The Magazine

Anywhere But Yemen

One group of Guantánamo detainees will prove especially difficult for the Obama administration.

Feb 9, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES and THOMAS JOSCELYN
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On January 22, 2009, two days after Barack Obama took the oath of office, the new president issued an executive order requiring that the detainee facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, be closed in one year. With cameras capturing the president affixing his signature to the document, Obama said the change would return the United States to the "moral high ground" and "restore the standards of due process and the core constitutional values that have made this country great even in the midst of war, even in dealing with terrorism." In a separate executive order, the new president established a task force to lead a broad review of U.S. detention policy and to provide him "with information in terms of how we are able to deal [with] the disposition of some of the detainees that may be currently in Guantánamo that we cannot transfer to other countries, who could pose a serious danger to the United States."

While Obama was deliberately vague about what would happen to the approximately 248 detainees currently held at Guantánamo Bay, his administration's policy quickly began to take shape halfway around the world. Some one hundred of the remaining Guantánamo detainees are from Yemen, the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden. And in comments published the day Obama issued his executive orders, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen said that he hoped a "majority" of the Yemeni detainees would be allowed to return home to "make a future for themselves here."

"Certainly we would like to be able to bring them back to Yemen and have them integrate themselves back into their own society with their families," Ambassador -Stephen Seche told America.gov, a State Department website. Although he acknowledged some "inherent risks" in returning the alleged terrorists to the general population, Seche suggested that only a few of the detainees present real problems. "Except in the case perhaps of some very hardcore elements, we believe that the majority of these detainees can be put productively into a .  .  . reintegration program with the goal over time of enabling them to find a way back into Yemeni society without posing a security risk."

Two days later, Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh went further. In an appearance at a security conference in Sana'a, Saleh announced that Yemen had established a reintegration program and that virtually all of the Yemeni detainees would be sent home within three months. "Now, within 60-90 days, 94 Yemeni detainees will be here among us," he announced.

Is Saleh correct? Was Ambassador Seche speaking for the State Department and, more broadly, for the Obama administration? We put those questions to a spokesman for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The spokesman, who declined to be identified in print, cautioned that the Obama administration's review of Guantánamo detainees was ongoing and that it was too early to know precisely what steps that process would recommend. Saleh's announcement, he said, was premature. But the spokesman nonetheless indicated that Ambassador Seche's comments reflect administration policy.

Ambassador Seche's comments that you referred to lay out very well the U.S. government position on the situation of the Yemeni detainees at Guantánamo. .  .  . As he noted, the U.S. government has made clear its decision to close the Guantánamo Bay facility as soon as practicable but no later than one year from January 22, 2009.