Foes could delay Guantanamo move

Switch to Illinois site draws Republican opposition

December 16, 2009|By Christi Parsons and James Oliphant | Tribune Newspapers

WASHINGTON — — As the White House detailed its plans Tuesday to move terrorism suspects to a prison in rural Illinois, congressional opponents emerged as a new obstacle in President Barack Obama's way as he tries to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

In addition to buying a near-empty state prison in Thomson, Ill., to house the current Guantanamo detainees, Obama administration officials announced that they also plan to set up a tribunal courtroom in the facility in order to hold trials for defendants charged before a military commission.

Pentagon officials estimated they would send as many as 1,500 military personnel to serve at the prison, and that they would hold annual hearings to review whether detainees are a threat to society and should remain in detention or whether they qualify for transfer to another country.

But Republican lawmakers launched an attack on the proposal that could ultimately pose a serious threat to the president's plan, which White House aides say depends on congressional action to change a law passed only last May barring transfer of detainees to American soil for any purpose other than prosecution.

The willingness of many state and local officials to host the Department of Defense outpost near the Mississippi River, on the other hand, bodes well for Obama, who vowed as one of his first presidential acts to shut down the Guantanamo prison, which became a symbol of American repression during the previous administration.

Leaders in the struggling river town want the jobs that would come along with a full opening of the 1,600-bed facility, to be operated mostly by the Bureau of Prisons for the purpose of housing federal inmates. A separate unit would be turned over to the Department of Defense to serve as a military detention center, holding suspects bound for prosecution in the tribunal as well as detainees whom the government decides it can't prosecute but can't safely release.

As for the remainder of the current Guantanamo detainees, the administration plans to send them back to their home countries, transfer them to other trusted nations or try them in federal district courts.

Still, aides to Obama said they want to wait to start work on the prison until Congress approves funding for it and gives its assent to the idea of transferring suspects for detention.

Thus, the timing of the project is also up in the air. One Democratic official on Capitol Hill said security upgrades to Thomson would take at least four to eight months, maybe longer, and that it's widely assumed the Obama administration won't make its Jan. 22, 2010, deadline for closing Guantanamo.

Under the plan laid out Tuesday, as many as 75 detainees could be subjected to military commissions at Thomson, though the final number charged and brought before the tribunals could be far smaller.

In addition to upgrading the Thomson prison from a maximum security facility to a super-maximum one, Pentagon officials also would oversee construction to accommodate a mini-courthouse within the facility, similar to the one already at Guantanamo.

Besides housing inmates awaiting trial, the Thomson site would also house prisoners under long-term detention. Officials estimate the total population of the detention center would be less than 100 people.

Initially, it appeared that the White House's plan would lack Republican support even from those on the Hill who have favored closing Guantanamo, such as Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

"I continue to agree with our military leaders that closing Guantanamo is in our own national interests, if done correctly," Graham said. "However, I increasingly find myself at odds with the administration's approach."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., blasted the plan, calling the proposed facility "Gitmo North."

"Current law prohibits moving these detainees to the United States for long-term detention," McConnell said. "So if the administration proposes to shut down Guantanamo and move all these prisoners to western Illinois, they're going to have to change the law."

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