President Obama's decision to overhaul a state prison in northwest Illinois to house up to 100 detainees from the Guantanamo Bay prison is drawing heavy fire from Republican congressmen who warn the move poses a serious threat to national security.
One major concern: The administration's bid to move high-risk prisoners onto U.S. soil comes amidst a rash of plots by home-grown terrorists to sow mayhem, including jihadist bombings and suicide attacks both domestically and abroad. Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, R-Ill., has warned the president's plan to create a "supermax" style facility to incarcerate terrorists at Thomson Correctional Center would create an inviting target for future attacks, making Illinois "ground zero for Jihadist terrorist plots, recruitment, and radicalization."
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GOP leaders point out that Chicago lies just 150 miles to the west. The Windy City boasts two prime targets for terrorists bent on sending a symbolic message: One of the nation's busiest airports, O'Hare International, and the country's tallest skyscraper, Sears Tower. In remarks on the House floor Monday, Kirk also stated the proposed facility "is only 22 miles from a nuclear reactor."
"That's the thing that just comes and hits you right across the head," Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, told Newsmax on Tuesday afternoon. "Wow, we've just had Fort Hood, we've had all kinds of hints at home-ground terrorism and people [being] radicalized, we're about to get a briefing on the five people who went to Pakistan. We're providing if anything a radicalization tool for homegrown terrorism by moving [9/11 mastermind] KSM to New York and by moving Gitmo to Thomson, Illinois. There's a total disconnect here with what is going on."
Democrats counter there has never been a successful prison break from a "supermax" maximum-security federal prison. The Thomson Correctional Center, which currently holds only a few hundred minimum-security inmates, will be extensively upgraded to enhance security. Moreover, the administration contends that doing away with the prison at Guantanamo Bay will ultimately remove a stain on America's reputation that al-Qaida used in its efforts to recruit new terrorists.
On Tuesday, a dozen members of the House's GOP caucus held a news conference to explain why they view the development as a threat to national security. Because the administration proposes to renovate the facility to accommodate both federal inmates as well as terrorist detainees, one grave concern is that jihadists could radicalize the general inmate population, thereby recruiting hardened criminals into the jihadist struggle. Democrats tried to head off that issue Tuesday, promising that the detainees will only be permitted to speak with their attorneys. Also, a court room will be constructed at the site so that military tribunals can be held within prison grounds, limiting the need to transfer inmates outside the facility to serious medical issues requiring surgery, or for civil judicial proceedings when those occur.
Hoekstra says, however, that such limits on detainees' rights are certain to be tested in the courts, however, once the terror suspects step foot on U.S. soil.
"You will get all types of lawsuits coming out: These people have been held indefinitely, they will not have had a right to a speedy trial, they were not Mirandized," Hoekstra says. "You're going to get hundreds of lawsuits filed as soon as these people set foot on U.S. soil … hundreds of lawsuits on their behalf.
"Then the courts will decide No. 1 whether they will continue to be detained, how long, who they can talk to, that kinds of thing. It will not be [U.S. Attorney General] Eric Holder, it will not be the Federal Bureau of Prisons. It will be the U.S. court system," he says.
House Republicans cite a Congressional Research Service finding that "non-citizens held in the United States may be entitled to more protections under the Constitution than those detained abroad."
Hoekstra says the emphasis on closing down Guantanamo's prison, even at the cost of moving the detainees to a U.S. prison, suggests the Obama administration has failed to learn the most important lesson from the 9/11 attacks: That the jihadist terror threat must be viewed as a national security rather than law enforcement issue, in order to stave off future attacks.
He adds that the administration has been reluctant to share information on terrorism cases for fear of disrupting their ongoing investigations.
"You hear this and say, 'Excuse me folks, this is all about homegrown terrorism and what we need to do to identify and stop it. It's much more serious than just potentially prosecuting somebody.' But they've very much taken a criminal approach," Hoekstra says of the administration. "[It's] a law enforcement approach to dealing with terrorism … and I think it's weakened our effort, yes."
Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, reportedly went so far as to say the administration "must've forgotten" about the Americans who died in the terror attacks on 9/11. "I think the administration wasn't around for 9/11," Boehner said, according to a Politico.com.
That remark provoked a sharp response from Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who along with Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn discussed the sale of the Thomson facility with administration officials at the White House before speaking to the media.
"Would he say the same thing about President Bush's call to close Guantanamo?" Durbin shot back when asked to comment on Boehner's remark. "Would he say the same thing about [Defense] Secretary [Robert] Gates, who served under both administrations, that they somehow forgot 9/11? That is an unfair statement. We will never forget 9/11. And we will make certain that the people who are responsible for it are held accountable, either through military tribunals or through the courts of our land."
In the waning months of his presidency, former President George W. Bush expressed that he wished the controversial Guantanamo prison could be done away with. He did not propose bringing jihad suspects to the United States, however.
The administration's effort to fulfill President Obama's January executive order directing that Guantanamo's prison be closed has run into several complications. Some countries have refused to repatriate detainees. Others, such as Yemen, have developed a well earned reputation for letting even the most hardened jihadists back out on the streets as soon as they return to their native land.
Initially, the administration looked into the possibility of transferring the terrorism suspects to the Fort Leavenworth prison facility in Kansas. Then-Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who later accepted Obama's invitation to serve as his Secretary of Health and Human Services, opposed the move. She wrote the administration a letter saying the facility "lacks the capability to host any number of Gitmo detainees."
Another proposal was to house the inmates in a Michigan facility. That encountered strong resistance from citizens there who opposed the move.
The choice of Thomson apparently stems from the dire economic circumstances facing the town, whose population has dropped below 500 persons. The state prison cost $145 million to build, but has never held more than a few hundred inmates since it opened in 2001.
Desperate for the more than 3,000 jobs that the facility is expected to bring, the town's officials offered to go along with a state plan to sell the underused state prison facility there to the federal government. The administration says more than 30 community and business organizations supported converting the prison into a home for Guantanamo's detainees.
Support for the administration's plan is far from universal in the Land of Lincoln, however.
In November, Rep. Melissa Bean, D-Ill., remarked: "I remain opposed to transferring Guantanamo detainees to Illinois, or anywhere in the United States, while awaiting more detailed information on what's being proposed, including potential security threats and plans for resolving detainees' final status. As of yet, I have seen neither."
On Friday, a Rasmussen Reports poll showed that Illinois voters opposed bringing Guantanamo terror suspects to their state by a 51 percent to 38 percent margin.
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