With Guantanamo closing, where will the detainees go?

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 22, 2009 

LEAVENWORTH, Kan. — If not Guantanamo, then where?

Anything but a welcoming party is forming here.

When President Barack Obama signed an order Thursday forcing the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention center within a year, he put in sharp relief the possibility that some of the world's most potentially dangerous terror suspects could be hauled to Kansas.

The U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth is on a list of imperfect choices for holding nearly 200 men whose legal status is as murky as their backgrounds.

Obama's long-promised action only heightened chances that Leavenworth could be the new focus for a contentious debate over how to prosecute non-citizens for alleged actions overseas, and whether their legal limbo has a foreseeable end.

"We're a military community and people understand that we need to do what the commander-in-chief says," said Andrea Adkins, Leavenworth's economic development administrator. "But there is a security threat any place where these people are located."

Kansas politicians and local government officials have complained loudly about the possibility of America's most troublesome captives being brought to the Midwest. Opponents' arguments center on security - both that the military prison might not be equipped for such high-risk inmates, and that the base and the community might be targeted by terrorists.

"This is just not going to happen on our watch," said Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas.

Sen. Sam Brownback, another Kansas Republican, said he also has been told by officials from Muslim countries that they would no longer send officers to the Army Command and General Staff College if the detainees came to the Leavenworth Army base.

"We've already heard from students from Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia that they will leave, or be pulled by their governments, if the detainees from Guantanamo are moved there," Brownback said. "It's where these relationships are built with foreign officers, particularly in the Islamic world. This really hurts us."

Obama's administration has yet to address where the Guantanamo inmates will end up. In fact, the detainee's ultimate destination poses a myriad of unsettled legal questions.

Currently 245 men are being held at the Guantanamo prison camp, which opened almost seven years ago. Most have been held for years without being charged with any crime. Roughly 60 have been cleared of accusations, but their home countries have so far refused their return.

Another undetermined number could be shipped to their home countries or to third-party nations seen as open to such overtures from the Obama administration.

But a significant majority will likely remain in U.S. custody - either to face prosecution, or because Washington considers them too great a threat to walk free in the United States or abroad.

"The message that we are sending the world," Obama said Thursday, "is that the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism and we are going to do so vigilantly and we are going to do so effectively and we are going to do so in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals."

Obama signed orders calling for the review of military war crimes trials, closing any remaining CIA secret prisons overseas, and banning the harshest interrogation methods employed during his predecessor's administration.

He already had suspended trials for terror suspects at Guantanamo for 120 days pending a review of military tribunals. The president also created a task force to recommend where to send terror suspects captured in the future since the Guantanamo prison's days are numbered.

Those moves instantly altered how the United States questions and prosecutes members of al Qaida, the Taliban and a disparate collection of foreign fighters who don't fit neatly into classification as prisoners of war or criminal defendants.

The changes largely won applause overseas.

German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said the prisoners are America's problem and that any Guantanamo inmates who can't go home "out of human rights considerations" will simply "need to remain in the United States."

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, also welcomed the orders and called for a further review of detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq. "Those who are considered innocent are entitled to their freedom without delay," Pillay said.

There has been speculation that the Guantanamo detainees could end up at the Pul-e-Charki prison outside Kabul, Afghanistan. Or that some might be sent to the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, S.C., or to one of two Marine bases in California.

Or to Leavenworth.

An informal survey Thursday on the streets of Leavenworth found reactions ranging from confidence that the Army would continue to keep the community safe, to concerns that the town will be visited by new dangers and its name become synonymous with terrorist incarceration.

"The question that comes to my mind is how secure it will be," said Timothy Swan, the owner of Alpha Geeks Computers in downtown Leavenworth.

Anita Maynard, the owner of the Queen's Pantry shop, feared the transfer of prisoners might too strongly reinforce Leavenworth's image as simply a prison town at the expense of its other attributes - such as being home to a college for mid-career Army officers.

Dianne Hawkins, a homemaker married to a soldier, said she had confidence that if the detainees came the Army could keep things safe.

But that security question was key for Brendan Sheehan, who runs a bicycle shop in Leavenworth. If he were assured that the town stayed safe, Sheehan said he could imagine an economic boon.

"That's that many more workers here in town," he said. "That could mean more customers."

Yet the city, Leavenworth County, and the local chamber of commerce have all taken public stands against making Leavenworth the new Guantanamo.

In addition to security worries, a statement by the city suggested it could take an economic hit if use of the town's small airport or local rail lines were restricted because of the high-risk inmates.

Opponents also insist that Leavenworth isn't suitable because it's only a medium security facility with just one maximum-security wing.

"These are some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world," said Roberts, a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who has toured Guantanamo.

Critics also said the base was not isolated, but located in the midst of a city of 35,000 people, near a river and not far from Kansas City International Airport.

What's more, Geneva Convention rules and U.S. law forbid housing enemy combatants with military prisoners charged with criminal offenses.

Republican Rep. Todd Tiahrt of Kansas pointed out that the campus-style construction would make it difficult to separate inmates, and the base lacks the necessary medical facilities.

Rep. Lynn Jenkins, a Republican elected in November whose district includes Leavenworth, was blunt.

Jenkins said the Guantanamo inmates would come to Kansas "over my dead body."

Staff writer Matt Schofield contributed to this report.

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