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4:28 pm
Mon May 20, 2013

White House Has Renewed Resolve To Close Guantanamo

Originally published on Tue May 21, 2013 8:51 am

For the first time in years, the Obama administration appears to be focused on shuttering the Guantanamo Bay prison and – at a minimum — has redoubled its efforts to reduce the number of people held there.

The key, officials familiar with the administration's thinking say, may lie with 56 Yemeni detainees, a group of men who have been at the island facility for more than a decade though U.S. officials cleared them for transfer years ago.

"If we can send the Yemenis home," one official said, "that could get the ball rolling."

Attorney General Eric Holder told a congressional committee last week that the administration was reviewing things it could do on its own, without Congress, to begin whittling down the number of prisoners at Guantanamo.

"There are steps the administration can do and will do in an attempt to close that facility," he said. "There's a substantial number of people who can, for instance, be moved back to Yemen. ... That is something we have to review."

Not A Risk-Free Solution

There are 166 detainees at Guantanamo, down from a high of more than 700. The 56 Yemenis have already been cleared for release, which means U.S. officials have already, after a lengthy review, determined that the men don't pose a danger to the U.S. That's why the Yemenis seem like such an obvious place to start.

But, says Columbia University professor Matthew Waxman, the Yemeni solution is not without risks.

"I think the president would need to make a difficult policy call about transferring large numbers of detainees to Yemen," said Waxman, who worked on detainee affairs for the Pentagon during the Bush administration. "The situation in Yemen is still fluid. Al-Qaida's affiliate there is still considered dangerous and focused on targeting the U.S. We're not at the point where the political situation there is stable."

He says returning Yemeni detainees home would require the Obama administration to help the government in Sana'a to keep track of the detainees to make sure they don't return to the battlefield.

Those are the kinds of concerns the president is expected to address during his speech at the National Defense University on Thursday.

A Tense Time At Facility

The speech comes at a particularly volatile time at Guantanamo as more than 100 of the 166 prisoners there have been refusing food for weeks. Thirty of them are now being force-fed. The detainees allegedly told their guards that they stopped eating largely because they felt they had been forgotten. The protest started soon after Obama's State of the Union address. Guantanamo was not mentioned in that speech or the president's inaugural, and detainees reportedly saw that as an indication that they would be held at Guantanamo indefinitely.

Daphne Eviatar, a senior counsel at Human Rights First, says the White House has more power to change that than it has let on.

"One thing the president has frequently said is that Congress has made it impossible for him to close Guantanamo and that's not true," she said. "I think he's starting to recognize that's not true."

To be sure, Congress has imposed restrictions including limited money to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo and barring them from entry into the U.S. whether for resettlement or trial. Eviatar says even with those restrictions, there are things the president can do, unilaterally, to reduce the number of men held at the facility. For example, transferring the Yemenis, she says, is somewhat easier as the moratorium on sending them back to Yemen came from the president himself following a terrorist plot out of Yemen that targeted a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day 2009.

What's more, Eviatar says there are another 30 detainees – in addition to the Yemenis — who have also been cleared for release. Those two groups together account for more than half the prison's population.

"They can very quickly and very easily begin to certify that it is in the interest of national security to start transferring those people," Eviatar says.

The risk, however, is an obvious one: if any of those 86 detainees returned to terrorism, the administration would find itself with a lot to answer for.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Later this week, President Obama is scheduled to give a major address on terrorism and national security. One of the subjects expected to figure prominently in that speech is Guantanamo Bay prison. Obama - the president promised to close it when he first took office in 2009, but he has made little progress. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: President Obama listed all the reasons he thought the prison at Guantanamo needed to be closed during a press conference last month.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The president has said this before. But administration officials say there is now a renewed focus at the White House to get it done. Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder told Congress that the administration was reviewing the files of a particular group of detainees.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: There are steps that the administration can do and that we will do in an attempt to close that facility. There's substantial number of people who can, for instance, be moved back to Yemen. And I think that is something that we have to review.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That substantial number is 56, 56 Yemenis at Guantanamo who have been cleared for release. That means officials have already, after lengthy review, determined that these men don't pose a danger to the U.S. so that would be the obvious place to start. But it's not without problems.

MATTHEW WAXMAN: I think the president would need to make a difficult policy call about transferring large numbers of detainees to Yemen.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Matthew Waxman is a law professor at Columbia University. During the Bush administration, he was working on detainee affairs for the Pentagon. He says the security situation in Yemen is still fluid. Al-Qaida's affiliate there is still considered dangerous.

WAXMAN: We're not at a point where the political situation there is stable.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So the Obama administration would have to help the Yemeni government keep track of the detainees the U.S. sent back to make sure that they don't end up back on the battlefield.

The president is expected to address those kinds of concerns at the National Defense University on Thursday. The speech comes at a particularly volatile time at Guantanamo. More than 100 of the 166 prisoners there are on a hunger strike. Thirty of them are now being force-fed. The detainees told guards they stopped eating because they felt they'd been forgotten and that they would be held at the prison forever. Daphne Eviatar, a senior counsel at Human Rights First, says the White House has the power to change that.

DAPHNE EVIATAR: One thing the president has frequently said, Congress has made it impossible for me to close Guantanamo. And I think that's not true, and I think he is starting to recognize that's not true.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Congress has imposed restrictions, limiting money to transfer detainees and barring them from entry into the U.S. Still, Eviatar says there are things the president can do unilaterally to move detainees out of the facility.

Transferring the Yemenis, she says, is somewhat easier since the moratorium on sending them back to Yemen came from the president himself, following a terrorist plot out of Yemen on Christmas Day 2009. Eviatar says there are another 30 detainees, aside from the Yemenis, who have also been cleared for release. Transferring those two groups could cut the prison population in half.

EVIATAR: They can very quickly and very easily begin to certify that it's in the interest of national security to start transferring those people.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The risk is an obvious one. If any of those 86 detainees returned to terrorism, the administration would find itself with a lot to answer for. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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