Lawmakers Spar Over Decision to Transfer Gitmo Detainees to Illinois Prison

Published December 15, 2009

| FoxNews.com

Republicans lined up to criticize the Obama administration Tuesday over its decision to transfer detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to a prison in Illinois, accusing President Obama of increasing the threat to America's security by making the U.S. home to suspected terrorists.   

Administration officials as well as Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, both Democrats, announced Tuesday afternoon at the White House that the government will acquire the Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson, Ill., an underutilized 1,600-cell prison in a sleepy town near the Mississippi River, to house detainees currently held at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo.

"This means a lot for our state in terms of economic opportunity," Quinn told reporters during Tuesday's announcement, adding that the vacant prison will become "the most secure prison in America."   

"We're in a depressed area of Illinois ... with severe unemployment.  More than 3,000 jobs will be created," he said, noting that "no one has ever escaped from a federal prison."

A host of Republican lawmakers were quick to denounce the move, saying the transfer to U.S. soil will give terrorists constitutional rights and could pose a grave threat to the state's security.  

"The American people and a bipartisan majority of the Congress have already rejected bringing terrorists to U.S. soil for long-term detention, and current law prohibits it," Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement.  "The administration 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."

"This decision changes nothing but geography," Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, ranking member of House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. "The Obama administration is naive if they really think that simply changing the location of Gitmo will improve our relations with terrorists. Bringing Gitmo detainees to the U.S. gives terrorists access to additional constitutional rights. These new rights may help terrorists avoid conviction and even file civil suits against American officials."

House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, blasted the move as "preposterous" and said the administration will look to "paint this as jobs plan while making Americans less safe."

"We've had votes in Congress that made it clear we want to keep terrorists out of America," Boehner said on the House floor Tuesday.  "I can tell you I won't vote to spend one dime to move prisoners to the U.S." 

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Tuesday that detainees brought into this country for trial will not be in the U.S. to stay.  In a letter obtained by the Associated Press, Napolitano said a detainee tried in this country would be treated for immigration purposes as though he is at a U.S. border trying to get in -- and he won't get in whether he's convicted, acquitted or he completes a prison sentence. 

Napolitano said that if a detainee cannot be returned to his country because he is likely to be tortured, the U.S. would seek another country to take him. The Obama administration has announced that five detainees will be tried in a New York federal court and more are likely to be tried in the U.S.

An aide to Durbin said the Thomson facility would house federal inmates and no more than 100 detainees from Guantanamo Bay.

Close to 15 percent of inmates held at Guantanamo have been transferred out of the U.S. naval base -- leaving 211 suspected terrorists still detained in the prison.

The facility in Thomson had emerged as a clear front-runner after Illinois officials, led by Durbin, enthusiastically embraced the idea of turning a near-dormant prison over to federal officials.

The White House has been coy about its selection process, but on Friday a draft memo leaked to a conservative Web site that seemed to indicate officials were homing in on Thomson.

The Thomson Correctional Center was one of several potential sites evaluated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to potentially house detainees from the Navy-run prison at Guantanamo Bay. Officials with other prisons, including Marion, Ill., Hardin, Mont., and Florence, Colo., have said they would welcome the jobs that would be created by the new inmates.

Democratic Rep. Phil Hare of Illinois lauded the expected announcement on Tuesday, calling the decision "good news for our national security and our local economy."  

The transfer would be a "victory for the people of West Central Illinois who have suffered greatly during this current recession and will benefit from the good-paying jobs and economic growth this plan is projected to create," he said in statement Tuesday.  "Furthermore, this plan will help initiate the closure of Guantanamo Bay which has been used as a terrorist recruiting tool."  

Closing Guantanamo is a top priority for Obama, who signed an executive order hours into his presidency directing that the process of closing the prison begin. Obama has said he wants terrorism suspects transferred to American soil so they can be tried for their suspected crimes.

The Thomson Correctional Center was built by Illinois in 2001 as a state prison with the potential to house maximum security inmates. Local officials hoped it would improve the local economy, providing jobs to a hard-hit community. State budget problems, however, have kept the 1,600-cell prison from ever fully opening. At present, it houses about 200 minimum-security inmates.

Obama has faced some resistance to the idea of housing terrorism suspects in the United States, but in Thomson many have welcomed the prospect as a potential economic engine. Thomson Village President Jerry Hebeler, was asleep when the word came that Thomson had been chosen.

"It's news to me, but then I'm always the last to know anything," Hebeler said Monday night of the news affecting his town of 450 residents. "It'll be good for the village and the surrounding area, especially with all the jobs that have been lost here."

But Hebeler said he wouldn't rejoice until "the ink is on the paper" because previous plans for increased use of the nearly empty prison have fallen through.

Some Illinois officials have not supported the idea. GOP Rep. Mark Kirk, who is seeking Obama's old Senate seat, said he believes moving Guantanamo detainees to Illinois will make the state a greater threat for terrorist attacks. Kirk has lobbied other officials to contact the White House in opposition to using the facility.

"On November 20th, members of the Illinois congressional delegation asked detailed questions about the administration's plan to bring al Qaeda detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Illinois," Kirk said in a statement sent to FoxNews.com.  "Nearly one month later, we are still waiting for answers. Without a vote, public hearing or detailed plan, the administration is moving quickly to force the citizens of Illinois to accept this unnecessary risk. The citizens of Illinois deserve better."

A number of polls show that most Americans oppose closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay.

According to a Fox News poll conducted June 9 to 10, 60 percent of Americans said the prison should not shut its door, while 32 percent said that it should.  

Similarly, a CBS News poll -- conducted Nov. 13 to 16 -- found that 50 percent of Americans said the prison should continue to operate, while 39 percent said they favored the administration's decision to close it.

Fox News' Major Garrett and Catherine Herridge and The Associated Press contributed to this report.  

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