A Justice Department official says the near-empty Thomson facility could… (M. Spencer Green /Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — President Obama has directed the federal government to buy a nearly empty state prison in rural Illinois to house up to 100 detainees held at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, officials said late Monday.
The administration plans to announce today that the government will acquire the Thomson Correctional Center to house federal inmates as well as a limited number of detainees.
Local officials have promoted the idea, in part because the project would create more than 3,000 jobs. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn plan to be in Washington for the announcement.
"Closing the detention center at Guantanamo is essential to protecting our national security and helping our troops by removing a deadly recruiting tool from the hands of Al Qaeda," an administration official said.
Under the administration's plans, some detainees will be sent to their home countries and others to third countries, some of which operate rehabilitation programs for terrorism suspects.
At present, there are 210 detainees in custody in Guantanamo, about 90 of whom have been cleared for transfer back to their native countries.
The Thomson prison could house 35 to 90 Guantanamo detainees, said one source familiar with the discussions. But other officials say the government hopes to house up to 100 of the detainees there.
The administration has also considered operating a military tribunal at or near the prison, where the government would try combatants charged with acts of terrorism. Officials did not comment on that idea Monday.
Thomson, on the Illinois border with Iowa, could be the sole location for what the administration calls "long-term detainees," those who will remain in custody but who are unlikely to stand trial because the evidence against them would not be admissible in court.
As one of his first presidential acts last January, Obama pledged to close the detention center at Guantanamo within a year.
Guantanamo had become a lightening rod for anti-American sentiment, as word leaked out about coercive interrogation techniques that included waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning.
Yet releasing even detainees who had been deemed no threat has proven difficult over the years.
None have been released into the United States, and few other nations have been willing to accept them.
Obama signaled last spring that he intended to transfer some of the detainees to secure facilities within the U.S.
In a speech at the National Archives in May, he also proposed what he called "prolonged detention" for terror suspects who couldn't be tried.
"We are not going to release anyone if it would endanger our national security," Obama said at the time. "As we make these decisions, bear in mind the following fact: Nobody has ever escaped from one of our federal super-max prisons, which hold hundreds of convicted terrorists."
Among civil libertarians, the idea raised immediate concerns about the due process of law and the human rights of detainees.
The president's open acknowledgment that some detainees can't be tried but can't be freed also triggered another debate, this one with former Vice President Dick Cheney.
That same day in May, Cheney voiced concern that locking up dangerous suspects on American soil would make the facilities and their host communities vulnerable to attack, as well as give enemy combatants a foothold in the U.S. to plot further attacks.
"I think the president will find, upon reflection," Cheney said then, "that to bring the worst of the worst terrorists inside the United States would be cause for great danger and regret in the years to come."
In Illinois on Monday, officials voiced support for the plan.
State Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, a Democrat, noted that several communities had weighed in with resolutions supporting the effort the make Thomson a federal prison.
"For those who live in that job-starved portion of the state, this is undoubtedly very welcome news," Schoenberg said. "Even the most conservative estimates of the economic impact that this would have are considerable."
Schoenberg is co-chairing a state panel that will hold a hearing on the issue. He said word from the White House is "consistent with everything that I've been led to expect."
The hearing is set for Dec. 22 before a bipartisan legislative panel.
The Quinn administration has said that lawmakers do not need to pass legislation for the sale to take place.
After the panel's advisory recommendation, the Quinn administration can sell the prison under the state's surplus property act.
Federal officials said that no price had been agreed upon.