President Barack Obama will likely release more prisoners from the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, before incoming commander-in-chief Donald Trump takes over on January 20, the White House press secretary reiterated on Thursday.
That same day, reports confirmed that the U.S. transferred four detainees to Saudi Arabia.
The Daily Mail has placed the number of 11th hour transfers at 22, including the four recently sent to Saudi Arabia, adding that the group of prisoners who are expected to be released will include jihadists who have threatened to behead and bomb Americans.
Prior to the Daily Mail article and recent transfers, the number of prisoners who are expected to be set free by the time Obama leaves the White House varied by news agencies, ranging from 17 to 19, a move that would reduce the current detainee population at the Guantánamo facility to between 40 and 42.
On Thursday, Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, told reporters:
I am not able to speak to any specific detainee transfers between now and January 20th other than to confirm for you that there are likely to be some. And whenever those transfers take place, once they have been completed, we announce them publicly. And that will continue to be our approach through January 20th. And my expectation is that there will be some additional announcements of that type.
Asked about the risk of detainees re-engaging in terrorist activity against the United States, Earnest boasted that only nine of the prisoners transferred since Obama took office have been confirmed by the intelligence community as having returned to militant activity, compared to 21 percent (113 of 532) under the previous administration, a figure often touted by Democrats.
However, Earnest failed to mention that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) figure (nine) that he highlights refers to re-engagements as of July 2016, when 161 detainees had been released by Obama, not the 183 he mentioned on Thursday.
The nine confirmed re-engagements includes one deceased detainee and accounts for six percent of the 161 prisoners who had been released under Obama as of July 2016.
Moreover, the number of prisoners released before 2009 exceeds those liberated under Obama more than three-fold (3.3), which may account for the higher rate of confirmed re-engagements under George W. Bush.
The White House spokesman attributed the low percentage of re-engagements under Obama to the president’s multi-agency parole-style panel, known as the Periodic Review Board (PRB), that has cleared for release all the prisoners transferred out after 2009, including so-called “forever prisoners,” or those believed to be too dangerous to release.
“Since President Obama took office, and since these reforms were initiated, nine detainees have been confirmed by the intelligence community of reengaging in the fight,” Earnest said on Thursday. “Considering that we have released 183 detainees during President Obama’s time in office, a little back-of-the-envelope math would indicate that our percentage is much better, and it’s a result of the reforms that President Obama instituted on his first day in office.”
According to ODNI, 20 out of 161 detainees (12 percent) had been confirmed (nine) or suspected (11) to have returned to terrorist activities under Obama’s watch as of July 2016.
Under the Bush administration, 188 out of 532 (35 percent) are confirmed (113) or suspected (75) to have re-engaged in terrorism.
When taken as a whole, if there were 20 detainees confirmed or suspected to have re-engaged in terrorism for every 161 detainees released under Bush like during the Obama administration, the overall rate of terror returnees before 2009 would be closer to 40 percent, not 35.
In late December, the Chicago Tribune, citing U.S. officials, reported that the Obama administration has shared its plans with Congress to transfer out as many as 19 detainees held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Of the 55 prisoners still held at Gitmo, 18 have been cleared for release by Obama’s PRB and more than half (27) are considered “forever prisoners,” or too dangerous to release.
Nevertheless, Obama has already released prisoners who had been designated too dangerous to release.
The remaining 10 prisoners are believed to still be undergoing war crimes proceedings at military commissions, including at least six who were facing death penalty tribunals as of late last year.
On Friday, the Pentagon announced that four detainees – Salem Ahmad Hadi Bin Kanad, Muhammed Rajab Sadiq Abu Ghanim, Abdallah Yahya Yusif Al-Shibli, and Muhammad Ali Abdallah Muhammad Bwazir – had been transferred to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
All four detainees are from war-ravaged Yemen, which shares a border with Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, the al-Qaeda-linked Bwazir has been directly linked to Osama bin Laden.
Al-Shibli, also affiliated with al-Qaeda, was born in Saudi Arabia, but is a citizen of Yemen, according to the U.S. military.
In December 2007, the U.S. military deemed him “a HIGH risk, as he is likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests and allies.”