House votes to block Guantánamo detainee transfers to Yemen

In a new move to stifle President Obama’s efforts to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, the House voted Friday to restrict the transfer of detainees to Yemen.

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The House voted 236-188 to pass a defense authorization bill amendment from Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) that prohibits using funds to transfer detainees to Yemen.

Transferring detainees to Yemen is a key part of ramping down the prison camp in Cuba, as 56 of the 86 detainees who have been cleared for release are from Yemen.

Obama had issued a moratorium on transferring detainees to Yemen in January 2010 after the U.S. learned that 2009 “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had obtained instructions from terrorists in Yemen. 

But last month Obama said he would lift the restriction to jumpstart the transfer of cleared detainees.

Walorski said that the U.S. should not send potential detainees to Yemen, because Yemen has been a hotbed for terrorist activity as the home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

“It makes no sense to send terrorists to a country that has an active terrorist network,” Walorski said.

But Democrats argued that the Yemen government has proved itself to be an ally in fighting the AQAP. They said that Congress should not tie the president’s hands when the Pentagon already certifies that releasing detainees to another country is not a risk to national security.

“We cannot warehouse these people forever,” said Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. “We need to give the president options, not restrict him.”

Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) said that the intelligence community and military had decided to clear the 56 detainees, and that Congress should not be overruling them.

The Yemen restriction was the latest attempt in Congress to prevent the president from closing Guantánamo.

The defense authorization bill included restrictions on moving detainees to U.S. soil or to build facilities in the U.S. for detainees, restrictions that have also been in prior authorization bills.

Those limitations will make it all but impossible for the president to close the prison, although he does still have the ability to transfer out cleared detainees if they have a country to go to.

Some Republicans, most notably Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), support Obama’s call to close the detention facility, but most GOP lawmakers — and some Democrats — want to keep the prison open.

The White House this week threatened to veto the bill over the Guantánamo restrictions, but Obama has signed the bill in years past with those restrictions included.

The House also rejected an amendment to ease the restrictions on transferring detainees to the U.S. by a 174-249 vote.

The amendment from Smith would have called for Obama to put forward a plan to close the detention facility. It also would have lifted the U.S. restrictions for detainees and ended funding for the facility by the end of 2014.

He said that Guantánamo detainees have no additional rights on U.S. soil, and are no more likely to escape from Guantánamo as they are from a U.S. Supermax prison, which would be a cheaper option.

But Republicans argued that detainees held on U.S. soil could not be easily mixed with federal prisoners, and they said that any U.S. prison holding Gitmo detainees would immediately become a target for a terrorist attack.