President Obama is moving closer to his longtime goal of shutting down the controversial prison facility at Guantanamo Bay with plans to send a large number of remaining detainees back to their home country of Yemen.
To accomplish this goal, the Obama administration is getting a major assist from the United Nations, which is helping the Yemeni government establish a rehabilitation center, the White House told the Washington Examiner Wednesday night.
The U.N.'s Interregional Crime and Justice Institute (UNICRI), which is made up of representatives from several countries including the U.S., set up a steering group in August to help the Yemeni government create and fund the rehabilitation and reintegration program. The UNICRI was established in 1967 to support international cooperation on crime prevention and help set up countries’ criminal justice systems.
The White House said UNICRI has “considerable experience and expertise in this area and has been leading a major international initiative on prison rehabilitation/integration since May 2011.”
“We believe that the establishment of a credible, sustainable program would be an important step for the Yemeni government in bolstering their counterterrorism capabilities,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.
“As you’ll recall, when he was here in August, [Yemeni] President [Rabby Mansour] Hadi affirmed his intention to establish an extremist rehabilitation program to address the problem of violent extremism within Yemen, which could also facilitate the transfer of Yemeni detainees held at Guantanamo,” she added.
The news comes after Obama met privately Monday with two officials tasked with closing Gitmo and just days after the president named Paul Lewis, formerly a lawyer for the House Armed Services Committee, as the Pentagon's special envoy for Guantanamo closure. Clifford Sloan, the State Department's envoy for the same purpose, also attended the White House meeting.
There are currently 85 Yemeni prisoners being held in Gitmo, many of whom the Pentagon had been cleared for transfer years ago. Twenty-five of those have been deemed low risk and cleared for repatriation, while the U.S. considers 30 others slightly more risky and would agree to transfer them only if Yemen agrees to closely monitor them or somehow ensuring they would not return to violence.
Obama's 2008 campaign promise to close the island prison facility has been in limbo after he gave up attempts to close the prison in the face of ardent opposition in Congress during his first term.
Fierce resistance in Congress remains. In mid-June, the House passed a $638 billion defense bill that specifically prevents Obama from closing the facility.
But the decision to repatriate detainees to Yemen, a hotbed for al Qaeda, even through a rehabilitation program is a controversial one sure to spark a protest from Republicans on Capitol Hill.
In August the State Department shuttered a record number of embassies in the Middle East and Northern Africa in the face of a terrorist threat emanating from Yemen and Pakistan.
The closures prompted Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee to call on the Obama administration to reinstate a ban on sending Gitmo detainees back to Yemen.
Earlier this year, Obama lifted a ban on repatriating detainees to Yemen that was imposed after learning that a botched Christmas Day plot to blow up an airliner in 2009 was the work of a Nigerian militant with ties to al Qaeda leaders in Yemen.
“Since it is well-known that Yemen-based al Qaeda is actively plotting against us, I don’t see how the president can honestly say any detainee should be transferred to Yemen,” Chambliss told the Washington Examiner in early August. “Sending them to countries where al Qaeda and its affiliates operate and continue to attack our interests is not a solution.”
Chambliss said U.S. intelligence agencies have estimated that the recidivism rate for detainees released from Gitmo is 28 percent – a figure proponents of closing the prison dispute – and that detainees are more at risk for returning to the battlefield if they are sent back to a country with a robust terrorist element.
“No detainee should be transferred to any place unless we are absolutely confident he will be effectively monitored and cannot renew terrorist ties,” he said at the time. “We know one former GTMO detainee was involved in the Benghazi attacks, and we cannot afford to take the risk with other detainees just to satisfy a political promise. To do so would be nothing short of an invitation for al Qaeda to continue to attack us.”
But advocates for releasing the detainees say the Yemeni nationals have been held without trial at Gitmo for more than a decade and many of them already have been cleared for release.
Human rights advocates counter that official U.S. recidivism rates are highly suspect because no one knows how the intelligence community calculates the figures.
David Remes, an attorney who represents several Guantanamo Bay detainees, has pointed to the ousting of former Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh and the turnover of power to Hadi in the Arab Spring as cause for increased confidence in the stability of that country's government.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and chairwoman of the Intelligence committee, has supported lifting the ban on returning detainees to Yemen even though she was instrumental in forcing the Obama administration to impose it after discovering the Christmas Day bomber’s ties to Yemen.
Earlier this year, she contacted Obama’s top national security adviser asking if the U.S. could work with the new Yemeni president to develop “an appropriate framework” for the return of the detainees.
“Although [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] still has a strong presence in Yemen, I believe it would be prudent to re-visit the decision to halt transfers to Yemen and assess whether President Hadi’s government, with appropriate assistance, would be able to securely hold detainees in Sana’a,” she wrote at the time.
Feinstein's and Chambliss's offices didn't immediately return a request for comment Wednesday night.
In early August, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said he supports giving Obama flexibility to decide which detainees to release. He also said he supports continuing U.S. efforts to work with Middle Eastern leaders on counter-terrorism issues.
“To counter the global threat of terrorism, we must work with our partners across the globe, especially in the Middle East,” he said. “We also must support those nations looking to enhance democratic governance and regional stability.”
This story was first published on Nov. 6 at 9:25 p.m.