President Barack Obama said Tuesday that no more Guantanamo Bay detainees will be sent to Yemen for now, as his administration ratcheted up security measures after a failed Christmas terror plot to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner.
At the same time, he once again reaffirmed his intent to close the prison at the U.S. naval base in Cuba.
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-Qaida operatives in Yemen.
After a White House meeting with his top security advisers Tuesday, Obama said Yemen poses "an ongoing security situation which we have been confronting for some time," and said the U.S. is working with Yemen officials to combat al-Qaida.
The president said he and Attorney General Eric Holder have agreed "we will not be transferring additional detainees back to Yemen at this time."
Just days before the incident, the Obama administration had sent six men held at the Guantanamo Bay detention center back to Yemen.
As recently as Sunday, the president's counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said detainees will be sent back to Yemen when the time and conditions are right.
The president's decision to suspend detainee transfers to Yemen was expected to further complicate his plan to eventually close the military prison. Nearly half of the 198 detainees held there are from Yemen, said Pentagon spokeswoman Maj. Tania Bradsher.
"Make no mistake: We will close Guantanamo prison," the president said.
In announcing the decision on Yemen, 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 strong 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 of New York, 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. "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 just weeks away but which officials acknowledged last year would 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. Congress still needs to approve the money to do that.