In a letter this week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) called on the Obama administration to "renew its efforts to transfer 86 detainees" held at Guantanamo who have been cleared to be moved by a review board. The letter, addressed to National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, references the ongoing hunger strike at the prison complex – now officially at 97 individuals – and says "their belief that there is no end in sight for them" is contributing to this "growing problem."
"I would like to ask that the Administration review the status of the 86 detainees who were cleared for transfer in the past and let me know if there are suitable places to continue to hold or resettle these detainees either in their home countries or third countries," wrote Feinstein, who is chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
There are currently 166 detainees held at Guantanamo. A 2010 task force established to determine the correct status of these individuals found that many could be cleared for transfer; some others were classified as too dangerous to release but impossible to prosecute; and a smaller number could be prosecuted under the military commission system.
Fifty-six of the cleared men are from Yemen, according to The New York Times, but an Obama administration moratorium on transferring detainees to that country has effectively killed any hope of their leaving Guantanamo. The moratorium was issued after the failed 2009 Christmas Day underwear bomb plot by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian with ties to the Yemen-based group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Feinstein has previously argued in favor of the moratorium, saying Yemen was "too unstable" to transfer detainees there.
Now, however, Feinstein has reversed her position. "Although AQAP still has a strong presence in Yemen," she wrote, "I believe it would be prudent to re-visit the decision to halt transfers to Yemen and assess whether President [Abd Rabbuh Mansur] Hadi's government, with appropriate assistance, would be able to securely hold detainees in Sana'a."
In September 2012, a Yemeni man named Adnan Latif died at Guantanamo in what officials say was a suicide. Latif had been cleared by the Bush and Obama administration, and a federal judge had ordered his release. That order was overturned on the Obama Department of Justice's appeal, however, and Latif died after a decade of imprisonment despite never having been accused of a crime. He was the ninth person to die at Guantanamo.
Feinstein's letter comes as attention on Yemen is unusually high following the Senate testimony of Farea al-Muslimi, whose village in that country was bombed by a U.S. drone six days before he testified. Al-Muslimi later appeared on Chris Hayes' MSNBC show, and his appearance before the Senate committee was widely covered in the media.
The Miami Herald reported that all 97 hunger strikers are being held in "solitary cells or the prison hospital," and that 19 are being force-fed through tubes put up their nose and down their throat. Many of the detainees lived in communal units prior to the hunger strike, which began on February 6th after a search of detainees' Korans, which defense attorneys said was intrusive but the Pentagon characterized as routine.
Feinstein is the first member of Congress to issue a clear statement calling for the transfer process to begin since the onset of the hunger strike – a stance praised by human rights groups. "We are at a tipping point in terms of the health of these prisoners which cannot be ignored," Zeke Johnson of Amnesty International said in a statement. "President Obama must resolve the ongoing crisis at Guantanamo Bay and keep his promise to close the detention facility."