveal conditions of Guantanamo releases in an open hearing.
“Why shouldn’t the American people know the conditions under which people are released?” McCain said.
“Within our own criminal justice system, if we release someone from one facility to another and we were releasing someone who was accused out in the public, why can’t we know if they’re being held again, or if they’re out where they can pose a risk to other individuals?” Ayotte added.
“I think that we deserve to know from the administration when they release someone, are they just releasing them back where it makes it very easy for them to re engage in terrorism activity?” she asked. “Or are they putting them in another prison, because the public reports about each of these individuals have been that they’ve been released not to other prisons, but to their families.”
McKeon said the “short answer” is “many of the agreements that we have with foreign governments are classified.”
“They are somewhere in between open release and a prison,” he added.
McCain said they can add declassification of such information to a Guantanamo bill being marked up by the committee next week. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said he agreed with the principle.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) asked the officials why, with the release of the Taliban Five for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, Americans should trust the administration’s Gitmo liquidation.
“This administration has a habit of surprising the American people on national security matters,” he said. “What assurance can we receive that there will not be a Guantanamo detainee on our shores tomorrow morning?”
McKeon asserted that their lawyers still believe there was a “valid legal reason” for not abiding by the requirement to notify Congress before the Bergdahl swap.
“OK, now I want to explore the so-called risk balance between recidivism of released terrorists and the propaganda value that terrorists get from Guantanamo Bay. How many recidivists are there at Guantanamo Bay right now?” Cotton asked. “How many detainees at Guantanamo Bay are engaging in terrorism or anti- American incitement?”
“Now let’s look at the propaganda value. How many detainees were at Guantanamo Bay on September 11, 2001?”
“Zero,” McKeon replied.
“How many were there in October 2000 when al-Qaeda bombed the USS Cole?” Cotton continued.
“Zero,” McKeon said.
“What about in 1998, when they bombed our embassies?”
“The facility was not open before 2002, senator.”
“Islamic terrorists don’t need an excuse to attack the United States. They don’t attack us for what we do, they attack us for who we are,” Cotton said. “It is not a security decision. It is a political decision based on a promise the president made on his campaign. To say that it is a security decision based on propaganda value that our enemies get from it is a pretext to justify a political decision.”
“In my opinion, the only problem of Guantanamo Bay is there are too many empty beds and cells there right now,” the freshman Republican continued. “We should be sending more terrorists there for further interrogation to keep this country safe. As far as I’m concerned, every last one of them can rot in hell, but as long as they don’t do that, then they can rot in Guantanamo Bay!”
The hearing was interrupted by a Code Pink protester breaking into a line of questioning by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “Those people, some of them were innocent,” the protester shouted. “They were already clear. All right. Arrest me. This country is disgusting. You have betrayed the Constitution — what is wrong with you American people? What’s wrong with you, America? What’s wrong with you? I don’t care anymore, put me in jail. I don’t care.”
“I think he may get his wish,” Graham chuckled as Capitol Police led the protester away.
McCain, who last week called Code Pink members trying to arrest Henry Kissinger “low-life scum,” eyeballed the remaining protesters from the dais.