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Michigan town lobbies for Gitmo transfers

- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 15, 2009

OKEMOS, Mich. | While politicians across America furiously resist the idea of transferring Guantanamo Bay detainees to their communities, one small Michigan town is lobbying to get them.

Standish, Mich., Mayor Kevin King is looking at the terrorism suspects as a possible new lease on life for the Standish Maximum Correctional Facility, a major source of economic activity for his town that is scheduled to close at the end of this month.

It has been a lonely struggle, however. His proposal has angered state lawmakers who want involvement in the process, divided the region's residents and prompted a series of heated town-hall meetings.

Mr. King says that unless a way is found to keep the prison open, his community of 1,500 people will face economic devastation and be on the hook for millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements planned to service the prison.

"Financially, looking at what the closing of this state prison is doing to Standish, it's a no-brainer. We need someone in that prison. From a financial perspective, it's a viable option," Mr. King said. "We need someone in there to pay the bills."

The Standish City Council is scheduled to vote Thursday on a resolution to support transferring more than 200 incarcerated terrorism suspects to Standish when President Obama fulfills his promise to close the detention facility at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Arenac County Commission, representing the 17,000-resident county, passed a similar resolution of support earlier this month.

But opponents in nearby towns and across the state have hosted community forums arguing that expected new jobs and revenue infusions involved in the transfer are nothing compared with the security concerns.

At a town-hall meeting Tuesday night in Okemos, sponsored by the Michigan Coalition to Stop Gitmo North, terrorism scholar Peter M. Leitner of the Higgins Counterterrorism Research Center called moving prisoners to Michigan "state-assisted suicide."

Standish "will be radioactive," he said, noting that bringing terrorists onto U.S. soil would heighten their profile, revive legal issues surrounding their detention and give them access to supporters in cells here as they seek to wreak havoc against American citizens.

"These are the rock stars of international Islamist terrorism," Mr. Leitner said, noting the prison's proximity to urban population centers along with "soft targets" such as schools, and warning of hostage-style massacres similar to the 2004 attack in Beslan, Russia, where at least 330 people were killed, including 186 schoolchildren.

"The logistics in moving prisoners here is absolutely enormous," he added, citing security burdens on law enforcement and public safety resources that he described as an "unfunded mandate" for an already cash-strapped state. "It won't make Michigan a place for tourism, for investment. ... It makes it a place where people don't want to live."

At Tuesday's forum, nobody spoke in favor of moving the terrorism suspects to the Standish prison.

Mr. King, who will serve in his mayoral post for three more weeks, told The Washington Times that the groups opposing the transfer of Guantanamo prisoners to Standish is small. He said "a lot of propaganda" with little basis in fact is being spread about such issues as road closures and eminent domain, and he insisted the town's people welcome the idea.

The prison is the county's largest employer and a key source for money for the area. The mayor said the city is on the hook for $7 million in outstanding bonds for sewer and water system upgrades for the prison and the debt will sink the city's finances if there isn't something to replace it.

"We have a financial burden with those bonds," he said. "If no one is in that prison, then it's on the taxpayers here to take care of that."

But Kelly Kimball, a former Arenac County commissioner who opposes the transfer, said at Tuesday's town-hall meeting that the residents have been misinformed. She said jobs at the prison will be held by federal government employees and military personnel, who will be transient - not local. These prison employees will not move their families to the area and likely will take their money elsewhere rather than boost the local economy.

"The people who are in favor of this have been told by elected officials who were told by the Department of Defense that there will be 1,000 jobs and $1 million dumped into this community. But our officials haven't been able to get anything in writing," she said. "Everything that is being said is unsubstantiated."

Linda Brenner of Detroit, who also opposes the plan, said, "People here are operating in the dark. They don't know about the background of these detainees."

She said administration and state leaders have been too quiet on their intentions while local leaders near Standish have negotiated with the federal government without state oversight.

"We are operating in a black hole of information here," said Ms. Brenner, who helped organize forums, including one in Rochester Hills, Mich., on Monday that drew about 300 people.

Federal officials toured the Standish prison, located about 150 miles from Detroit, in August. Mr. King said he met with 23 government officials this summer and that their talks were productive.

On his first full day in office, Mr. Obama pledged to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center within a year, but several administration officials have since hinted that the deadline may not be met. Federal officials have said a prison in Leavenworth, Kan., is under consideration.

Megan Brown, deputy press secretary for Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, a Democrat, said the governor's position on the issue remains the same.

