Media promote claim that Bush administration's Guantánamo policies "kept us safe"

››› ››› TOM ALLISON

Echoing Dick Cheney's recent speeches and media appearances, several conservative media figures and outlets have claimed that the Bush administration's policies with respect to the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay "kept us safe." In fact, there is substantial evidence that the opposite is true.

Echoing former Vice President Dick Cheney's recent speeches and media appearances, conservative media figures and outlets have claimed that the Bush administration's policies with respect to the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay "kept us safe" and have criticized President Obama's executive order directing its closure. For instance, during the March 20 edition of The McLaughlin Group, nationally syndicated radio host and Fox News commentator Monica Crowley asserted that President Bush's "national security apparatus ... kept us safe for seven and a half years" and criticized Obama for "deconstructing that national security apparatus" in part by "matriculating these terrorists at Guantánamo Bay into the United States, into the criminal justice process."

However, the suggestion that Bush administration policies with respect to Guantánamo "kept us safe" has been challenged on several grounds; indeed, there is evidence that the opposite is true. For instance, experts and former military officials have stated that terrorists have successfully used Guantánamo as a recruiting tool. Also, McClatchy Newspapers has reported, citing "former U.S. Defense Department officials" who "acknowledged the problem" and interviews with 66 former Guantánamo detainees, that terrorists held at Guantánamo played a role in radicalizing other detainees, motivating some who had not been terrorists prior to their detainment to engage in suspected terrorist activity after their release. Moreover, several security and military officials who served in the Bush administration have disagreed with the claim that Bush's Guantánamo policies made the United States safe and that Obama, by ordering the prison's closure, will make the country less safe.

Guantánamo as recruiting tool

As Media Matters for America has documented, experts have stated that terrorists have successfully used Guantánamo as a recruiting device. For instance, in a November 2008 op-ed, an Air Force senior interrogator who was in Iraq in 2006 wrote: "I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq."

As the blog Think Progress noted, in June 17, 2008, testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, former Navy general counsel Alberto Mora said: "[T]here are serving U.S. flag-rank officers who maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq -- as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat -- are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo."

Additionally, The Center for Strategic & International Studies concluded in a September 2008 study that "the United States has been damaged by Guantánamo beyond any immediate security benefits. Our enemies have achieved a propaganda windfall that enables recruitment to violence, while our friends have found it more difficult to cooperate with us."

Guantánamo radicalized detainees

In addition to Guantánamo being used as a recruiting tool, the facility reportedly played a role in radicalizing detainees, with some "who weren't hardened terrorists" when they arrived at Guantánamo becoming so after their release. In a June 17, 2008, article, McClatchy reported that its investigation of Guantánamo "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." McClatchy further reported:

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.

McClatchy also noted in a May 26 article that a Pentagon report on former Guantánamo detainees who have gone on to engage in terrorist activity, or who are suspected of doing so, "doesn't say how many were jihadists before they were detained and how many were indoctrinated in Islamic radicalism while they were detained." According to the article, "One of the detainees whom a newly released Pentagon report says returned to the battlefield after he was released from the Guantanamo Bay prison camp told McClatchy that he was a local security leader in Afghanistan when he was arrested and became a radical Islamist only during his detention."

Moreover, as Media Matters noted, New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller has acknowledged the problem in characterizing former Guantánamo detainees who have gone on to engage in terrorist activity as having "returned to terrorism or militant activity." The original version of Bumiller's May 20 article claimed 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]. As Talking Points Memo documented, the day the article was published, Bumiller said on MSNBC that "[t]here'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."

In a correction printed June 5, the Times acknowledged that the "premise of the report that all the former prisoners had been engaged in terrorism before their detention ... remains unproved."

Officials disagree that maintaining the Bush Guantánamo policy would keep America safe

Several security and military officials who served in the Bush administration -- including Gen. David Petraeus, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, national security adviser James Jones, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell -- have challenged the claim that the Bush administration's Guantánamo policies kept America safe and that by reversing them, Obama will make the country less safe.

  • In a May 29 article, the Associated Press reported:

Closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay would purge the U.S. of a symbol used by enemies to divide the nation, the head of the U.S. Central Command said Friday.

Army Gen. David Petraeus said the U.S. military is "beat around the head and shoulders" with images of detainees held in Guantanamo, the facility in Cuba President Barack Obama has vowed to close. He said closing Guantanamo and ensuring detainees are dealt with by an appropriate judicial system would bolster the nation's war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"I do believe very strongly that we should live our values," he said. "Generations of soldiers have fought to defend those values, and we should not shrink from living them, from operationalizing them, on the battlefield."

  • In May 27 remarks before the Atlantic Council of the United States, Jones, who served in the Bush State Department and is now Obama's national security adviser, stated: "[I]n my view, I firmly believe that the United States is not only safe, but it will be more secure, and the American people are increasingly safer because of the president's leadership that he's displayed consistently over the last four months, both at home and abroad, and in ways that I would like to touch on very briefly." Jones also said:

I think the American people are safer today because, as the president explained in his speech last week, he's rejected a false choice between our security and our ideals; banning the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques that do not only advance our counterterrorism efforts, they probably undermine them; ordering the closing of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, which is a recruiting -- a recruitment tool for terrorists, likely created more terrorists around the world than the prison ever detained -- so developing a responsible plan for dealing with detainees rather than the ill-conceived approach that let detainees return to the battlefield in the past and failed to prosecute those who should be held accountable in various courts.

