Here we go again.
You may remember the series of posts we did last spring on a splashy New York Times front-pager that was originally headlined “1 In 7 Detainees Rejoined Jihad, Pentagon Finds.”
TPMmuckraker pointed out that, among other flaws in the story and the Defense Department study on which it was based, the piece simply accepted the Pentagon’s assumption that all Guantanamo detainees were jihadists when they entered the prison. Under that theory, all detainees who were allegedly engaging in terrorism had therefore “rejoined” the fight. In fact, there’s evidence that that assumption is false.
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 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.”
That seemed to be that.
Until we opened the newspaper today and saw this headline on page A16: “Many Ex-Detainees Return To Terror, Pentagon Says.”
In the exact same way as the story last May, this headline uncritically accepted the DOD language of ex-detainees “reengaging” in terrorism. And once again, the Times subsequently changed the headline online. It now reads, “Many Ex-Detainees Said to Be Engaged in Terror.”
Written by Elisabeth Bumiller, who also authored the story last May, the new story quotes administration officials as saying that a “classified Pentagon report concludes that of some 560 detainees transferred abroad from the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, about one in five has engaged in, or is suspected of engaging in, terrorism or militant activity.”
And, to the Times’ credit, the story contains more caveats this time around. It ran in the middle of the paper, not the front page. It notes that civil liberties groups say “that the information was too vague to be credible and amounted to propaganda in favor of keeping the prison open. “
Bumiller told TPMmuckraker that she did not write the headline, and called the Times’ continuous news desk to have it changed after a reader complained this morning. But she also stood by the original headline: “It’s accurate, the Pentagon did say that,” she said.
A couple points here: There ample evidence that some men were wrongly imprisoned in Gitmo and emerged later as actual terrorists. McClatchy has documented this.
While the new version of the report hasn’t been released, we’ve posted the April version here. But even if the Pentagon had released its latest study, it would be impossible to fact-check.
Details are thin and sources are not cited. And as the Times notes today, the spring study “said that 74 former prisoners were engaged in or suspected of engaging in terrorism or militant activity, but it identified only 29 of them by name” (emphasis ours).
A July analysis by the New America Foundation, which, unlike the Pentagon, cited sources, found that 4% — not 14% or 20% — of ex-detainees have engaged in anti-U.S. violence.
Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt told TPMmuckraker that he believes today’s story contained “appropriate caveats,” and that the newspaper should run a correction for the incorrect headline.
The leak that lead to the Times story today — as well as pieces by ABC and Bloomberg — comes amid new focus on the role of ex-detainees in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. We took a look at that issue in this post.
(Hat tip to Shayana Kadidal.)