Why the Yemeni Gitmo Detainees Aren't Going Anywhere (for Now)

In his much-anticipated national security speech on Thursday, President Obama will reportedly revisit his longstanding pledge to close Guantanamo. And in the coming weeks, Obama will reportedly announce the restart of detainee transfers to Yemen

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In his much-anticipated national security speech on Thursday, President Obama will revisit his longstanding pledge to close Guantanamo. And in the coming weeks, Obama will reportedly announce the restart of detainee transfers to Yemen. Considering that 56 of the 86 detainees cleared for release from Guantanamo are from the country, the restart of transfers there would be a huge, necessary step towards eventually closing the facility. But hold on: we're not there, yet.

The Wall Street Journal first reported the anticipated announcement, which was later confirmed by Fox News. According to the WSJ's report on the alleged kickstart to the U.S.'s stalled transfers of Yemeni detainees, the process wouldn't even begin for months. When transfers do start, just two or three detainees will apparently be allowed back as a test run, to see how the Yemeni government handles them. Before then, the U.S. will likely start by transferring some of the 30 non-Yemeni detainees currently cleared for release. Those first transfers, they report, will probably be of prisoners from Afghanistan. The WSJ explains further that after Obama's anticipated announcement, there are still other steps needed for transfers to begin:

Restarting the transfers to Yemen would be a multistep process. First the White House must issue orders rescinding its prohibition on transfers to the country. Next, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel must sign a national-security waiver asserting that the transfer is in the interests of the country and that the risk of recidivism has been mitigated...After the U.S. waiver is signed, the administration must notify Congress of its intent to transfer the detainees 30 days in advance.

President Obama banned all Yemen transfers in 2009, following the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound passenger jet, when one of the Al Qaeda leaders allegedly behind the plan turned out to be a former Gitmo prisoner. In 2011, as the WSJ explains, all transfers from Guantanamo slowed to a trickle after Congress passed stricter requirements for release. While some lawmakers have pushed for Gitmo's closure, Congress has made it a lot more difficult for the transfers to restart. Plus, the State Department position responsible for coordinating detainee transfers has been vacant since January

Here's part of why this is can get a little politically complicated: Guantanamo detainees who have been "cleared" for release, as ProPublica explains, are obviously not free to go, and they haven't necessarily been found "innocent" by the government: prisoners cleared for release range from cases of mistaken identity to those the government believes were very low-level members of Al Qaeda, who don't warrant continued detainment. But that's all provided that "security conditions can be met in the receiving country," essentially, to keep an eye on them. And regarding many of the countries of origin for those detainees — like Yemen — some argue that those conditions have not yet been met.  

Even though there's been little movement to actually start transferring "cleared" prisoners out of Guantanamo, the story has entered back in the news cycle in recent months with some urgency: 103 of the 166 prisoners at Guantanamo are currently on hunger strike (with 30 being force-fed), and the situation there is reportedly deteriorating. Prisoners, some of whom have been there for a decade or more, are getting more and more desperate to see movement on their cases.

Even with Obama's anticipated announcement, it doesn't look like Pentagon officials think the camp is closing down in the very short term. Yesterday, Foreign Policy reported that the Pentagon was in the middle of considering a $200 million upgrade to Gitmo's buildings because the allegedly temporary detainment facility has long outlived its intended lifespan. As for the other prisoners still awaiting trial, well, the U.S. has apparently looked into other locations for them already. Late last year, the Government Accountability Office identified no fewer than 98 facilities in the U.S. that could be modified and used to continue to detain Gitmo's population.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.