  • During the May 22 edition of NBC's Today, Gates stated that Guantánamo is "probably one of the finest prisons in the world today, but it has a taint." Gates continued: "It is -- the name itself is a condemnation. What the president was saying is this will be an advertisement for Al Qaeda as long as it's open." Gates also noted that "there's a lot of fear-mongering" about the closing of the facility.
  • On the June 10, 2007, edition of NBC's Meet the Press, Powell said: "[E]ssentially, we have shaken the belief that the world had in America's justice system by keeping a place like Guantánamo open and creating things like the military commission. We don't need it and it's causing us far more damage than any good we get for it."

In addition to Crowley, examples of media repeating the claim that Bush's Guantánamo policies kept us safe are listed below:

  • In a May 14 editorial, Investor's Business Daily claimed that Obama's "decision to close Guantanamo strikes us as wasteful, unnecessary and likely to endanger American lives" and called on Obama "to adopt as his own the policies of the man who, after 9/11, kept us safe from serious terror attacks for eight years."
  • On the May 7 edition of Fox News' Special Report, syndicated columnist and Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer stated that the Keep Terrorists Out of America Act ... legislation sponsored by House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) and "aimed at stopping the transfer or release of terrorists held at the Guantanamo Bay prison into the United States" -- "symbolizes the degree to which Democrats were hypocritical and irresponsible in attacking the Bush administration and all the measures it took in keeping us safe in the war on terror."
  • During the March 16 edition of Hardball, MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan cited former Guantánamo detainees who have "been showing up in Yemen, blowing up people in Iraq, showing up in Afghanistan" and claimed of the Bush administration's policies: "They kept us safe." Buchanan added, "[P]eople do wonder whether what Obama's going to do is going to keep us safe, but the jury is out."
  • During the February 23 edition of Special Report, Weekly Standard editor and Fox News contributor Bill Kristol said, "It was irresponsible for the president to announce on his second day in office that he was going to close Guantánamo, and now they have a very difficult challenge in trying to preserve our -- make -- keep us safe."
  • During the January 23 edition of Fox News' Hannity, host Sean Hannity claimed: "It took the new president almost no time whatsoever to take a strategy that has kept us safe and turn it on its head. That the new administration hasn't considered all the consequences is also clear since they don't even know how to close Guantanamo or what will happen to the terrorists who are housed there." Fox contributor Karl Rove later commented that the Obama administration's reversal of the Bush policies on "Gitmo and interrogations" is "going to make America less safe."

From the March 20 edition of the CBS-syndicated The McLaughlin Group:

ELEANOR CLIFT (Newsweek contributing editor): Look, Democrats have run on the back of Herbert Hoover for half a century. There's a lot more mileage to get out of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and the administration that ran. Well --

McLAUGHLIN: Well, you know -- now you know that --

CLIFT: But --

McLAUGHLIN: -- there's revisionist history being written on Hoover --

CLIFT: Well, if they're going to -- if --

McLAUGHLIN: -- which means there's hope for all of us.

BUCHANAN: It's a little late, John.

CROWLEY: If President Obama -- if President Obama --

McLAUGHLIN: Something's better than nothing. Go ahead.

CROWLEY: If President Obama is going to continue going down this track of blaming Bush and Cheney for everything, that is not leadership, and eventually, it's going to backfire on him. And in terms of the national security issues, oh, you know, President Obama really inherited a mess. He inherited a national security apparatus that kept us safe for seven and a half years. And if he starts piece by piece, as he is doing, deconstructing that national security apparatus and we are hit again, his presidency is over.

McLAUGHLIN: You mean, like Guantánamo?

CROWLEY: Yeah. And matriculating these terrorists at Guantánamo Bay into the United States, into the criminal justice process.

From the May 15 Investor's Business Daily editorial:

To be sure, Obama hasn't exactly morphed into Dick Cheney. There is, for instance, the foolish decision to release the CIA memos. Obama's reasons for not releasing the photos are equally valid here. The difference, we think, is political opportunism.

And his decision to close Guantanamo strikes us as wasteful, unnecessary and likely to endanger American lives -- though its closing does have highly symbolic value to the left, which explains it.

We can only hope Obama's growth in office continues, and that he continues to adopt as his own the policies of the man who, after 9/11, kept us safe from serious terror attacks for eight years.

From the May 7 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Bret Baier:

BRET BAIER (host): So what about the Keep Terrorists out of America Act, its prospects, and the prospects of closing Guantánamo Bay?

Let's bring in our panel: Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard; Kirsten Powers, columnist of the New York Post; and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer. Charles?

