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.