Remember, there were no files

REMEMBER, THERE WERE NO FILES…. Bloomberg ran a story yesterday that’s been generating quite a bit of attention, especially among conservatives. The report, citing government data, claims that as many one in five detainees released from Guantanamo Bay “are suspected of or confirmed to have engaged in terrorist activity after their release.” For the right, this obviously become another reason not to close the detention facility.

If the report is accurate there’s a relevant question that shouldn’t go overlooked: when were these detainees released? Or, more specifically, were they all released by Bush/Cheney?

A senior Obama administration official told Greg Sargent this morning just that — the recidivists exist, but most, if not all, were released by the former administration.

He claimed that the administration doesn’t believe that any of the detainees released under Obama have gone into terror-related activity — because the Obama administration has a better screening process in place to determine which detainees pose a threat.

The story in question involves a new and classified Pentagon report that says roughly one-fifth of released detainees are suspected or confirmed to have returned to terrorist activity — up from a lower estimate in April.

But the senior official says the report shouldn’t reflect badly on Obama policy. “We have been presented with no information that suggests that any of the detainees transferred by this administration have returned to the fight,” the official says.

The official suggested that the possibility that all the recidivists were released under Bush shows that the previous administration didn’t do the work of screening detainees slated for release that the Obama administration is doing.

At first blush, this might seem hard to believe. For an Obama administration official to just blame Bush/Cheney for the whole mess probably even seems self-serving.

But given what we know, it seems entirely plausible that detainees released by Bush/Cheney returned to terrorist activities, while detainees released by Obama didn’t. Why? Because we learned about a year ago that Bush/Cheney didn’t keep files on the detainees.

Immediately upon taking office, President Obama and his team began a process that would review the case files for every detainee. The new administration found, however, that the Bush gang didn’t keep files.

President Obama’s plans to expeditiously determine the fates of about 245 terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and quickly close the military prison there were set back last week when incoming legal and national security officials — barred until the inauguration from examining classified material on the detainees — discovered that there were no comprehensive case files on many of them.

Instead, they found that information on individual prisoners is “scattered throughout the executive branch,” a senior administration official said. The executive order Obama signed Thursday orders the prison closed within one year, and a Cabinet-level panel named to review each case separately will have to spend its initial weeks and perhaps months scouring the corners of the federal government in search of relevant material.

Several former Bush administration officials agreed that the files are incomplete and that no single government entity was charged with pulling together all the facts and the range of options for each prisoner. They said that the CIA and other intelligence agencies were reluctant to share information, and that the Bush administration’s focus on detention and interrogation made preparation of viable prosecutions a far lower priority.

This seems hard to believe. Even Bush/Cheney critics might think, “Those guys were incompetent, but they weren’t that incompetent.”

But they actually were. On the one hand, the Bush administration released some detainees who apparently turned out to be pretty dangerous. On the other, the Bush administration refused to release other detainees who weren’t dangerous at all, and were actually U.S. allies.

These misjudgments were common because the Bush administration just didn’t keep very good track of who they had in custody — even on those who’d been imprisoned for several years.

When Obama created the Guantanamo Review Task Force, the new president and his team were effectively starting from scratch, compiling information that should have been pulled together years ago. The review, however, made it a lot less likely that Obama would make the same mistakes Bush made, and makes it far more likely that terrorists who were released from Gitmo came from Bush/Cheney, not Obama.