MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
We begin this hour with some controversial questions about what to do with terrorism suspects. First, those held at Guantanamo. About 200 detainees remained imprisoned there and about half of them are from Yemen.
NORRIS: What to do with the men from Yemen has always been a central problem as the Obama administration tries to close the prison. Now it's even more complicated by revelations that the man who tried to blow up a plane on Christmas trained with al-Qaida in Yemen.
NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.
ARI SHAPIRO: Yemen has always played a disproportionately large role in the global jihadist movement. Benjamin Wittes is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and he has studied the Guantanamo population in depth.
Mr. BENJAMIN WITTES (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): Of the original nearly 800 people who went to Guantanamo, more than one in eight was from Yemen, which is, you know, astonishing when you think about how small the country is.
SHAPIRO: And the U.S. has been slower to release Yemenis than detainees from any other country, says Shayana Kadidal of the Center for Constitutional Rights. He works with lawyers who represent Yemenis.
Mr. SHAYANA KADIDAL (Center for Constitutional Rights): Saudi Arabia had a little over 130 detainees at Guantanamo over the years, about 120 of those have been returned. Whereas Yemen had, I think, a little over 100 and there are still about 90 Yemenis left.
SHAPIRO: There are 91 Yemenis left, to be exact. The Bush administration gave 14 Guantanamo detainees back to the Yemeni government; the Obama administration: seven. So, why have the Yemenis been the last to go? Juan Zarate, who was a counterterrorism advisor to President Bush, explains.
Mr. JUAN ZARATE (Counterterrorism Adviser to President George W. Bush): Part of the calculus in terms of returning detainees to their home governments is the ability of the home government to actually deal with those individuals to either secure them, to rehabilitate them or to reintegrate them into their society. I think over the past few years there's been greater confidence in the Saudi government's ability to do precisely that.
SHAPIRO: The U.S. does not consider the Yemeni government totally reliable. Some Yemenis who've been released have reportedly returned to al-Qaida. Yesterday President Obama's counterterrorism adviser John Brennan told CNN the administration will continue to transfer Yemenis in a way that does not put Americans at risk.
Mr. JOHN BRENNAN (Counterterrorism Adviser to President Barack Obama): We made a decision that we would send back six because we were very pleased the way the Yemeni government handled the one individual we sent back about eight weeks ago. And so we're making sure that the situation on the ground is taken into account, that we continue to work with the Yemeni government and we do this in a very commonsense fashion because we want to make sure that we are able to close Guantanamo.
SHAPIRO: And there's no way to close Guantanamo without addressing the Yemeni problem. The administration is asking how much of a threat each individual detainee poses. President Obama set a high bar last year in a speech at the National Archives.
President BARACK OBAMA: I'm not going to release individuals who endanger the American people.
Mr. WITTES: Politicians say those sorts of things, but it's actually nonsense.
SHAPIRO: Benjamin Wittes.
Mr. WITTES: Because you're dealing with a population about which you have imperfect information. You don't really know who's going to go back to the fight and who's not. So when you release somebody, you assume some risk.
SHAPIRO: And that risk involves a political calculation. According to Juan Zarate, the calculation changed when a man who trained with al-Qaida in Yemen tried to blow up an airplane Christmas Day.
Mr. ZARATE: This case highlights politically and publicly the fact that you've got a direct threat to the homeland coming out of the adaptations of al-Qaida in Yemen. And to send known al-Qaida operatives back to Yemen at this time, I think, is politically untenable.
SHAPIRO: Shayana Kadidal, whose group represents Yemenis at Guantanamo, fears Zarate may be right.
Mr. KADIDAL: Obviously the timing on this couldn't have been worse, but the people who are being sent home now are people who have been cleared by this exhaustive review by the Interagency Task Force. So, they have a much more cautious process that's been undertaken now and if people get cleared by that process, they ought to be sent home.
SHAPIRO: Conservatives in Congress are urging President Obama not to release any more Guantanamo detainees to the Yemeni government. Another option is indefinite detention in the U.S. without trial, but that angers liberals in Congress, which helps explain why President Obama will not meet his original deadline to close Guantanamo later this month.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.