Conservative temperatures rose shortly after Christmas when reports surfaced that members of a group that took “credit” for the failed “underpants” attack had previously been detainees at Guantanamo Bay. For instance, right-wing pundit Mark Steyn worried about “Gitmo recidivists now running around Yemen” and what he called “the Gitmo-Yemen express checkout.”
Too bad Steyn and his fellow conservatives were working from a fictional script. In fact, the two former detainees who were identified in the press as members of the Al Qaeda cell involved in planning the attacks were from Saudi Arabia, not Yemen. In November 2008, McClatchy’s Shashank Bengali reported that Yemen, far from being an “express checkout,” was the biggest obstacle to the Bush administration’s efforts to transfer most of Gitmo’s prisoners back to their home countries. Bengali quoted a Yemeni Foreign Minister: “Based on the information we have, some of the Guantanamo prisoners have nothing to do with terrorism …We cannot imprison them without a court sentence. We cannot do something that is against our laws. We are accountable to our own public.”
Some sloppy reporting in the mainstream media has allowed this nonsense to seep into the larger discourse. Huffington Post’s Dan Froomkin noted that the The New York Times ran a story back in May with a headline reading, “1 In 7 Detainees Rejoined Jihad, Pentagon Finds.”
But look at the fine print, Froomkin advised. Elisabeth Bumiller’s article was based on a Pentagon report insisting that about “one in five” detainees who were released “has engaged in, or is suspected of engaging in, terrorism or militant activity,” not that they were returning to terrorism. And what is the Pentagon’s definition of “terrorist?” Anyone alleged to make what it considers to be an anti-American statement.
As TPM Muckraker points out, The Times changed the headline online to “Later Terror Link Cited for 1 in 7 Freed Detainees” and ultimately published a lengthy correction on the story. The Times public editor devoted an entire column to the story, writing that the episode “demonstrated again the dangers when editors run with exclusive leaked material in politically charged circumstances and fail to push back skeptically.”
Unfortunately, as Media Matters noted, in the aftermath of the underpants incident the Times repeated this false assertion in a second Bumiller article falsely headlined, “Many Ex-Detainees Return To Terror, Pentagon Says.”
Washington Post editors were almost as careless. They went with the headline, “Former Guantanamo Detainees Fuel Growing al-Qaeda Cell.” The article, however, focused on two Saudi nationals. Nonetheless, Sudarsan Raghavan wrote, “That a group partially led by former Guantanamo detainees may have equipped and trained Nigerian bombing suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is likely to raise more questions about plans to repatriate those prisoners to Yemen.”
Raghavan jumped to the potential opposition to the “repatriation” of Yemenis even though his article focuses on Saudi detainees who crossed the border into Yemen. And note his use of those infamous journalistic weasel words “partially,” “may have,” and “raise more questions,” to say nothing of the jump from one country to another. (This is reminiscent, in fact, of Bush administration attempts to shield the Saudis after 9/11, though that nation provided most of the hijackers.)
The sloppiness of that article aside, it should come as no surprise to any of us that a number of conservatives, opposed in the first place to closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, would attempt to exploit the “underpants bomber” to make their case. The Washington Times’ Donald Lambro wonders:
Why are we closing down Guantanamo Bay and moving terrorists to prison facilities here in the U.S.? Why are we sending many of them to terrorism breeding grounds where they have rejoined al Qaeda training camps? Mr. Obama has released 42, including seven who were sent home to Yemen. Why are we giving terrorists the privileges and rights of our civilian court system where their cases will likely go on for years though an unending legal process, followed a string of appeals?
Neocon pundit Charles Krauthammer adds that given the fact that our enemies already hate our guts, we might as well keep giving them reason:
This is a fanatical religious sect dedicated to establishing the most oppressive medieval theocracy and therefore committed to unending war with America not just because it is infidel but because it represents modernity with its individual liberty, social equality (especially for women), and profound tolerance (religious, sexual, philosophical). You going to change that by evacuating Guantanamo?
But as Krauthammer, Lambro, and their fellow foot soldiers in the fight for Gitmo must know, Barack Obama is not exactly out on a limb, either politically or militarily, in making the argument to close the prison. For instance, a fellow named David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, told Radio Free Europe that closing Gitmo “in a responsible manner, I think, sends an important message to the world, as does the commitment of the United States to observe the Geneva Convention when it comes to the treatment of detainees.”
Later that week on Fox News, the general continued, “Gitmo has caused us problems, there’s no question about it. I oversee a region in which the existence of Gitmo has indeed been used by the enemy against us.”
Furthermore, there is evidence that Mr. Underpants himself is in some respects an example of exactly this phenomenon. According to a report in the Times of London, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was the president of the Islamic Society at University College London, he invited Moazzam Begg to speak to the student group. Begg, a Briton, spent three years as a detainee in Gitmo. Begg’s group, Cageprisoners, championed Anwar al-Awlaki, an Al Qaeda cleric. Begg’s talk at UCL was about his years of detention in Guantanamo. Two years later, Abdulmutallab arrived in Yemen to begin his terrorist training.
Many conservatives still operate under the assumption that Guantanamo is a place reserved for the “worst of the worst” terrorists. In fact, it’s a place for the worst of the worst of the American justice system. The extensive McClatchy investigation into the lives of detainees and the management of Gitmo convincingly showed us just how off base this belief is. The prison held scores of innocent men. No less significant, it did much to inspire those without previous animosity toward the United States to join the jihad.
The Guardian’s Andy Worthington has conducted interviews with many of the detainees and has compiled lists of the names of all of the prisoners detained since Gitmo opened. Worthington provides information on the charges and outcomes of the detainees’ cases.
He writes that Gitmo is “a prison in which the overwhelming majority of those held—at least 93 percent of the 779 men and boys imprisoned in total—were either completely innocent people, seized as a result of dubious intelligence or sold for bounty payments, or Taliban foot soldiers, recruited to fight an inter-Muslim civil war that began long before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and that had nothing to do with al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or international terrorism.”
Moreover, Sebastien Rotella reported in the Los Angeles Times that European antiterrorism officials were worried about the radicalizing effects Guantanamo may have had on Europeans detained there. Rotella observes:
Guantanamo’s harsh conditions and sense of hopelessness have generated rage and radicalization, antiterrorism officials said. … “During my first visit, the prisoners I dealt with spoke with an individual voice,” a European anti-terrorism official recalled. “But on the second visit, they were already speaking with a collective voice. You could see the dominance of the hard-core ideologues take effect. It’s a classic process of group psychology in places like that.”
In June 2008 then-candidate Barack Obama said, “[The Bush administration] created a situation where not only have we never actually put many of these folks on trial, but we have destroyed our credibility when it comes to rule of law all around the world, and given a huge boost to terrorist recruitment in countries that say, ‘Look, this is how the United States treats Muslims.’”
He was right then and he’s right today to try to do whatever possible to reduce the threat Guantanamo continues to represent not only to our national security, but to our values as a free and fair people. As Thomas Paine instructed us almost two-and-a-half centuries ago in his masterpiece, Common Sense, “In America, the law is king.”
Gitmo must go.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals, was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at http://www.thenation.com/blogs/altercation and is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.
Mickey Ehrlich is a freelance writer based in New York.