As the Obama administration struggles to close the Guantanamo Bay military prison, a proposal to house some of the detainees in a nearly vacant prison in Obama's home state of Illinois--promoted by Democrats Gov. Pat Quinn and Sen. Dick Durbin--met stiffening resistance on Monday from Illinois House Republicans.
"This is just a bad idea, right? They haven't thought it all through," Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) told Politics Daily. "And I think from a political point of view, I think the subtext here is there are very few states that the president can reach out to."
"He goes to those two, Gov. Quinn, goes to Sen. Durbin and says, 'I really need you on this one,' and they put on their game face and off they go. And think it is asking too much of the president's home state to take on this load."
Quinn and Durbin, however, didn't need much persuading. Quinn, the former lieutenant governor who was elevated when Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached earlier this year, is starved for cash to run the state, and selling the barely used maximum security Thomson Correctional Center in northwestern Illinois to the federal government could help.
Durbin has been open to relocating Guantanamo detainees to Illinois for months, convinced by his experience with the federal super-max prison in Marion, in far southern Illinois, that the prisoners could be held without incident. He also sees the jobs created by the move as an economic boost for the state in an area with high unemployment.
As for overall safety concerns, Durbin said Monday, if hardened terrorists end up in Illinois, the facility at Thomson will be the "most secure prison in the United States of America."
The national debate over transferring terrorist suspects held in the Cuban prison to U.S. soil was revived Friday when the Justice Department announced that five 9-11 suspects at Guantanamo would stand trial in New York, including alleged mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammad. A day later, the White House confirmed that the Thomson Correctional Center was a leading prospect for housing some of the detainees--about 100, according to Durbin.
In Illinois--where voters face a Feb. 2 primary with big Senate and gubernatorial contests--the creation of a "Gitmo North" instantly became a sizzling campaign issue. Key elected officials and candidates quickly lined up along partisan lines--Republicans against, most Democrats for.
Quinn discussed the deal with President Obama in the White House at a Nov. 4 meeting. As a national and statewide debate rages, Thomson Village President Jerry Hebeler is in support of the project, because it means that the mainly unused prison would be staffed up and operating.
On Monday afternoon, a federal team of about two dozen inspected the Thomson Correctional Center. The team at Thomson included staffers from the Department of Defense, Bureau of Prisons, Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, a White House spokesman and a White House National Security Council member plus state officials. Afterwards, they met with about 125 members of the public.
Thomson was completed in 2001 with beds for 1,600 inmates and never fully opened as the State of Illinois faced a cash crunch. Today, about 200 minimum security prisoners are inmates. Under the Obama White House proposals, the Bureau of Prisons would buy the facility and fill most of it with federal prisoners--and lease a portion of it to the Department of Defense for the detainees.
Closing the detention center at Guantanamo was a major Obama campaign pledge. He signed an executive order on his first day in office promising to shut the prison down by Jan. 22, 2010--a deadline that Attorney General Eric Holder said on Friday would be difficult to meet.
Guantanamo has become a black eye for the U.S. because some prisoners were held indefinitely and some were subject to harsh interrogation techniques, considered torture in some quarters. Obama and others have also argued that the very existence of Guantanamo serves as a recruiting tool for al-Qaeda and other anti-American forces.
The Obama administration has been trying to gradually transfer detainees out of Guantanamo, with 25 to date sent to other countries, according to the White House and more expected in the coming weeks, Politics Daily has learned. Some 215 detainees remain in Cuba, with other nations reluctant to pick up the pace--until the U.S. takes on at least a share.
Before any detainees can arrive in the U.S., Congress must lift a ban; lawmakers--Democrats and Republicans-- have resisted doing that until the Obama White House presents Congress with a site and a plan.
In Chicago, meanwhile, Durbin and Quinn held their second press conference in two days as part of a media blitz coordinated with the Obama White House to sell the plan and rebut GOP critics.
Four Illinois House Republican members blasted the Obama plan at a Chicago press conference where Roskam was joined by Rep. Judy Biggert, Rep. Don Manzullo and Rep. Mark Kirk, who is the GOP Senate frontrunner in the 2010 Illinois Senate race. The lawmakers want to slow the process down.
"I think, in all rationality, that we should make sure that we weigh this risk, that we slow this train down," Kirk said. He is proposing that no federal funds be committed for Thomson without what he called a "homeland insecurity impact statement, especially on the Sears-Willis Tower and on O'Hare International Airport."
Durbin scoffed at the notion that transferring detainees to Thomson would create Chicago targets.
"Some of the criticism about this decision has crossed the line," Durbin said. "Talking about actual buildings as targets in Chicago? Please, that doesn't do any good."
Said Quinn, "We're not going to let a bunch of nay-saying congressmen who are fearful lead us astray."
The White House is estimating that activating Thomson would create between 2,340 and 3,250 jobs--some direct federal employees, others working in prison support industries. Manzullo, whose district includes the prison, wants the federal government to buy it and operate it--just not open it up to Guantanamo detainees.
Said Manzullo, "Mr. President, we beg with you. This is your home state. These people are desperately in need of employment. Why subject them to an enhanced threat from terrorists, when all you have to do is give the director of the prisons the $120 million necessary to buy this facility and $85 million a year to run it."