WASHINGTON — The White House said Wednesday that despite President Barack Obama’s pledge to do what he can to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, a moratorium on sending cleared detainees back to Yemen “remains in place” – a policy that, if unchanged, provides perhaps the biggest obstacle to shuttering the controversial island prison.
The moratorium on transfers to Yemen, the home country for more than half the men detained at Guantanamo, reflects the irony of Obama’s dilemma: While he’s blamed Congress for blocking closure of the offshore prison he calls a recruitment tool for extremists, his policies are also contributing factors – something human rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, say he could rectify by taking steps on his own.
For years, the Obama administration seemingly had reached an accommodation at Guantanamo, even as the likelihood of its closure faded. Congress in 2009 revamped the military commissions system for trying detainees accused of crimes, providing, the administration said, a fairer justice system. Most of the detainees, the vast majority of whom have not been accused of a crime, were considered cooperative and lived in a communal setting where they were allowed to watch television, serve their own food and mix with one another. Guards had minimal contact with the detainees.
All of that ended earlier this year, however, when detainees began a hunger strike that now involves nearly two-thirds of the 166 men held at Guantanamo. Last month, guards at the facility forced all of the prisoners formerly in a communal setting back into single, locked cells. The Pentagon has dispatched additional medical personnel to the detention facility, in part to handle the twice-daily force feeding of, at last count, 23 of the hunger strikers. The International Committee of the Red Cross and the American Medical Association have criticized the administration’s policy of force feeding hunger-striking detainees.
Obama pledged during a news conference Tuesday to redouble efforts to fulfill his first-term campaign promise to close the detention center. On Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney outlined what steps the administration is considering.
Carney said the administration is looking at reappointing a senior official at the State Department to renew a focus on repatriating or transferring detainees that it determines can be returned to their home countries or third countries. Daniel Fried, the State Department employee who had been responsible for resettling detainees, was reassigned in January and his office was closed.
The White House also will look to jumpstart the “periodic review board process” for determining whether detainees can be released – a process that Carney said has not moved forward “quickly enough.”
But Carney cautioned that closing the facility “will also require congressional agreement,” noting that Congress has refused to spend money to transfer detainees not eligible for release to prisons in the United States.
“We have to work with Congress and try to convince members of Congress that the overriding interest here, in terms of our national security, as well as our budget, is to close Guantanamo Bay,” Carney said. He wouldn’t say whether Obama would personally lobby members of Congress but said, “I think you heard from the president yesterday that he feels very strongly about this.”
The ACLU has called on the administration to appoint a senior White House official to direct its closure policy, rather than leave it to the Pentagon, and has called on Obama to order Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to start enacting the final release step for detainees who have been cleared for transfer.
Though Obama hasn’t named a White House point person, the ACLU said Wednesday that it appears the Defense Department has been urged to speed up the transfer process.
Obama’s comments appeared to “jumpstart a transfer discussion process that should’ve begun two years ago, and now the White House needs to make sure this actually happens,” said Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel at the ACLU. “They’ve been told they need to start moving.”
Repatriating Yemenis is likely to be a key part of any Guantanamo movement. Of the 166 men held at Guantanamo, 86 are Yemenis. Of those, the State Department said Wednesday, 26 are currently approved for transfer. Another 30 could be eligible, the State Department said, if the Yemeni government takes “appropriate measures to reduce the risks associated with their return.”
Obama ordered a halt to repatriations to Yemen after the 2009 Christmas Day attempt to bomb an aircraft as it was landing in Chicago after a flight from Amsterdam.
The would-be bomber, Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, who had hidden plastic explosives in his underwear, told U.S. investigators that he had been recruited for the mission in Yemen by U.S.-born al Qaida operative Anwar al-Awlaki. Awlaki was subsequently killed by a U.S. drone strike.
Carney told reporters that the administration was “obviously evaluating this and other aspects of the situation in Guantanamo.” But, he added, “That is our policy. The moratorium remains in place.”
Yemeni officials have called on the administration to return the Yemenis being held at Guantanamo to their homeland. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee and had initially supported the block on Yemen, last week urged the administration to revisit the decision and determine whether Yemen’s new government, “with appropriate assistance, would be able to securely hold detainees in Sanaa,” the country’s capital.
Feinstein, who was traveling Wednesday and couldn’t be reached for comment, also has called on the administration to fill the State Department vacancy.
A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy, said that work on resettling Guantanamo detainees continued even after the department reassigned Fried to be the department’s coordinator for sanctions policy. The official said that a small number of staff members still work solely on Guantanamo issues, pulling experts as needed from other departments for “a broader enterprise.”
“We have remained engaged, even since Ambassador Fried’s reassignment, and that includes reaching out to governments both from Washington and our posts abroad,” the official said.
The official said that Obama’s renewed focus on the prison, however, could lead to a more robust operation – and soon.
“There is high-level attention to this issue and, given that focus, it would be reasonable to assume someone would be put in the position in the very near future,” the official said. The official noted that during Fried’s tenure, 71 detainees were transferred to 28 destinations, including 42 detainees who were moved to third-party countries.
But repatriation to Yemen remains difficult because of the country’s unstable security environment, the official said. The U.S. government does “recognize and is encouraged by the progress that’s been made by Yemen to address its security situation,” the official said.
“We’re continually reviewing it,” the official said, referring to the moratorium.