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Obama's Illinois prison plan faces a high wall: the GOP

Lawmakers signal they'll seek to block the president's proposal to move terrorism suspects from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to a facility in Thomson, Ill.

December 16, 2009|By Christi Parsons and James Oliphant
  • The White House wants to make the Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois a federal prison, with a section for Guantanamo detainees.
The White House wants to make the Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois… (M. Spencer Green / Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — As the White House on Tuesday detailed its proposal to move terrorism suspects from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to a prison in rural Illinois, some lawmakers made it clear that they would try to derail President Obama's plans to shutter the controversial detention center.

In addition to buying the nearly empty state prison in Thomson, Ill., to house the Guantanamo detainees, the government said, it plans to set up a courtroom in the facility for defendants who will be tried before a military commission.

Pentagon officials said they would send as many as 1,500 military personnel to serve at the underused prison, and that they would hold annual hearings to review whether detainees were a threat and should remain there or whether they qualified for transfer to other countries.

But Republican lawmakers' opposition could prove a serious obstacle to the plan, White House aides said, because congressional action is needed to change a law that bars the transfer of detainees to U.S. soil for any purpose other than prosecution.

On the other hand, the willingness of many state and local officials to host the Defense Department outpost near the Mississippi River bodes well for Obama, who had vowed that one of his first presidential acts would be to shut down Guantanamo.

Leaders in the struggling Illinois town have said they want the jobs that would come with full usage of the 1,600-cell Thomson Correctional Center, to be operated mostly by the Bureau of Prisons to house federal inmates.

A separate unit would be turned over to the Defense Department to serve as a military detention center -- holding suspects bound for prosecution in the tribunal as well as detainees the government decides it can't prosecute but can't safely release.

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

There are 210 detainees now in custody at Guantanamo, about 90 of whom have been cleared for transfer back to their native countries.

Aides to Obama said they do not want to start work on the prison until Congress approves funding for the project and agrees to the transfer of suspects for detention.

One Democratic official on Capitol Hill, who requested anonymity when discussing administration plans, said the security upgrades needed to turn the maximum-security prison into a supermax facility could take eight months or more. It has widely been assumed that the administration will not make its Jan. 22 deadline for closing Guantanamo.

Under the plan laid out Tuesday, as many as 75 detainees could be sent before military commissions at Thomson. Officials estimated that the total population of the detention center would be fewer than 100 inmates.

It appeared Tuesday that the transfer plan would be rejected by Republicans, even those who have favored closing Guantanamo, such as Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the proposed facility "Gitmo North."

Some Democratic senators, such as Ben Nelson of Nebraska, have expressed unease with housing terrorism suspects within the continental U.S. -- meaning the support of Republicans such as McCain and Graham could be key to getting the law changed.

A senior Democratic congressional aide said legislation to allow the transfer of long-term detainees would probably go through the normal Pentagon budgeting process, something that could stretch into next year.

cparsons@latimes.com

joliphant@latimes.com

Julian E. Barnes, Katherine Skiba and Alexander C. Hart in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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