Plane attack renews debate over transfer of Gitmo detainees

A new focus on Yemen as a potential terrorist haven renewed an old debate on Sunday over whether the United States should have transferred or released some of its Guatanamo Bay detainees to foreign countries.

The White House has signaled it would be "mindful" of changing security conditions in those states as it makes those key decisions, but the Obama administration made no commitment this weekend to stop the transfer of about 40 prisoners to Yemen this year, as part of its larger plan to shutter the Gitmo detention facility.

ADVERTISEMENT
"We make a decision about when they are going to be sent back and how they're going to be sent back and under what conditions," Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan told CNN on Sunday, noting the attempted bombing of Flight 253 by an attacker trained in Yemen "doesn't change the situation on the ground in Yemen one bit."

"We're going to do it the right way at the right time," Brennan added.

President George W. Bush first authorized the transfer and release of detainees at Guantanamo Bay to such places as Yemen and Saudi Arabia toward the end of his term. President Barack Obama has continued that policy, deciding in December to release six Yemeni detainees back to their home state.

The White House remains resolute that its December decision -- made before the Christmas Day attempt to bomb Flight 253 -- was the correct call, Brennan said. But lawmakers from both political camps have expressed growing fears that those released prisoners -- and others soon to leave the camp -- could return to the battlefield and again try to plot against U.S. interests.

Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who just returned from a trip to Yemen, said those released al-Qaeda plotters in particular represent a "unique" threat to U.S. security at home and abroad.

"It's unique because the core group of al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula is formed by former Gitmo detainees," he told ABC's "This Week," noting anti-American sentiment there had further radicalized them. "These are people that were held in Gitmo, have been returned, and have now gone back to the battlefield."

That sentiment was shared by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who seemed to suggest both Bush and Obama were to blame for returning terrorists to areas where attacks are typically designed and hatched.

"The last administration, President Bush made a huge mistake by sending the Yemenis back," DeMint charged on CNN. "The core leadership of al-Qaeda now is made up of those folks who were at the Gitmo prison. We can't make that mistake again."

However, blocking the release of Guantanamo Bay prisoners to countries like Yemen could jeopardize the Obama White House's longstanding promise to close the military prison during his first term.

The administration has already overshot its 2009 deadline to shutter the camp, in part because it has failed to shore up support for its proposal to house some of the prisoners in domestic facilities. That debate is likely to intensify in the coming weeks as the White House learns more about the plot to bomb Flight 253 over Detroit.

"I believe the prison should close, but I also believe we should review again where we're going to send the detainees," Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) said on "This Week," referencing her hope that some Gitmo detainees could be transferred to domestic prisons. "I think it is a bad time to send the 90 or so Yemenis back to Yemen."

On "Fox News Sunday," Sen. Kit Bond, the ranking Republican on the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, called for a moratorium on the release of detainees from Guantanamo.

“If we don’t stop the practice of releasing Gitmo detainees to Yemen, or to other countries, we’re asking for even more trouble,” he said.

Bond said Republicans recognize it hasn’t just been a policy of the Obama adminstration to release detainees. “I think that the Bush administration really needs to answer for releasing the detainees to Saudi Arabia and other places. We’ve seen that’s a mistake,” he said. “To continue to make the same mistake would be a tragedy.”

Still, Brennan stressed Sunday morning that the White House was weighing greatly how its Gitmo plans would impact homeland security -- a focus, he said, that long preceded the Flight 253 attack. He also assured the Obama administration remained committed to closing the detention facility as soon as possible.

"We know that al-Qaeda is out there. We know we have to be mindful of that," Brennan told CNN. "And we know that we have to take our steps with those detainees in a manner that is not going to put our citizens at risk. And we're not going to do that."

"Guantanamo has been used as a propaganda tool by al Qaeda and others," he added. "We need to close that facility. And we're determined to do that."

Sean J. Miller contributed to this report

This story was updated at 11:40 a.m.

More in News

Obama: ‘I expect a robust debate’ over Iran deal

Read more »