As Barack Obama prepared to enter the final year of his presidency, he sat down for an interview with Olivier Knox to discuss a bold new policy change. He had announced a year earlier that the United States would be ending its decades-long isolation of Cuba and seeking rapprochement with the authoritarian Communists who run the island nation 90 miles from Florida. In this December 14, 2015, interview, Obama described his new approach in greater detail. The change he proposed dominated headlines for days.
There was other big news in the interview—though this the media didn’t treat as such. The president declared that he remained committed to closing the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, despite strong objections from Republicans and some Democrats. Obama had campaigned in 2008 on closing Guantánamo and as one of his first acts upon taking the oath of office signed Executive Order 13492 directing his national security team to shutter the facility within a year:
The detention facilities at Guantánamo for individuals covered by this order shall be closed as soon as practicable, and no later than 1 year from the date of this order. If any individuals covered by this order remain in detention at Guantánamo at the time of closure of those detention facilities, they shall be returned to their home country, released, transferred to a third country, or transferred to another United States detention facility in a manner consistent with law and the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States.
Almost seven years later, much to Obama’s frustration, the facility remained open. Closing it had proved much more challenging than Obama had theorized as a candidate trying to win an election and a new president acting on his idealism. It turned out that the jihadists who remained in Guantánamo were there for a reason. Many of them were truly, as the cliché had it, “the worst of the worst.” Al Qaeda leaders, top Taliban officials, the men who planned the 9/11 attacks, veteran jihadists caught plotting follow-on attacks on U.S. interests, and even those al Qaeda operatives believed to be charged with carrying out the next wave of assaults on the U.S. homeland.
The news in the president’s interview wasn’t that he intended to make good on his promise to close Guantánamo, however belatedly. It was instead the president’s attempt to mislead the American people to accomplish his controversial objective.
“I am absolutely persuaded, as are my top intelligence and military advisers, that Guantánamo is used as a recruitment tool for organizations like ISIS,” Obama said, endeavoring to create a national security rationale for closing the detention facility. “And if we want to fight them, then we can’t give them these kinds of excuses.”
This isn’t true. There is virtually no evidence that jihadists use Guantánamo as a significant recruiting tool, and national security experts from across the political spectrum who have tested the claim have judged it false.
That wasn’t true. When Obama made this claim, 653 detainees had been released. Of that group, 196 had been confirmed (117) or suspected (79) of returning to jihadist activity upon their release. Those numbers came from the office of the director of national intelligence and represent the U.S. government’s official count of Guantánamo recidivism. Nearly one-in-three former detainees returned to the fight, not a “handful,” as the president suggested.