WASHINGTON -- President Obama ordered the federal government Tuesday to buy the Thomson Correctional Center in northwest Illinois to house Guantanano detainees as the administration revealed that military trials would be conducted at the prison.
Meanwhile, critics of Obama's plan to move the suspected terrorists now at the military prison in Cuba to Thomson -- 150 miles west of Chicago -- included all seven Republican members of the Illinois congressional delegation: Peter Roskam, John Shimkus, Mark Kirk, Judy Biggert, Don Manzullo, Aaron Schock and Tim Johnson together in a rare joint press conference at the Capitol. The GOP Senate and House leaders, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), as well as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), also objected to the transfer.
The Obama order to buy the nearly vacant Thomson facility comes as the president has struggled to close Guantanamo, a central campaign pledge. Abuses at Guantanamo that some called torture -- and the detention of suspected terrorists without charges -- gave the U.S. a black eye and provided al-Qaida with a recruiting tool.
On his first day in office, Obama signed an executive order pledging to shut the prison by Jan. 22, 2010, a deadline Obama conceded will not be met because of the unforeseen complexities in dealing with the disposition of suspected terrorists.
The administration says its military commission court -- now at Guantanamo -- will be moved to Thomson; it's not known how many trials will end up being conducted there. A military trial is not an open proceeding; no family or friends would be allowed in the courtroom, only legal and law enforcement officials and international observers, such as the Red Cross.
There are about 210 detainees at Guantanamo. Some have been or will be transferred to other countries. Five will face federal trial in New York City, with others to be sent to courtrooms in other parts of the U.S. The remaining detainees will be transferred to Thomson.
The White House has refused to state any number. Sen Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has said about 100; White House briefers told the Illinois congressional delegation between 50 and 100. Those coming to Thomson fall into two categories: those awaiting military trials and those who, for now, will be detained without any trial.
Obama picked Thomson in his adopted home state in part because Gov Quinn and Durbin championed the plan, Thomson wanted it and there was no political roadblock in the Democratic-run state that would block the sale. Durbin and Quinn promoted Thomson it as a jobs-creation program in a part of the state with a high unemployment rate. Quinn and Durbin were at the White House on Tuesday afternoon for briefings on the acquisition.
Earlier Tuesday, Quinn was sent a letter pledging federal support to work with state officials "to identify and mitigate" any risks in connection with the transfer of the Guantanamo detainees to Illinois. The letter to Quinn was unusual in that it was signed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and National Intelligence Director Dennis C. Blair.
In related developments:
• Under Illinois law, several appraisals of the prison must be made in order to establish a selling price. Quinn told the Chicago Sun-Times that he expected the federal government to purchase Thomson for "at least" the $145 million it cost to build in 2001.
• GOP critics said that as long as detainees will be held at Thomson without charges or trial, the Obama White House would be, as Roskam said, "simply moving Guantanamo to Illinois." White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that Thomson would not become another rallying point, "not nearly to the degree -- not in any way, shape or form nearly to the degree that currently exists." Congress would have to vote to lift a ban barring detainees not facing trial from being transferred to U.S. soil.
*The Bureau of Prisons would purchase Thomson and operate 75 percent of it as a federal prison; 25 percent would be leased to the Defense Department for the Guantanamo detainees. Durbin, outside the White House, said that with security upgrades, Thomson will become "the safest prison in America."