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Joscelyn Responds to Our Posts on Matt Olsen

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Saturday, July 16, 2011 at 5:04 PM

( A joint response from Benjamin Wittes and Bobby Chesney)

On Thursday we criticized a piece by Thomas Joscelyn at The Weekly Standard concerning Matt Olsen and the GTMO Review Task Force, in which Joscelyn called into question the task force’s decision to recommend transfers for persons whom an earlier military-screening process had determined to be dangerous (see Ben’s post here, and Bobby’s here). In a response Friday, Joscelyn objects at some length. There are some non-merits elements of his response to which we decline to reply (suggesting that this somehow is “personal” for Bobby, or that Ben is engaging in “self-congratulations”).  As to the merits, our original posts speak for themselves, though a few additional words are in order for the sake of clarity.

First, no one is arguing about whether the GTMO Review Task Force recommended transfer for persons that earlier military screening processes had determined to be dangerous. It is common ground that it did. The question is whether this proves anything.  We think it does not. The whole point of the task force was to make fresh judgments based on the most information available by 2009, taking into account intelligence that may not have been considered by earlier reviews, and also taking into account changing facts on the ground–including facts concerning whether and to what extent a receiving state might be able to mitigate the risk of threat associated with particular persons (something that could lead to a decision in favor of transfer even without a change in the underyling threat assessment of that person as an individual).  If Joscelyn agrees that this does not prove anything, and merely wishes to make the point that Congress should learn more about the screening criteria, then perhaps we are not so far apart after all.  On the other hand, if his view is that the executive branch simply cannot and should not release anyone who previously was determined at some stage to be dangerous, then we do disagree. Moreover, to the extent that Joscelyn also is criticizing across the board the decision by the last administration to attempt resettlement and repatriation of detainees, we disagree on that point as well.

Second, our posts made larger points about the inherent imperfections of detention, by way of resisting an overall tendency in the GTMO transfer debate to hold the government to unrealistic error rates (with the left pushing to eliminate false positives, and the right pushing to eliminate false negatives)There always will be some rate of both false positives (i.e., captures  of and decisions to continue to hold persons who turn out not be the people whom the state believes them at first to be) and false negatives (i.e., releases of or decisions not to capture persons who turn out to be dangerous). Both detention and release from detention are complex human systems–and all complex human systems will fail a certain percentage of the time. The task is to adopt procedures that minimize both errors as much as possible, but the trick is that these aims may be at loggerheads in some instances. Joscelyn dismisses these larger points as irrelevant; we’ll have to agree to disagree on that.

Finally, in fairness to Joscelyn, he insists he has no interest in calling Matt Olsen’s qualifications into question, and that he merely is making the point that Congress should know more about the standards employed by the GTMO Review Task Force. If that is really all he is saying, his point is unobjectionable, and we certainly do not mean to argue that Congress has no interest in understanding those standards better.  Our concern was, and remains, that Olsen’s nomination is a lousy forum for that conversation, that larger, reductionist narratives focused on zero-tolerance for false negatives will dominate, and that NCTC and Matt Olsen will pay an unfair price for that.

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