Critics warned Tuesday that a White House plan to move as many as 100 terrorism suspects from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility to a prison in Illinois could create a new security risk in the American heartland, but the Obama administration dismissed the concerns as “scare tactics and hyperbole.”
The announcement that the federal government would purchase the underused prison complex in Thomson, Ill., opened a new chapter in the debate over the future of scores of detainees who have been confined in legal limbo.
Administration officials said the purchase of the prison, which was built in 2001 for $145 million, would resolve the most vexing political question surrounding President Obama’s pledge to shut down the detention facility at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - finding a secure place to put the world’s most dangerous terrorists.
“This will be the most secure facility of all time,” said Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said it was important to “separate what might be legitimate concern with what is nothing more than scare tactics and hyperbole that we haven’t seen in quite some time, even in a glorious town like Washington.”
But a number of top congressional Republicans warned that moving the Guantanamo detainees to the mainland poses major legal, security and logistical problems.
“By moving known terrorists to American soil, the Obama administration is putting international public relations ahead of public safety,” said Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican and chairman of the House Republican Conference.
“How does closing Guantanamo Bay make us safer?” he asked. “How does moving over 70 known terrorists to a facility in my beloved heartland of this country make our families more safe? And how does it even make sense?”
Mr. Quinn estimated that once the federal government purchases the prison from the state, a transaction that has yet to be negotiated, roughly 1,500 federal inmates would be housed there and about 100 terrorism suspects would be segregated in a separate wing that would be overseen by military guards.
National Security Adviser James L. Jones said the transfer would enable the president to close Guantanamo, a move he said would make the U.S. safer and solve a “national security issue of the highest order.”
“In taking this action, we are removing from terrorist organizations around the world a recruiting tool,” Mr. Jones said.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, applauded the selection of the Thomson site. He said the move was supported by national security analysts and by more than 30 municipal councils and chambers of commerce in his state.
Their support, he said, was largely because of the estimated 3,000 jobs that would be created by the placement of a maximum-security prison in a region of his state that has more than 11 percent unemployment.
Such a move has long divided Capitol Hill. Even some Democrats have questioned the readiness of the Justice Department to handle the shift.
Speaking on the House floor Tuesday, Mr. Pence said he was “astonished” by the decision.
House Republican Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, accused the president of putting liberal special-interest groups ahead of the safety and security of the American people.
“The American people don’t want dangerous terrorists imported onto U.S. soil,” he said.
When asked about Mr. Boehner’s remarks, Mr. Gibbs appeared annoyed.
“Here’s what I would suggest for John Boehner. Call up [CIA Director] Leon Panetta or [Director of National Intelligence] Denny Blair,” he said. “Ask them if he can come down and watch a video put out by al Qaeda senior leadership. … Thirty-two times since 2001 and four times this year alone, senior al Qaeda leadership in recruiting videos have used the prison at Guantanamo Bay as a clarion call to bring extremists from around the world to join their effort.”
“Closing Guantanamo Bay makes this country safer,” he said.
Opponents of a Guantanamo detainee move to an empty maximum-security prison in rural Standish, Mich., expressed relief Tuesday upon learning that the prisoners would not be coming to their state. But they also were dismayed that the White House would consider bringing the detainees anywhere on U.S. soil.
“It doesn’t change the fact that it’s not good for our country,” said Standish businessman Dave Munson, who ran a write-in campaign for mayor as the prisoner-transfer issue bitterly divided residents of his small town. “These people don’t belong here,” he said.
Standish emerged as a possible relocation site when Mayor Kevin King proposed using the Standish Maximum Correctional Facility, a major source of economic activity for his town that is scheduled to close.
Mr. Munson had worked since August to block the detainees from coming to Standish, fearing their presence would create security risks. He noted the proximity to the U.S. border and to the nation’s largest Islamic population, in Dearborn, near Detroit, less than 150 miles away.
The reception has been more welcoming in Thomson, near the Illinois border with Iowa, in the northwestern corner of the state.
The town, which calls itself “the Melon Capital of the World” because of its watermelon crop, and its roughly 550 residents have remained stuck in hard times.
Residents say that bringing the Guantanamo detainees to the prison will give the economy a desperately needed boost.
That boost was expected when the Thomson Correctional Center was built in 2001, but the prison never fully opened and the promised jobs never arrived.
“We’ve struggled for nine years, and it’s truly been a struggle,” said Donna Opheim, manager of the Station, a dinner and truck stop in Thomson.
Ms. Opheim said the decision to bring the Guantanamo detainees to Thomson is “the best news I’ve heard in a long time.”
Dawn Burkholder, owner of Dawn’s Original Grooming, a pet-grooming business in Thomson, agreed.
“This is going to be a good thing,” she said during a telephone interview with The Washington Times. “I think it’s going to create a lot of little jobs that are behind the scenes that we don’t see.”
Neither woman expressed any fears about safety.
“I’m not concerned,” Ms. Burkholder said. “I think the federal government will take care of that.”
Ben Conery, Andrea Billups and Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.