The Worst of the Worst?

They told us to overlook the abuses because Guantánamo housed “the worst of the worst.” But new statistics prove that the vast majority of prisoners detained there never posed any real risk to America at all.

When a federal judge ordered the release of 17 Guantanamo Bay detainees earlier this month, it was the first real chance in the seven-year history of the prison camp that any of the prisoners might be transferred to the United States. In making his ruling, the judge categorically rejected the Bush administration's claim that any of the released prisoners, who are all Chinese Muslims, were enemy combatants or posed a risk to U.S. security. The decision was temporarily suspended by the appeals court, but the judge was on solid ground.

Controversy over the Bush administration's policy to detain enemy combatants at Guantanamo has raged since the facility opened in 2002 -- fueled primarily by the lack of legal protections afforded the detainees and allegations of their mistreatment. Often overlooked, however, is the fact that most of these detainees have never posed any real risk to America, for the simple reason that the vast majority of them were never enemy combatants in the first place. Indeed, striking new data we have obtained show that, if anything, the 17 innocent Chinese men are far from exceptional.

Before we get to the new statistics corroborating this startling fact, a quick review of how the detainees got to Guantanamo in the first place is helpful. Given the fog of propaganda surrounding the Guantanamo prisoners -- whom former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once famously described as the worst of the worst -- you might be surprised to learn that, according to the Pentagon itself, only 5 percent of detainees at the prison were ever apprehended by U.S. forces to begin with. And only another 4 percent were ever alleged to have actually been fighting at all.

Why is that? Almost all of the detainees were turned over to U.S. forces by foreigners, either with an ax to grind or, more often, for a hefty bounty or reward. After U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, they doled out rewards of about $5,000 or more to Pakistanis and Afghans for each detainee turned over. Contrary to standard law enforcement practice, the U.S. military accepted the uncorroborated allegations of the award claimants with little independent investigation.

Now, under much pressure, the Pentagon has released more than 500 detainees over the past three years, while some 270 remain. Based on statistics about the fate of other released prisoners in other contexts, it would not have been surprising if many of these men had resumed their lives of terrorist crimes and illegal warfare. In the United States, more than two thirds of state prisoners are rearrested for serious new crimes within three years, according to the Department of Justice.

Terrorists are criminals too -- indeed, ideologically committed ones. Every reasonable expectation would lead to the conclusion that the rate of recidivism for terrorists should be as high as, if not higher than, it is for other criminals. But guess what happened to the more than 500 terrorist detainees that the United States has released during the last three years? Only a handful has gone back to terrorism or the battlefield.

Almost a quarter of the Guantanamo detainees who have been released have been sent back to Saudi Arabia. Facing a substantial threat from terrorism in their own country, the Saudi authorities have been rigorous -- some might say harsh -- in imprisoning and punishing any terrorist deemed a danger. Yet in new statistics provided to us by the Ministry of Interior in Riyadh, zero of the 121 Guantanamo detainees received by the Saudis were deemed dangerous and ineligible for release.

It gets worse. Of those detainees returned to Saudi Arabia from Guantanamo, more than half have been released and are now free, most after spending a period of time in a halfway house designed to promote a smooth return to society. Only six former Guantanamo detainees have been rearrested in Saudi Arabia for any reason -- an astonishingly low recidivism rate of less than 9 percent among those released.

Although the Saudi efforts to reintegrate these prisoners into society are certainly commendable, the only reasonable explanation for such a low recidivism rate is that the detainees were never guilty of terrorist acts in the first place. For years, Pentagon officials have claimed that the recidivism rate for prisoners released from Guantanamo is about 7 percent. Information released in May by the Department of Defense further buttresses the Saudi findings of a very low recidivism rate. The department's list of named released detainees who have subsequently engaged in militant or terrorist activities anywhere in the world shows that 12 have done so, a recidivism rate of just 2 percent. In fact, the Pentagon can cite only six instances in which an inmate released from Guantanamo actually took up arms against the United States.

When recidivism rates for criminals typically run in the more than 60 percent range, and when at Guantanamo you have a rate in only the single digits, you don't have much of a criminal (or in this case terrorist) population to begin with. We are hardly saying there are no terrorists at Guantanamo. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the operational commander of the 9/11 attacks, and others who were transferred there from secret overseas Central Intelligence Agency prisons in 2006 are certainly members of al Qaeda's hard core.

What we are saying is that new statistics from the Saudi Ministry of Interior, corroborated by the Pentagon's own findings, show that the overwhelming majority of individuals detained at Guantanamo not only were not terrorists, but were likely innocent of any crime. Given the sad history of detaining men without charges or proof, proven instances of harsh confinement, and now, persuasive evidence to indicate that most detainees were innocent of any terrorist activity, it should be among the highest priorities of the next U.S. president to close Guantanamo promptly.

Guantanamo has been a powerful recruitment tool for extremists and a stain on the reputation of the United States. Now we can say, with little doubt, that it did not even serve to remove terrorists or insurgents from the battlefield.

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Why October Surprises Work

It’s the subject no one wants to bring up: What effect could a terrorist attack have in the closing days of the U.S. election? New data from Israel could help answer this uncomfortable question.

