Obama administration to buy Illinois prison for Guantanamo detainees

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 16, 2009; A03

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."

Prisoners will not be permitted visits by family or friends, officials said. They will be guarded by military personnel. They will not mix with federal inmates who will share the prison. They will not be released in the United States.

The Pentagon said 1,000 to 1,500 personnel would move to the Thomson area to operate the military side of the prison once it is upgraded. About two-thirds would be members of the uniformed military, and the others would be civilians.

Improvements to the 1,600-bed prison, built eight years ago for $145 million and now housing fewer than 200 minimum-security inmates, are likely to take six months or more. Congress will be asked to approve the funding.

In addition to extra security, the prison is expected to need a courthouse for trials, an improved medical facility and a kitchen staff trained to prepare religiously appropriate meals.

'It's a wonderful thing'

Democrats pushed the prison's selection after Gov. Pat Quinn (D) relayed the suggestion to Obama in a White House meeting. They argued that a federal purchase of the 146-acre facility would produce as many as 3,000 jobs in a region with a 10.5 percent unemployment rate.

"It's a wonderful thing," said Thomson real estate agent Jeannine Mills. "At first, I was very apprehensive, but now I feel it will be very secure and, all in all, a good thing. We certainly need the economic boost."

Republicans have focused on security. Rep. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.) and several colleagues warned Obama in a letter last month that "our state and the Chicago metropolitan area will become ground zero for Jihadist terrorist plots, recruitment and radicalization."

"The administration," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), "has failed to explain how transferring terrorists to Gitmo North will make Americans safer than keeping these terrorists off of our shores in the secure facility in Cuba."

Democrats on Capitol Hill voiced confidence that, once it is clear that sturdy security measures will be in place, Congress will reverse the bipartisan vote that barred prisoners from being held without trial on U.S. soil.

In a letter to Quinn announcing the decision, leaders of Obama's national security team said closing Guantanamo Bay "should not be a political or partisan issue." They said the project is backed by "the nation's highest military and civilian leaders who prosecuted the war against al Qaeda under the previous administration and continue to do so today."

Staff writers Kari Lydersen in Chicago and Perry Bacon Jr. and Peter Finn in Washington contributed to this report.

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