By Susan Crabtree - 01/12/10 11:00 AM EST
The Obama administration has no plans to transfer Guantánamo Bay detainees to Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Christmas Day bombing attempt and bipartisan criticism about its policy of transferring detainees to countries hosting terrorist activity.
No detainees are set to be sent to Saudi Arabia in the “near term,” an administration official told The Hill.
“There are no Saudis slated for transfer in the near term,” the official said. “The three Saudis that were transferred in 2009 were subject to judicial review in Saudi Arabia following their transfer.”
The official did not define the term “judicial review” or say whether the detainees are in prison or have been prosecuted in Saudi courts.
The admission from the White House comes on the heels of a decision two weeks ago to suspend detainee transfers to Yemen, which has become a haven for al Qaeda.
That decision came after several lawmakers, including Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), called for an end to the practice following the near-takedown of Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day. A Nigerian student who told authorities he had been trained and equipped for his mission by al Qaeda operatives in Yemen allegedly attempted to blow up that plane with explosives concealed in his underwear.
Just four days earlier, the administration had transferred six detainees to Yemen, home to nearly half of the remaining 198 terror suspects held at Guantánamo Bay. At the time of the announcement, President Barack Obama reiterated his commitment to closing the prison, which he said had become an al Qaeda recruiting tool.
That has become harder as critics and intelligence experts warn of increased recidivism rates for former Guantánamo Bay detainees. Scrutiny of the administration’s detainee policies has grown in the weeks since the thwarted Christmas Day attack.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, is particularly focused on a rehabilitation program in Saudi Arabia. More than 100 detainees were sent to Saudi Arabia from Guantánamo under that program during the George W. Bush administration.
Sessions raised concerns about the Saudi Arabia program weeks before the attempted Christmas Day bombing. In a Dec. 9 letter, he asked Attorney General Eric Holder to suspend the release of detainees to the Saudi program but received no response. Sessions also asked in the letter if Holder stands by previous congressional testimony that the program is “pretty successful.”
“The list of failed participants in the Saudi program reads like a ‘who’s who’ of al Qaeda terrorists on the Arabian Peninsula,” Sessions has said.
Key Republicans including House Intelligence ranking member Rep. Pete Hoekstra (Mich.), who is running for governor in Michigan, and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Kit Bond (Mo.), have warned against the release of any more detainees to their home countries if those countries are host to terrorist factions.
A recent Defense Department report shows that as many as one in five former detainees has engaged in terrorist activity following release.
Over the weekend, Feinstein said she would “tend to agree” with those warnings.
“They come out of Gitmo and they are heroes in this world,” she told CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “This world is the only world that’s going to really be accepting of them. Therefore, the tendency is to go back.
“I think the Gitmo experience is not one that leads itself to rehabilitation, candidly,” she added.
During Bush’s time in office, more than 500 detainees were released from Guantánamo Bay, including 108 who were sent to the Saudi Arabia rehabilitation program set up in 2003.
At least 11 of these graduates have returned to the fight and have been placed on the country’s list of 85 “most wanted” terrorists. They include Said Ali al-Shihri, who re-emerged as a leader of al Qaeda in Yemen, the group claiming responsibility for the Christmas Day bombing plot.
Sessions spokesman Stephen Miller, noting several media reports last year that indicated the Defense Department and Saudi government were in negotiations to transfer Yemeni detainees to the program, took issue with the administration official’s comments to The Hill.
“The administration has not announced a review of the program or any plans to suspend future transfers to the facility — even of detainees from Yemen,” Miller said. He added that what is important is what the administration isn’t saying.
“They remark only that ‘near-term’ — not medium- or long-term — transfers don’t happen to be pending,” he said. “Are they not willing to take this option off the table? Why won’t the administration acknowledge that the jihadist rehab program has been anything but ‘successful’?”
Those who support closing the Guantánamo Bay base argue that the remaining 198 detainees simply could be moved to the Supermax federal prison in Illinois that Obama has touted as a new home for the terror suspects.
Congress, however, could easily block that move. The administration is barred from moving any Guantánamo detainees to the U.S. for purposes other than putting them on trial, a prohibition Congress added to an appropriations bill that expires on Sept. 30. If Congress does not lift that ban, the administration must have enough evidence to try the remaining detainees with near assurance they will be found guilty or run the risk that some could be found not guilty and freed.