The top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee is urging the Obama administration to abandon any effort to help close Guantanamo Bay by sending detainees back to their home country of Yemen.
The administration is in talks with the Yemeni government and is working with the United Nations to establish a rehabilitation center outside the capital of Sana'a to help transition detainees from that country back to freedom, the White House told the Washington Examiner on Wednesday night.
More than half of the 164 prisoners who remain at Guantanamo Bay are from Yemen.
Those plans do not sit well with Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the ranking member of the committee charged with overseeing the administration's intelligence and counter-terrorism policies.
Chambliss is deeply concerned about the recidivism rate for all prisoners released from the U.S. naval base in Cuba and said any rehabilitation program should first focus on those detainees who have already been released and sent back to Yemen, where al Qaeda retains a strong presence.
"With the recidivism rate over 28 percent, this is no time for the United States to experiment with sending Guantanamo detainees back to a terrorist hotbed like Yemen,” Chambliss said. “Until there is clear proof that this program has successfully rehabilitated detainees who are already in Yemen, we should not consider sending back a single detainee.”
Two Yemeni detainees were repatriated to their home country in 2009. Those transfers came just days before the Obama administration imposed three-year ban on sending detainees back to the Northern African country after the intelligence community found that the “Christmas Day bomber” who tried to take down a passenger jet in 2009 had ties to top al Qaeda officials operating there.
The Obama administration lifted that ban earlier this year but fears of recidivism were fanned again in August when the State Department shuttered a record number of embassies across the Arab world in the face of a terrorist threat emanating from Yemen and Pakistan.
The closures prompted Chambliss to call on the administration to reinstate the ban on repatriating Gitmo prisoners to Yemen.
The plans for a rehabilitation center for Yemeni detainees would help Obama fulfill his 2008 campaign promise to close the island prison that has held hundreds of prisoners without trial since the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Fierce resistance in Congress to transferring the detainees to a U.S.-based prison and closing the facility have prevented Obama from reaching the goal.
Although President Obama's National Security Council on Wednesday confirmed that the U.N. was working with the U.S. and the Yemeni government on plans for the rehabilitation center, details surrounding the plans are sensitive and closely held.
When asked about the plans Thursday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said he didn't have anything “specific on conversations or negotiations with the Yemeni government.”
“We continue to work on transfers, and it remains the president's goal to close the Gitmo facility,” he said. “That's a goal shared by many, both Democrats and Republicans, including military leaders because it's in the interest of our national security in the United States.”
The Obama administration is treading carefully, knowing a decision to continue to hold the Gitmo detainees against their will in their home country could anger human rights activists who have spent years calling for their release.
The U.S.-backed Yemeni government is also in a difficult position. It doesn't want to appear too closely aligned with Washington as it battles al Qaeda forces and warring tribes that has deteriorated security in recent months.
President Rabby Mansour Hadi visited Washington in August and after the White House and the Yemeni government issued a joint statement noting that 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."
But the Yemeni government knows it could become a target for Islamist extremist attacks if it is perceived to be helping Washington create another unpopular detainee prison, and they have asked for funds to provide heavy defenses to protect the rehabilitation facility.