By Mark Hosenball
(Reuters) - The proportion of militants released from detention at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay who subsequently were believed to have returned to the battlefield rose slightly over the last year, according to official figures released on Monday.
In a summary report, the office of the Director of National Intelligence said that 27.9 percent of the 599 former detainees released from Guantanamo were either confirmed or suspected of later engaging in militant activity.
The figures represent a 2.9 percent rise over a 25 percent aggregate recidivism rate reported by the intelligence czar's office in December 2010.
The increase in the apparent recidivism rate, while not large, comes at a delicate time for President Barack Obama, and could further complicate his attempts to negotiate a peace deal with Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.
As a "confidence building" measure, the Taliban have insisted on the release of five specific Taliban leaders currently held at Guantanamo. The Obama administration has been working on a plan under which the detainees could be transferred to the Persian Gulf state of Qatar but still held in detention.
Lawmakers, mostly Republicans, have indicated they will try to block the release of senior Taliban detainees, and the latest recidivism statistics could add fuel to their efforts.
They will also bolster criticisms from Republican legislators that Obama's unsuccessful effort to close the Guantanamo facility have increased the likelihood of future militant attacks on U.S. targets.
Releases from Guantanamo have slowed considerably recently; the last took place over a year ago.
Not all of the cases of former detainees joining the fight against U.S. and allied troops might constitute recidivism. News reports have revealed that the original Guantanamo detainee population included individuals who posed no threat to the United States. Some may have been radicalized by their experiences there.
As presented by the DNI, the figures appear to show that the rate of recidivism among detainees has dropped since Obama took office, compared to the rate under former President George W. Bush.
According to a breakdown released with the latest raw figures, 92 of the 532 Guantanamo detainees released before January 22, 2009 - two days after Bush left office - were confirmed to have returned to the battlefield and 70 were suspected of having done so - an aggregate recidivism rate of 30.5 percent.
RECIDIVISM DOWN UNDER OBAMA
By contrast, the new statistics show, only three of the 67 detainees released from Guantanamo since Obama took office are confirmed to have rejoined militants, with another two suspected of having done so - an aggregate recidivism rate of 7.5 percent.
Overall, the statistics showed that, of the 599 detainees who were released as of December 29, 2011, 95 were confirmed to have re-engaged in militant activity or to have been in contact with militants. This comprises 15.9 percent of the total released.
Another 72 militants are "suspected of re-engaging" in militant activity after they were freed from Guantanamo. This constitutes an additional 12 percent of all released detainees.
Lieutenant Colonel Todd Breasseale, a Defense Department spokesman, said the distinction made in the statistics between militants whose recidivism is "Confirmed" versus "Suspected" was particularly relevant "because there was confusion in some early media reports conflating the two."
"To be sure, 'Confirmed' is more consistent with our actual intelligence data and 'Suspected' is a much lower bar, triggering an additional review that is really more akin to a sort of 'early watch' system. Someone on the 'Suspected' list could very possibly not be engaged in activities that are counter to our national security interests," Breasseale said.
He added that a total of 171 detainees are still being held at Guantanamo.
A U.S. intelligence official familiar with the process by which the statistics are put together added that the evidentiary standards for listing a detainee as "suspected" of having returned to the battlefield are vague.
But another official noted that there is often a lengthy lag between the time that a detainee is released and the time that U.S. agencies receive information indicating that the individual is confirmed or suspected of having returned to the battlefield. Hence, the official said, the latest statistics might not provide an accurate picture of the consequences of the Obama administration policy on Guantanamo releases.
(Additional reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Warren Strobel and Eric Walsh)