By Peter Slevin and Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 6, 2009
CHICAGO -- Despite opposition from congressional Republicans, the Obama administration is signaling that a state prison in rural Thomson, Ill., will probably become the new home for scores of terrorism suspects now housed at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Officials from the White House, Defense Department and U.S. Bureau of Prisons spent two hours last week briefing more than a dozen members of the Illinois congressional delegation in the office of Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). To reassure skeptical Republicans, they emphasized security.
Although the officials left open the possibility that another site could be chosen, participants emerged from the session convinced that the U.S. government will buy the largely unused $145 million Thomson Correctional Center, which was built in 2008.
If all goes well, administration sources involved in closing the Guantanamo Bay prison anticipate a handover of the Thomson facility by late winter. It would then take several months to prepare the prison to a level "beyond supermax" and put the staff in place, according to federal estimates.
In Thomson, a town near the Mississippi River, popular support is strong for a federal purchase of the prison. Unemployment in the area is 10.5 percent, and the White House suggests that as many as 3,000 jobs could be created -- some going to local hires, others to people who would move to the area.
"Everyone around here thinks it's a done deal, but I'm waiting to see it in writing." said Jerry "Duke" Hebeler, the Thomson Village board president, who proposed the idea to Gov. Patrick Quinn (D) in October. "The Republicans and Democrats are fighting about it, and I ain't stepping in the middle of that."
"It's an unnecessary risk, both to our legal system and our security," said Rep. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.), who attended the briefing and fired questions. "The administration needs to respond in writing so the story can't change and the details are specific."
Kirk, a candidate for Obama's former Senate seat, is leading the opposition to the prison move. Joined by six fellow GOP representatives, he warned Obama in a letter in November that if detainees are held in Illinois, "our state and the Chicago metropolitan area will become ground zero for Jihadist terrorist plots, recruitment and radicalization."
At the session in Durbin's office, Kirk asked about potential threats to civilians and military personnel, should prisoners need outside medical care. He was told that the prison would have a substantial medical facility and that, if necessary, detainees would be flown by helicopter to a secure military hospital.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who, along with the state's senior Democratic leadership, supports the prison deal, dismisses GOP opposition as "politics at its worst."
"We can defeat Republican efforts to stop this," said Schakowsky, who contends the GOP is "'absolutely politicizing the situation. They're looking for any angle that would make the president somehow look soft on terrorists. Fear, in the past, has been their friend."
To make the move from Guantanamo Bay, which Obama has promised to close, Congress must vote to permit detainees to be housed on U.S. soil for reasons other than trial. Funding permission is also necessary to modify the prison, which houses about 200 minimum security prisoners.
Officials said the Obama administration is considering the Illinois facility not only as a site for prolonged detention but also as a location for military commission trials once a courtroom complex is added and the Guantanamo Bay prison is shuttered.
One opponent of the move is Rep. Donald Manzullo (R-Ill.), whose district includes Thomson and the prison. A spokesman said Manzullo is seeking a threat assessment and is "just trying to get some questions answered."
"He doesn't think these guys will be able to get out, but he just wants to make sure the region is protected against outside activity," spokesman Rich Carter said. "You can't support this plan until we get these questions answered, and no one's answering the questions."
According to one participant in last week's briefing, when a member of Congress asked when the White House would make a decision, National Security Council member David Rapallo smiled and answered, "Soon."