By Carrie Johnson and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 22, 2009
In news conferences, speeches and debates this week, lawmakers from both parties, as well as the director of the FBI, have sounded alarms about moving Guantanamo Bay detainees to federal prisons, where they could launch riots, hatch radical plots or somehow be released among the populace.
"No good purpose is served by allowing known terrorists, who trained at terrorist training camps, to come to the U.S. to live among us," said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.).
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) said Tuesday, before saying he was open to changing his position, "Part of what we don't want is them be put in prisons in the United States."
But the apocalyptic rhetoric rarely addresses this: Thirty-three international terrorists, many with ties to al-Qaeda, reside in a single federal prison in Florence, Colo., with little public notice.
Detained in the supermax facility in Colorado are Ramzi Yousef, who headed the group that carried out the first bombing of the World Trade Center in February 1993; Zacarias Moussaoui, convicted of conspiring in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; Ahmed Ressam, of the Dec. 31, 1999, Los Angeles airport millennium attack plots; Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, conspirator in several plots, including one to assassinate President George W. Bush; and Wadih el-Hage, convicted of the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya.
Inmates in Florence and those at the maximum-security disciplinary barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., rarely see other prisoners. At Leavenworth, the toughest prisoners are allowed outside their cells only one hour a day when they are moved with their legs shackled and accompanied by three guards.
"We have a vast amount of experience in how to judge the continued incarceration of highly dangerous prisoners, since we do this with thousands of prisoners every month, all over the United States, including some really quite dangerous people," Philip D. Zelikow, who was counselor to Bush administration Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and executive director of the 9/11 Commission, told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week.
For many of the most serious terrorists and violent criminals, Justice Department and prison officials impose special restrictions, allowing few visitors, for example, and closely monitoring mail. The inmates also are kept in solitary confinement.
But on Wednesday, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told the House Judiciary Committee about his "concerns about providing financing to terrorists, radicalizing others with regard to violent extremism, the potential for individuals undertaking attacks in the United States. . . . If it's Florence or something, I think it would be very difficult for the person to get out and very difficult for the person to undertake any activity. However . . . there are individuals in our prisons today . . . who operate their gangs from inside the walls of prison."
Two years ago, an official from the Federal Bureau of Prisons told the House Committee on Homeland Security that authorities were monitoring inmates who might try to spread extremist ideologies, screening clerics and moving terrorist inmates to special facilities in Colorado and Terre Haute, Ind. The bulk of al-Qaeda-affiliated convicts in the United States are housed in those two facilities, law enforcement officials said yesterday.
Still, one economically pressed community in Montana is bucking the trend of "not in my back yard." Some residents in Hardin are volunteering to open their unused, 464-bed Two Rivers Regional Detention Facility to the detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The City Council recently passed a resolution in support.
But Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) put his foot down. "We're not going to bring al-Qaeda to Big Sky Country -- no way, not on my watch," he told Time magazine this month.
Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu, research editor Alice Crites, and staff researchers Madonna Lebling and Julie Tate contributed to this report.