WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama has ordered the federal government to acquire an underused state prison in rural Illinois to be the new home for a limited number of terror suspects now held at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The federal government will acquire Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson, Ill., transforming the prison in a sleepy town near the Mississippi River into a prison that exceeds "supermax standards," according to a letter to Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair.
Those departments "will work closely with state and local law enforcement authorities to identify and mitigate any risks" at the prison, the letter said.
The decision is an important step toward closing Guantanamo Bay. Thomson, about 150 miles from Chicago, is expected to house both federal inmates and no more than 100 detainees from Guantanamo Bay.
Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin and Quinn were receiving briefings Tuesday on the plan at the White House.
Administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they could not yet lay out a timeframe for when a transfer of detainees from the Navy-run detention facility to Thomson. They said the administration would have to work with Congress to amend laws and secure funding before any prisoners are brought to U.S. soil.
The officials said military tribunals for potential detainees would be held at Thomson. They also said that the facility could house detainees whom the president determines must be held indefinitely but can't be tried.
Republicans were quick to criticize the administration's plan.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the American people "already have rejected bringing terrorists to U.S. soil." He accused the administration of failing to explain how transferring the detainees would keep the public safer than keeping them offshore in Cuba.
The facility in Thomson had emerged as a clear front-runner after Illinois officials, led by Durbin, enthusiastically embraced the idea of turning a near-dormant prison over to federal officials.
Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill., said he had "full confidence that the facility will hold these terrorism suspects safely and securely." In a statement, Burris said that with Illinois struggling with 11 percent unemployment, the transfer will be "a great economic benefit to the state by creating over 3,000 well-paying jobs and bringing in valuable federal dollars to fund local facility operations."
The Thomson Correctional Center was one of several potential sites evaluated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to potentially house detainees from Guantanamo Bay. Officials with other prisons, including Marion, Ill., Hardin, Mont., and Florence, Colo., had said they would welcome the jobs that would be created with the new inmates.
The Thomson facility was built by Illinois in 2001 as a state prison with the potential house maximum security inmates. Local officials hoped it would improve the local economy, but state budget problems have kept the 1,600-cell prison from ever fully opening. At present, it houses about 200 minimum-security inmates whom Illinois officials have said can easily be transferred to other state prisons.
Under the plan outlined Tuesday, the Thomson prison will be purchased by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and run primarily as a standard federal prison. A portion of the facility would be leased to the Defense Department to house a limited number of Guantanamo detainees.
The Thomson facility will receive upgrades that take it beyond the security level at any current U.S. prison, including the nation's only "supermax" facility in Florence, Colo. Already built to maximum security standards, the 146-acre Thomson facility will receive more upgrades from the Department of Defense including additional fencing and other security technology.
Some Illinois officials have not supported the idea. GOP Rep. Mark Kirk, who is seeking Obama's old Senate seat, said Tuesday he believes moving Guantanamo detainees to Illinois will make the state a greater threat for terrorist attacks. Kirk has lobbied other officials to contact the White House in opposition to using the facility.
Thomson will not solve all the administration's Guantanamo-related problems. There still will be dozens of detainees who are not relocated to Thomson, other legal issues and potential resistance from Congress.