Hagel: Yemen unrest could affect transfers from Guantánamo

Defense Secretary Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelOvernight Defense: US, Russia tensions grow over nuclear arms | Highlights from Esper's Asia trip | Trump strikes neutral tone on Hong Kong protests | General orders ethics review of special forces Five takeaways from Pentagon chief's first major trip Esper given horse in Mongolia as US looks for new inroads against China MORE said Thursday that recent unrest in Yemen "has to be factored in" when deciding whether to release Yemeni detainees from the prison at Guantánamo Bay.

"Because of what's happening in Yemen, and we were well aware of — of the danger and the uncertainty and what was going on in Yemen before today, that has to be factored in," he said at a Pentagon briefing Thursday.

ADVERTISEMENT

Yemen's prime minister, president and his cabinet abruptly resigned Thursday, after Shiite rebels known as the Houthis clashed with government forces in the capital of Sana'a and surrounded the presidential compound. 

The events have raised questions about whether Yemeni detainees, who make up the majority of Guantánamo’s prison population, should be released as part of President Obama's push to close the facility.

Republicans in Congress have fought the release of the Yemeni detainees, warning they are likely to return to the battlefield and participate in plots against the Untied States.

Hagel said Yemeni detainees — who number about 80 of the remaining population of 122 — have not been released back to Yemen, but to other countries willing to accept them.

"It's what country is willing to host these detainees. We've not sent them back to Yemen," Hagel said.

Hagel, as defense secretary, is personally responsible for signing off on detainee transfers, after an interagency certification process ensures countries receiving detainees are able and willing to monitor detainees and ensure they don't engage in future terrorist activities.

The Pentagon chief said he personally signed off on the release of 44 detainees during his tenure.

The outgoing defense secretary reportedly took heat from the Obama administration for not moving faster to approve more detainee transfers,  and some said the delays contributed to the president's decision to replace him

On Thursday, Hagel defended his actions.

"I have always supported the closing of Guantanamo. ... I was probably one of the first in the United States Senate: certainly one of the first Republicans to take that position," he said.

"That said, the secretary of Defense [has] the responsibility to certify the transfer of detainees," he said.

"And I have tried diligently before I put my name on that document to assure not only myself but the people of this country that that in fact is what I have done as the certifying officer here on behalf of the people of this country," he said.

"I suspect I have not made everybody happy always, on that point," he said. "But it's too big a decision to be made quickly or politically. But it is one of many big decisions secretary of Defense has to deal with every day."