Friday, May 29, 2009

Cooking The Numbers

No wonder the Pentagon always has such a bloated budget: they handle numbers in all sorts of creative ways. A good example of just how the Pentagon plays around with basic arithmetic is given in a NY Times op-ed piece written by Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann of the New America Foundation.

...a Pentagon report made public on Tuesday concluded that 74 of the 534 men who have been freed from Guantánamo were “confirmed or suspected of re-engaging in terrorist activities.” This is a recidivism rate of around 14 percent, which was up from the Pentagon’s previous estimate in January of 11 percent.

But are things this bad? While we must of course be careful about who is released, these numbers are very likely inflated. This is in part because the Pentagon includes on the list any released prisoner who is either “confirmed” or just “suspected” to have engaged in terrorism anywhere in the world, whether those actions were directed at the United States or not. And, bizarrely, the Defense Department has in the past even lumped into the recidivist category former prisoners who have done no more than criticize the United States after their release.
[Emphasis added]

Complicating any kind of fact check of the Pentagon report is the Pentagon's refusal to list all of the names of those released who have purportedly "returned to the battlefield." Only 29 of the 74 men are named for "security reasons," which, the authors point, may be reasonable excuse. That may be, but it's also an awfully convenient one. At any rate, the authors have found out just what some of those 29 men have been up to:

First, nearly half of the men on the new list — 14 of the 29 — are listed as being “suspected” of terrorist activities, which makes “recidivist” a fairly vague definition. Next, the acts that at least nine of the 29 are either known or suspected of having been involved with were not directed at America or at our immediate allies in our current wars, the governments of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

That brings the "recidivism" rate way down from the claimed 14%. In fact, it brings that rate to below the rate of US prison inmates who return to prison within three years. Now, any return to the terrorist battlefield is admittedly worrisome, but just how worried we should be cannot be determined from the Pentagon report, which was, I suspect, issued to thwart President Obama's plan to close Guantanamo Bay.

And that's the problem which this op-ed piece points out:

...our point is that the Pentagon should be as accurate as possible about how many of those released pose a threat to America. This is the only way that policy makers can make informed choices about closing Guantánamo, revising military commissions, deporting or repatriating prisoners or moving them to the United States, and keeping our nation safe.

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