On October 29, 2004, just four days before the last U.S. presidential election, Osama bin Laden broke a three-year silence and released a videotaped message to the American people. Although he refused to endorse a candidate, saying instead "Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or al Qaeda," he didnt need to. The terrorist leader's reappearance in the public eye was not good news for Democratic candidate John Kerry, who polled lower than the incumbent George W. Bush on terrorism. Given the closeness of the 2004 election, it's not outlandish to suggest that bin Laden might have played a significant role in tipping the election to Bush -- and he didnt even make good on his threats.

As this year's campaign heads into its final weeks, the prospect of an October surprise from the United States terrorist enemies no doubt weighs heavily on the minds of Democratic candidate Barack Obama's increasingly confident brain trust. But publicly, the subject remains taboo, as Charlie Black found out the hard way in June. The advisor to candidate John McCain was pilloried in the media for suggesting that a terrorist attack on U.S. soil would be a big advantage to the Republican. Black later apologized and his comment was disavowed by the campaign.

Questions of tact aside, did Black have a point? It seems intuitively obvious that McCain, given his polling advantage on national security and his weakness on economic issues, would stand to gain from an attack. But can the connection between terrorism and electoral outcomes be proven? How large is the effect? To answer these questions conclusively, you have to look at the one country with enough data on terrorism and elections: Israel.

"The unfortunate fact that Israel suffers so much from terrorism is a fortunate fact in terms of econometric analysis," says economist Claude Berrebi of the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research group. "It gives you enough variation that you can pinpoint the causal effect." Along with Esteban Klor of Jerusalem's Hebrew University, Berrebi recently examined how recent terrorist attacks have affected Israeli electoral outcomes since 1998.

The study compiles data from more than 200 Israeli districts between 1988 and 2003. The authors found that a terrorist attack within the past three months in a given area resulted in an average 1.35 percentage point increase in the level of support for right-wing parties. This might not seem like much, but in Israel's polarized political environment, the impact can be enormous. Berrebi and Klor believe that the right-wing Likud Party's narrow victories in the 1988 and 1996 parliamentary elections are directly attributable to recent terrorist attacks. In the 1992 elections, which the left-wing parties carried by just two seats, one more terrorist attack in the preceding three months would have been enough to tip the majority to the right.

The report attributes the Israeli right's advantage on terrorism to its hawkish stance and opposition to concessions to Palestinian demands. When terrorism reaches a certain level, voters conclude that there's no alternative but to toughen up, Berrebi says.

Surprisingly, who was in charge when terrorist attacks occurred had little effect on the outcomeseither way, the right gained. The study found that left-wing incumbents tended to lose support after attacks while hawkish right-wing incumbents saw their margins of victory increase. Voters see attacks during a right-wing government as something inevitable, Berrebi explains, whereas under a left-wing incumbent, its seen as something that could have been prevented if they had only used tougher antiterrorism policies.

So why do terrorists continue to attack, when their actions only tend to bring in governments less likely to give them concessions? Berrebi doubts they are simply behaving irrationally or are ignorant of the effect they have on Israeli voters. Our past research has shown that the behavior of terrorists is highly rational, even more so sometimes than leaders in the West, he says.

Rather than behaving irrationally, more likely they are either trying to perpetuate a cycle of tit-for-tat violence with an overly aggressive government that will end in Israel's destruction, or -- the explanation Berrebi prefers -- they hope terrorist attacks will cause the entire political spectrum, including the right, to move in the long run toward a more moderate stance. The more accommodating policies adopted in recent years by one-time hard-liners such as Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert may be evidence of this shift.

Its unclear how the trend might differ in other settings. In other terrorism-wracked countries, such as Iraq and Sri Lanka, there isnt enough quality electoral data for adequate study. And in most developed democracies, there (luckily) arent enough terrorist incidents to examine.

The Spanish general election of 2004, coming on the heels of the Madrid train station bombing, which killed nearly 200 people, provides an interesting counterexample. Instead of bolstering the conservative government, the attack helped left-wing challenger, Jos Luis Rodrguez Zapatero, who was running on a platform of withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq, upset a right-wing incumbent, Jos Mara Aznar.

Berrebi notes that although voters around the world are universally affected by terrorism, their immediate responses can vary. The Spanish troop presence in Iraq, for instance, came to be seen as a liability rather than a necessary method of fighting terrorism. "In the case of Madrid, Islamic terrorism was quite new. And they may have seen [withdrawal from Iraq] as the quick solution to the conflict."

In the U.S. political context, the sample size is similarly small. But Bush's surge of popularity after 9/11 and bin Laden's video intervention in 2004 strongly suggest that the Republicans have the most to gain from terrorist activity in the run-up to Election Day.

So, how do we keep terrorists out the democratic process? According to Berrebi and Klor, the key is to neutralize terrorism as a political issue. "When policymakers make a lot of statements about the problem, it increases the salience of the problem and makes voters mores sensitive," Berrebi says." This means that the potential impact of an attack is increased."

What does that mean for an "October surprise's" potential impact on the U.S. race? Despite the imploding economy, concerns about terrorism remain surprisingly salient in this election. Obama has been attacked in ads and speeches for being dangerously unprepared to defend the United States against terrorist threats and, recently, for palling around with terrorists.

McCain's candidacy is based in large part on the argument that he's the man best qualified to keep the country safe from terrorist attacks. Following the lesson that Israel has learned the hard way, a good first step would be to tone down the rhetoric.

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