White House: No more Guantanamo detainees to be sent to Yemen

The Obama administration has suspended the transfer of detainees from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Yemen in the wake of warnings from key Republicans and Democrats to put the brakes on the policy after an attempted Christmas Day terror attack.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that President Barack Obama is still committed to closing the detention facility in Cuba, but officials have decided that they will halt transferring prisoners to Yemen.

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“While we remain committed to closing the facility, the determination has been made that right now any additional transfers to Yemen is not a good idea,” Gibbs said.

Gibbs said that that decision likely means additional prisoners will be moved to the Thomson facility in Illinois, a prison the federal government recently acquired to house Guantánamo detainees.

The U.S. Embassy in Yemen opened again Tuesday after a two-day closure due to the threat of a terrorist attack.

The decision to halt detainee transfers to Yemen received a mixed review on Capitol Hill, with Democrats applauding the move and Republicans arguing for Obama to go further and reverse his plans to shut down the Guantánamo Bay prison sometime this year.

“I agree fully with the president on this matter,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Intelligence Committee, said in response to the decision. Last week Feinstein became the lone Democrat in Congress to call for a halt to the release of detainees to Yemen amid reports that it had become a haven for al Qaeda.

Republicans used the announcement as an opportunity to press Obama to change his plan to shutter Guantánamo Bay.

“This temporary halt is the first step — but only the first step — toward the comprehensive plan we need to defeat the terrorists and protect the American people,” said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). “Now that the White House has decided, for now, to stop importing terrorists into Yemen, their next step should be to stop trying to import them into the United States.”


Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, agreed.

“Since we now know that releasing or transferring these hardened terrorists amounts to an all-expenses-paid trip back to the battlefield, I hope today’s announcement means that the administration will abandon its flawed and dangerous plan to close Gitmo,” he said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) commended Obama for stopping detainee transfers to Yemen but said it did not explain why the administration decided to repatriate six of the detainees to that country in December. Lieberman, along with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), sent a letter to Obama inquiring about the status of those six detainees last week after news reports about al Qaeda reconstituting in Yemen.

“Sen. Lieberman remains concerned that, as part of the push to close Guantánamo, six Yemenis were transferred to Yemeni government control less than a month ago, despite the known threat posed by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Yemeni government’s past failures in preventing the escape of such high-value detainees,” said Lieberman spokeswoman Erika Masonhall. “The transfer of these detainees exemplifies why Guantánamo should remain open and why, in the push to close it, we are incurring serious and totally unnecessary risks to our security.”

Earlier Tuesday, Republicans were keeping the heat on Obama over his policy of transferring detainees overseas in the wake of the Christmas Day bombing attempt.

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Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, renewed his call for a suspension of detainee transfers from Guantánamo Bay. Sessions is particularly concerned about a program of sending detainees to Saudi Arabia for rehabilitation after news that at least one graduate of that program went on to work for al Qaeda in Yemen, the group that claimed responsibility for the botched Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253.

An estimated 90 Yemenis remain at Guantánamo Bay, and about half were set to be sent to Yemen. Six Yemenis returned last month were initially thought to have been released after the government there determined they did not pose a threat, but The Associated Press reported the six will remain in the San‘a government’s custody indefinitely as part of a deal reached between the Obama administration and Yemen.

On Sunday, administration officials said the White House would continue sending overseas some detainees now held in Guantánamo in support of Obama’s pledge to close the prison this year.

Reps. Bennie Thomspon (D-Miss.), who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, as well as Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), chairwoman of an Intelligence subcommittee, said the policy of transferring detainees to Yemen should be reviewed, although both said they still supported Obama’s decision to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility sometime this year.

-- This article was originally posted at 11:04 a.m.  It was last updated at 8:08 p.m.