Obama administration to buy Illinois prison for Guantanamo detainees

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 16, 2009

CHICAGO -- President Obama, determined to change U.S. detention policy and shut the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, pointed Tuesday to a small town in Illinois as a big part of the answer.

A state prison in rural Thomson will be purchased and refitted to house dozens of terrorism suspects now held at Guantanamo Bay, the administration announced. But Obama immediately drew criticism that revealed just how controversial the issue remains.

Republicans in Illinois and in Washington called the president's move risky and reminded the administration that a congressional vote is required before detainees not facing trial can be held indefinitely on U.S. soil. GOP members of the House will "seek every remedy at our disposal to stop this dangerous plan," vowed Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). A vote is weeks or months away, Democrats said.

Civil liberties groups, while embracing the goal of closing Guantanamo Bay, said the administration would be wrong to move prisoners to the heartland without charging them with a crime.

"If Thomson will be used to facilitate their lawful prosecution, then this is truly a positive step," said Joanne Mariner, counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. If not, "President Obama will simply have moved Guantanamo to Illinois."

White House officials did not say how many inmates are likely to be transferred to the Thomson Correctional Center. Some detainees will be held for trial by military commissions on the prison grounds, while others could be held without charges.

"We are trying to get to zero here with the detainees," one administration official said, referring to the prison in Cuba. "If we have to detain any without trial, we will only do so as a last resort."

The official said individual cases will be subject to oversight by Congress and the federal courts.

One piece in the puzzle

The Thomson decision alone will not get Obama to his goal of shutting Guantanamo Bay, which became a symbol of what critics said was the Bush administration's willingness to flout international conventions.

But the plan is another piece of a puzzle that includes the prospective departure of 116 detainees recommended for release by an interagency team led by Justice Department prosecutors. The administration also announced last month that several suspects will be tried in New York federal court and others by the military.

Prisoners scheduled for transfer overseas will go directly from Guantanamo Bay, a White House official said, while detainees scheduled for trial in U.S. district courts will be held in nearby facilities.

To try to convince skeptics that terrorism suspects can be held safely in a farming town of fewer than 600 residents about 150 miles west of Chicago, U.S. officials pledged to create "the most secure facility in the nation."

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