KRAUTHAMMER: Well, I love the name of the bill. Imagine if you have to vote against the Keep Terrorists out of America Act. And, you know, the mainstream media portraying this as Republicans desperately seizing on an issue as a way to embarrass the Obama administration. Well, that's what an opposition does. And it isn't as if terrorists running around in America is not a serious issue.

But I think what's really interesting about it, and the reason it's going to get traction, is because it symbolizes the degree to which Democrats were hypocritical and irresponsible in attacking the Bush administration and all the measures it took in keeping us safe in the war on terror.

From the March 16 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

BUCHANAN: But, Chris --

CHRIS MATTHEWS (host): Yeah.

BUCHANAN: -- look, a lot of that alumni association from Guantánamo has been showing up in Yemen, blowing up people in Iraq, showing up in Afghanistan. They're very horrible people down there. And we all agree torture's outlawed; we may not agree on waterboarding.

But I'll tell you, the vice president has a point. They kept us safe, and people do wonder whether what Obama's going to do is going to keep us safe, but the jury is out.

From the February 23 edition of Fox News' Special Report:

KRISTOL: It would have been nice if they had waited for that review, this impartial review, that did say that Guantánamo is a humane place and it abides by Geneva Conventions standards, even though prisoners do not have Geneva Convention rights because they're terrorists; they're enemy combatants.

It would have been nice if maybe they would have waited to announce their policy on Guantánamo until the attorney general visited there. To my knowledge, President Obama has never been to Guantánamo. I'd assume Eric Holder had never been there. But they decided to close it. And now they have a huge problem.

What are they going to do with these dangerous terrorists? If you send them -- 90 of them are from Yemen. Yemen has become, unfortunately, a big Al Qaeda central. If you send them back there, they'll be back plotting against the U.S.

As Juan [Williams] says, this fellow is in London; he's a very bad actor.

It was irresponsible for the president to announce on his second day in office that he was going to close Guantánamo, and now they have a very difficult challenge in trying to preserve our -- make -- keep us safe.

From the January 23 edition of Fox News' Hannity:

HANNITY: And there you have it. With a stroke of a pen, Barack Obama has ended President Bush's war on terror, so says The Washington Post. But don't let the liberal media give you the wrong idea. There is still a war being fought, but the ownership of its consequences have passed from one commander in chief to another.

And that's our headline this Friday night, day four of the administration: Obama's war.

Even the new president admits that the U.S. counterterrorist activities around the world will continue in the wake of yesterday's executive orders, but what has changed are the rules. The policies of the Bush administration that prevented another terrorist attack on U.S. soil since September 11th are gone.

What we have, moving forward, is a strategy that has lost its teeth, but I guess the French will like us again.

At today's White House briefing, press secretary Robert Gibbs wouldn't even use the phrase "war on terror" when pressed by Fox's own Major Garrett.

[begin video clip]

GARRETT: President Bush, after 9-11, said the United States and its government was engaged in a war on terror. Is that what this administration calls it? And if not, why?

[...]

GIBBS: The first question I think I alluded to some yesterday. Look, I would point -- point you to the words that the president said in his inaugural address about the challenges that we face.

[end video clip]

HANNITY: It took the new president almost no time whatsoever to take a strategy that has kept us safe and turn it on its head. That the new administration hasn't considered all the consequences is also clear since they don't even know how to close Guantánamo or what will happen to the terrorists who are housed there. It seems like they put more thought into changing the name more than anything else.

And joining us now -- tonight with more is Fox News contributor, the architect Karl Rove. Karl, welcome to Hannity tonight. Glad you could be with us.

ROVE: Thanks for having me, Sean.

HANNITY: All right. Let's start with Major Garrett. Let's start with the question he's asking here. Let's start with the answer. You hear this. That's somewhat frightening. You're going to close Guantánamo Bay, you don't know what's going to happen, you don't know where you're going to put these people. We've never given rights to detainees before. What are your thoughts? Does this change the war on terror?

ROVE: They're winging it. And they have made a promise to close Gitmo in a year, but they have no idea what they're going to do, no idea what they're going to do with the 245 alien enemy combatants.

Where are they going to go? Are they going to bring them to our shores? Where in the United States are they going to put them? They have no idea how they're going to try them. They have no idea what kind of rights they're going to give them. Are they going to give them the same rights a U.S. criminal defendant has? Are we going to have to Mirandize these people? Are we going to have to show chain of evidence?

You know, they have no idea what they're going to do with the un-releasable and the un-triable. And -- but they say give us a year, we'll try and figure it out. But we're closing Gitmo, and we'll be back here later with answers. They are winging it, and in a time of war, you do not wing it.

HANNITY: You know, it's funny because Robert Gibbs today wouldn't even acknowledge that there's a war on terror. Now, if anybody -- just a short perusal of the 9-11 Commission Report, what did it say? It said for an entire decade, they were at war with us; we weren't at war with them. So they can't even use the words.

ROVE: Right.

HANNITY: They find it too offensive to say there's a war on terror.

ROVE: Yeah -- no, you know, what was amazing to me was that these two things that they did, on Gitmo and interrogations, are going to make America less safe.

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.