"She has said that she has concerns and until those concerns are addressed she is not in favor of relocating Guantanamo detainees to Michigan," Ms. Brown said Wednesday. "We have been in continuous conversations with the White House and they have let us know that no decisions have been made."

Ms. Granholm has attempted to bring prisoners from other states with overcrowded prison systems, including California and Pennsylvania, to fill the void and job losses at Standish.

State Sen. Wayne Kuipers, Holland Republican and chairman of Michigan's Senate Judiciary Committee, bemoaned what he and other lawmakers fear are local and federal officials circumventing state lawmakers to push through the prisoner exchange. He said he plans to fight such efforts.

"If those prisoners are going to be here in Michigan, it will be on our terms," he said.

State Rep. Joe Haveman, Holland Republican, this week introduced House Resolution 165, which calls on Mr. Obama and members of Congress to oppose the detainee relocation to the U.S.

His bill notes that while Michigan unemployment is significant, "making such an important decision that will affect the selected community and Michigan for years or decades to come based on today's unemployment rate ignores the potential ongoing national security consequences of such a decision."

Mr. Haveman, who attended the Okemos forum Tuesday, said the risk is too great for his state to cave in to economic pressures. He said the federal government has not responded to requests for classified information on detainees and has refused to allow state and local leaders to tour Guantanamo Bay to see for themselves what it takes to house the prisoners there.

"The federal government should not be negotiating this with a mayor or community leaders," he said. "We need to make sure we have access to information on these prisoners. Public safety is the No. 1 responsibility of legislators."

Michelle Begnoche, press secretary for U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat from Menominee, said the lawmaker supports the move as long as there is state and local support.

She said Standish remains under consideration as one relocation point for the detainees and her office has been in contact with the White House on the issue.

"It's my understanding that no decisions have been made" on the transfer, she said.

Mr. Stupak, in a statement issued in August, said, "Any proposal must have a comprehensive security analysis and economic and job creation implications. I will work with local and state officials to gauge their level of support before a final decision is made."

The U.S. Senate has twice voted overwhelmingly against transferring detainees to the United States. Every aspect of bringing Guantanamo detainees onto U.S. soil continues to be politically charged. The Obama administration's plan to try some detainees in federal courts instead of military tribunals will be challenged in the Senate as soon as Thursday.

The Republican measure would prohibit civilian trials for detainees accused of involvement in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. About five of the approximately 220 remaining detainees are suspected in those attacks, including professed plot mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. The administration reportedly is considering trying them in federal courts in New York, Virginia and the District.

Senate Republicans argue that military commissions or tribunals are best equipped to handle evidence and top-secret intelligence in the cases that could compromise national security if revealed in open court.

"These guys are not common criminals, they are war criminals," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican and sponsor of the legislation that has been offered as an amendment to the Justice Department appropriations bill for 2010.

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin said the amendment is misguided and would tie the hands of the attorney general in dealing with terrorism suspects. He noted in a Senate floor speech on Wednesday that more than 350 terrorists have been convicted in U.S. courts and 355 are serving time in U.S. prisons.

"We know we can successfully prosecute them under American law," he said. "Why would the Republicans want to shield them from prosecution under American law?"

Retired Army Lt. Col. Gordon Cucullu, a former Green Beret and author of a book on Guantanamo who has been a featured speaker at the recent Michigan town-hall meetings, said he thinks the Obama administration - which he said is smarting from failures on key issues in the last year - may try to push through the prisoner transfer.

He thinks the president's motives may be to make the move "strictly for image reasons," as the military-run facility in Cuba has been condemned globally by human rights activists who argue that incarcerating people indefinitely without due process is wrong.

"These aren't innocent people," said Col. Cucullu, who has visited Guantanamo five times and calls it "an excellent facility" where prisoners have full access to the international community, including the Red Cross.

"If we bring these guys to the U.S., we are asking for it," he said. "I don't think that is fair for the people of the U.S., Michigan or Standish."

Mr. King said the prison has been a huge asset to his city for its 19 years of existence and he has no fears that terrorist suspects would escape.

"If you have been to Standish Max, you'd have no concerns about them breaking out. It's a state-of-the-art facility. No one is going to get out of there. In 19 years, no one has," the mayor said.

He also dismissed concerns that a prison holding hundreds of Muslims would become a symbolic target for jihadists.

"I can't predict the future, but as far as terrorists coming here to Standish, we could play that game all night. I can tell you that there are three prisons in the United States that hold international terrorists. You aren't aware of any terrorist attacks on those communities, are you?" he asked.

S.A. Miller contributed to this report from Washington.