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In Illinois, ‘Gitmo North’ Tapped to House Detainees

December 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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The Obama administration plans to send some Guantanamo Bay detainees to an underused prison in rural Illinois. Republican lawmakers denounced the plan, while local residents anticipate an economic boom.

MARGARET WARNER: President Obama moved closer today to making good on his promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He ordered the federal government to acquire an underused state prison in rural Thomson, Illinois. The plan is to transfer up to 100 Guantanamo terror suspects to the Thomson Correctional Center 150 miles west of Chicago along the Mississippi River.

Illinois was officially notified in a letter from the secretaries of state, defense and Homeland Security, plus the attorney general and director of national intelligence. After a briefing at the White House, Governor Pat Quinn and Senator Dick Durbin told reporters why they enthusiastically back the move.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN, D-Ill.: This is a great opportunity. Our state unemployment numbers, the most recent ones, were 11 percent, and in some parts of the state, like Northwestern Illinois, even higher. People are desperate for good jobs. And the jobs we’re talking about here are some of the best, over 3,000 new employment — new employees in this area, half of them from local people.

MARGARET WARNER: But the Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell, said the plan would make Illinois a target for terrorists.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-KY: “Gitmo-North” is something the American people are clearly opposed to. It is outrageous to suggest that this is a good sort of federal government jobs program.

MARGARET WARNER: He also noted that current law bars bringing to U.S. shores any long-term prisoners earmarked for indefinite detention.

Activist groups who have urged Guantanamo’s closure applauded the decision to move some detainees, but they expressed reservations about the fate of those prisoners who aren’t slated for civilian or military trials.

Devon Chaffee is with Human Rights First, an advocacy group in Washington.

DEVON CHAFFEE: We remain concerned that detainees brought to the Thomson Corrections Center may be continued to be detained indefinitely without trial. To do so would really fail to accomplish the objectives of closing the Guantanamo Bay facility.

MARGARET WARNER: The 1,600-bed Thomson prison was built eight years ago at a cost of $145 million. But it currently houses only 200 inmates. The prospect of filling it appealed to Thomson Village’s president when federal officials toured the site last month.

JERRY “DUKE” HEBELER: From what I have heard so far, Thomson would be even more secure. That’s what would make me sleep better at night.

MARGARET WARNER: Today, some townspeople said it’s time to put the prison to good use.

RICK BOSACKI: I think it’s a good thing. You know, it will bring jobs to the area, and the economy will be boosted.

MARGARET WARNER: But others in the area were more skeptical.

JIM MARANDO: As far as the residents are concerned in the town, sure, I’m sure it’s going to be great for them. I don’t know. My comment about it relates to the idea of him being — them — any of them being here in the first place. I don’t think they belong here.

MARGARET WARNER: Whatever it does for Thomson, the transfer plan, if carried out, would sharply reduce the inmate population at Guantanamo to roughly 100 detainees.

But administration officials have acknowledged they won’t meet the president’s initial deadline for closing it by January.

And now more on today’s announcement. We get that from Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief and columnist for The Chicago Sun-Times.

And, Lynn, welcome back to the program.

There were several states sort of in the running for this. How did the administration decide on this facility in Illinois?

LYNN SWEET: Well, talk about having a home state advantage. That would be it.

The — there were objections in some of the other states, Michigan, Kansas, earlier in the running. And when the administration got serious about this in November, late October, the path for Illinois was just cleared for them. Senator Durbin, the senior senator from Illinois, number-two man in the Senate, Governor Quinn, the Democratic governor, were champions of the project.

So — so were the people from Thomson, which you — you just showed. So, there was just an easy glide path for acquisition of this little-used prison.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, when administration officials say this is going to be super-secure, how secure? I mean, what extra measures are they taking?

LYNN SWEET: They’re going to build another security wall around the prison. And the prison already was built as a maximum-security prison. And they have a whole list of upgrades that they’re going to do to — to put even more security and more — more — more construction around the complex than what they have now.

MARGARET WARNER: And the Defense Department will actually run that part of the prison, I understand.

LYNN SWEET: Right. This is something that the administration has said from the beginning, that about 75 percent of the building will just be a regular federal prison run by the Bureau of Prisons. And that will be the entity that will actually buy the prison.

Twenty-five percent of the complex or so will be leased to the Defense Department. And they will run the back part of the building that’s used to house the detainees.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, explain which prisoners are at least intended by the administration to be transferred, because they’re roughly about half of the 210 that currently remain at Gitmo.

LYNN SWEET: Well, what’s interesting is that the White House refuses to actually say how many people are potentially — we’re talking about.

Senator Durbin is — is — Senator Durbin and members of the Illinois congressional delegation have gotten briefings on this. And, for some reason, the White House doesn’t even want to say. But Senator Durbin has said 100. The Illinois delegation when they got a briefing recently were told between 50 and 100.

And this is the category of people that, out of the 200 or so in Guantanamo now, some will be deported. Five, we know, are going to New York, those accused in the 9/11 attacks. Some will be tried in other federal courts.

This remaining group, the ones that will neither for the time being neither be tried nor deported, are the ones we’re talking about.

MARGARET WARNER: And I gather also the one slated for military commissions. They’re actually going to hold those military commissions at this facility.

LYNN SWEET: Right. But that is — that is a group that could be determined once they’re there. The — the determinations won’t all necessarily be — be done. And the commissions will be held at the facility.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what about this flap that seems to have developed or seems to be there about this category of prisoners that the president once said there would be some who would be “untriable,” because either the evidence against them is tainted or would compromise intelligence methods?

Senator McConnell is saying, you can’t transfer that group here to the United States under the current law. Is that right? And, if so, then what kind of a fight can they expect on Capitol Hill to get that changed?

LYNN SWEET: Well, the administration told me when I checked on this tonight that Congress needs to lift that restriction that is now in place on bringing the untriable, so-called untriable detainees. And that is one point of a battle that Congress may engage in. You saw the McConnell statements.

Certainly, the Republicans have lined up, many of them against this proposal. There also has to be an appropriation to purchase the prison, which will be at least $145 million. You also have to have the money to staff it up. So, I think Congress has a few entry points into this — into this project.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Senator Durbin and the governor, Quinn, said today outside the White House there’s great unity behind this back in Illinois, or certainly from the area. Yet, the Republicans had a press conference late today, where they had a number of members from Illinois saying this is a terrible idea.

So, how controversial is this in the state of Illinois?

LYNN SWEET: Well, it depends on what region you’re talking about.

And to have all the — the press conference you’re talking about up on the Hill were a string of Republican members who got — who banded together to protest this. You also have a few potential cracks in — in the Democratic Party line of support on this. We will see. There’s a big governor’s and Senate race there.

I would say it’s broken down into some partisan divides. But, if you look at the northwest part of the state, where there are people who will get jobs who need them, there is no controversy over this. The — this has not become a hot button issue in the state so far. There are a lot of concerns about safety.

And I think that is the job of the — you know, of the White House and supporters to address. What people probably did not realize until today, when the White House said that they do now intend to have these military tribunals held at Thomson, it remains to be seen how — what the reaction is to that development.

MARGARET WARNER: Lynn Sweet, Chicago Sun-Times, thank you so much.

LYNN SWEET: Thank you.