President Obama’s push to relocate at least 100 terrorism suspects from Guantanamo Bay military prison to the Thomson Correctional Center in rural Illinois has been billed as a much needed job creator and economic injection for the northwestern nook of the state.
But others in the Land of Lincoln — from politicians to everyday voters — worry that safety concerns outweigh the potential benefits and that the plan should be put on ice.
Among them is Rep. Donald A. Manzullo, the Republican whose district includes the prison. He wants to bring new jobs to the area and to have the federal government purchase the near-empty maximum security facility 150 miles west of Chicago. But he does not want it to be opened up to Guantanamo Bay detainees “because I believe it unnecessarily puts our communities at risk.”
“The relocation of Guantanamo detainees to Thomson will shift terrorists’ hatred from Gitmo to Thomson, transform our area into the next Gitmo … and act as a magnet for other terrorists and their activities,” he said. “It is better to keep Gitmo open until the last of the military combatants are disposed of, especially since taxpayers have spent tens of millions of dollars to build the state of the art facility at Gitmo.”
President Obama on Tuesday ordered the federal government to acquire the state prison at Thomson to bring a limited number of terror suspects from the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.
The administration explained its intentions in a letter sent to Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair.
Those departments "will work closely with state and local law enforcement authorities to identify and mitigate any risks" at the prison, the letter said.
Illinois Rep. Mark Kirk, the leading GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate next year, has petitioned the President against the move. “If your Administration brings al Qaeda terrorists to Illinois, our state and the Chicago Metropolitan Area will become ground zero for jihadist terrorist plots, recruitment and radicalization.”
Kirk’s letter also said, “As home to America’s tallest building and leading defense suppliers, we should not invite al Qaeda to make Illinois its number one target.”
A recent Rasmussen Reports telephone survey found that 51 percent of Illinois voters oppose relocating some suspected terrorists from the Guantanamo prison camp in Cuba to a prison in their state. Meanwhile, 39 percent favor the idea.
This sentiment among Illinois residents is despite the fact that federal facilities currently house 340 international and domestic terrorists — 35 of which are already being held in Marion, Illinois.
Manzello said he asked Phillip Carter, deputy assistant secretary of Defense and Detainee Policy, last month whether the transfer of prisoners from Gitmo to Thomson would result in an increased security risk for the surrounding area, giving it Gitmo’s stigma.
“Mr. Carter agreed with me there would be an increased security risk to Northwest Illinois, but he had no way of estimating the extent of this threat. He said, however, he was confident that federal and local law enforcement officials could ‘manage the risk.’ ”
A Justice Department memo sent to Defense Secretary Gates was published last week on Andrew Breitbart’s website www.biggovernment.com. The memo said, “The Attorney General shall as expeditiously as possible acquire and activate the TCC (Thomson Correctional Center) as a United States Penitentiary, which the Attorney General has determined would alleviate the Bureau of Prisons’ shortage of maximum security cell space and could be used for other purposes. The Attorney General shall also provide to the Department of Defense a sufficient portion of the TCC to serve as a detention facility to be operated by the Department of Defense, to accommodate the relocation of detainees” currently held at Guatanamo Bay Detention Facility.
In a joint statement, Sen. Dick Durbin (D.-Ill.) and Quinn said they were “encouraged” by the memo.
"As we have said many times, this move will have an enormous impact on our state — potentially generating up to 3,800 jobs and potentially injecting more than $1 billion into the regional economy,” the statement said. “This is an opportunity to dramatically reduce unemployment, create thousands of good-paying jobs and breathe new economic life into this part of downstate Illinois."
While Manzullo and Kirk — along with their fellow Illinois Republican Representatives Judy Biggert and Peter Roskam — strongly oppose the idea, the president has had a much easier time selling the idea to his home state when compared to the stiff resistance the administration faced this summer over the potential of sending prisoners to Michigan or Kansas.
Kansas Sens. Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback — both Republicans — were so concerned about sending detainees to their state that they bogged down the confirmation of Obama administration appointees until the White House provided them with additional details about the potential move. Plus, former Democratic Kansas governor and now Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, wrote President Obama in January of this year and expressed opposition over moving Gitmo to Ft Leavenworth.
Still, for Gov. Quinn, the move makes economic sense.
He inherited a sinking financial ship from Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat. For years, the state has worked off a budget that has spent more money than it has brought in. In fact, a recent Pew Center on the States Report ranked Illinois in the Top 10 of states on shaky financial footing.
Meanwhile, Durbin simply seems convinced that the prisoners should be transferred and, based on his experience with other super-max facilities in Illinois, could be held without a problem.
The Obama Administration’s search for a place to house the detainees is part of its early vow to close the Guantanamo Bay Prison. He signed an executive order on his first day in office promising to shut the prison down by Jan. 22, 2010 — a deadline that will be difficult to meet.