White House: No Detainees to Yemen for Now

In this June 5, 2008 file photo, reviewed by the U.S. Military, members of a legal defense team walk at Camp Justice, part of the legal complex of the U.S. Military Commissions at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, in Cuba.
AP Photo/Brennan Linsley
No more detainees at Guantanamo Bay will be sent to Yemen for the time being, the White House announced Tuesday as officials continue to reshape the nation's security posture following a failed Christmas terror plot to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner.

The attempted terror attack on a jet arriving in Detroit has heightened concerns about Yemen, because the suspected would-be bomber, a 23-year-old Nigerian passenger, claimed to be acting on instructions from al Qaeda operatives in Yemen.

Just days before the incident, the Obama administration had sent six men held at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention center back to their home country of Yemen.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Tuesday the government will not send additional detainees to Yemen for now, which could increase the number of inmates to be held at a planned prison for terror suspects in Illinois.

"We would not move additional people into Yemen right now," Gibbs said.

That's a significant shift from statements made just two days earlier by the president's counterterrorism adviser John Brennan.

"Some of these individuals are going to be transferred back to Yemen at the right time and the right pace and in the right way," Brennan told CNN on Sunday.

The White House announcement was expected to further complicate President Barack Obama's plans to eventually close the military prison. Nearly half of the 198 detainees held there are from Yemen, said Pentagon spokeswoman Maj. Tania Bradsher.

In announcing the decision, the Obama administration is in part bowing to a political reality: Amid the intense debate over security following the attempted attack, any detainee transfer to Yemen would provoke bipartisan criticism.

Republicans and an increasing number of Democrats in Congress had called on the administration to stop Guantanamo transfers to Yemen in light of the Christmas attempt.

Rep. Peter King, the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, praised the decision as the right one, but said he was surprised it took the White House 11 days to make it.

"Over the last year, Yemen has become much more of a front in the war on terrorism," said King, R-N.Y. "I would hope that the administration would use this as a reason not to close Guantanamo, to realize that all they're doing is pandering to world opinion and putting the security of the United States at risk."

Separately, a federal appeals court ruling issued Tuesday could make it harder for Guantanamo detainees to challenge their confinement.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the continued detention of Ghaleb Nassar Al Bihani, a former cook for Taliban forces who said he never fired a shot in battle. He is a Yemeni citizen captured in Afghanistan and held at the U.S. naval base in Cuba since 2002.

The court was unanimous in rejecting Al Bihani's appeal, and two of the judges appointed by former President George W. Bush took a broader view of the detention power than the Obama administration had argued for in the case.

If it stands, the ruling will apply to every other detainee case filed in Washington and could give the government a strong basis to challenge a judge's order to release a detainee.

When he became president, Obama ordered the Guantanamo detention facility closed in a year - a deadline that is now only weeks away and will not be met. To close the facility, the government still must refurbish the prison in Illinois to hold prisoners, put others on trial, and send some abroad.