On May 21 on MSNBC, New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller acknowledged that the assertion in an article published earlier that day that one in seven detainees at Guantánamo has "returned" to terrorist activities might not be accurate. Conservatives and media seized on the dubious assertion, but the paper has not run a correction.
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Despite having changed the headline and first sentence of the online version of a May 20 article, The New York Times has yet to issue a correction for the front-page article's claim that an unreleased Pentagon report found "that about one in seven of the 534 prisoners already transferred abroad from the detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has returned to terrorism or militant activity" [emphasis added]. That claim has subsequently been repeated by numerous conservative and mainstream media outlets. But as Talking Points Memo has documented, the author of the Times article, Elisabeth Bumiller, has since acknowledged: "There's some debate about whether you should say 'return,' because some of them were perhaps not engaged in terrorism. As we know, there are some of them being held there on vague charges."
Politico staff writer Michael Calderone obtained the following response from Times Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet about the lack of a correction:
I think Elisabeth answered it properly in this interview. Reading some of the criticism it seems that people are saying it undercut the story. It did not. The story was about the estimate of the number of people who ended up, by DOD"s account, as being engaged in terrorism or militant activity after leaving Gitmo. That still stands. The change was an acknowledgment that some assert that not everyone in Gitmo is truly a terrorist. Some critics have said that Gitmo is also filled with people who aren't truly terrorists.
Anyone who is reading a significant retreat in the story, or as us somehow saying the story is wrong is looking for politics where it ain't.
Baquet's response, however, ignores the central problem with the Times' use of the term "returned." The term suggests that all of the detainees now allegedly engaging in terrorist activities were conclusively known to have engaged in terrorist activities prior to arriving at Guantánamo Bay, ignoring evidence that some individuals might have become terrorists as a result of their detention at Guantánamo Bay. For instance, a June 17, 2008, McClatchy Newspapers article reported, "A McClatchy investigation found that instead of confining terrorists, Guantanamo often produced more of them by rounding up common criminals, conscripts, low-level foot soldiers and men with no allegiance to radical Islam -- thus inspiring a deep hatred of the United States in them -- and then housing them in cells next to radical Islamists." The article continued:
In interviews, former U.S. Defense Department officials acknowledged the problem, but none of them would speak about it openly because of its implications: U.S. officials mistakenly sent a lot of men who weren't hardened terrorists to Guantanamo, but by the time they were released, some of them had become just that.
Requests for comment from senior Defense Department officials went unanswered. The Pentagon official in charge of detainee affairs, Sandra Hodgkinson, declined interview requests even after she was given a list of questions.
However, dozens of former detainees, many of whom were reluctant to talk for fear of being branded as spies by the militants, described a network -- at times fragmented, and at times startling in its sophistication -- that allowed Islamist radicals to gain power inside Guantanamo:
Militants recruited new detainees by offering to help them memorize the Quran and study Arabic. They conducted the lessons, infused with firebrand theology, between the mesh walls of cells, from the other side of a fence during exercise time or, in lower-security blocks, during group meetings.
Taliban and al Qaida leaders appointed cellblock leaders. When there was a problem with the guards, such as allegations of Quran abuse or rough searches of detainees, these "local" leaders reported up their chains of command whether the men in their block had fought back with hunger strikes or by throwing cups of urine and feces at guards. The senior leaders then decided whether to call for large-scale hunger strikes or other protests.
Al Qaida and Taliban leaders at Guantanamo issued rulings that governed detainees' behavior. Shaking hands with female guards was haram -- forbidden -- men should pray five times a day and talking with American soldiers should be kept to a minimum.
The recruiting and organizing don't end at Guantanamo. After detainees are released, they're visited by militants who try to cement the relationships formed in prison.
From the 1 p.m. ET hour of the May 21 edition of MSNBC Live:
ANDREA MITCHELL (host): Joining me now, Elisabeth Bumiller, Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times. You've got the lead story, Elisabeth, today in the Times, where you point out that in an unreleased Pentagon report, one in seven detainees who were released returned to jihad. What does that tell you about the likelihood of future releases from Guantánamo ever getting the support of the American public and Congress?
BUMILLER: Well, this specific report might make that more difficult. I should say that the report says that, you know, they have actually -- they are engaged again -- they are engaged in terrorism and militant activity. There's some debate about whether you should say "return," because some of them were perhaps not engaged in terrorism. As we know, there are some of them being held there on vague charges.