U.S. will move its war court from Guantanamo to Illinois

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 15, 2009 

WASHINGTON — The White House said Tuesday it will move its war court from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to President Barack Obama's home state of Illinois, but officials couldn't say how soon or at what cost, and acknowledged they'll need support from Congress to fully implement the transition.

Administration officials declined to estimate how many of the 210 detainees at Guantanamo would move to the Thomson Correctional Center, but White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said he "wouldn't get in the way of contradicting" an estimate by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., of about 100 detainees.

A letter to Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and a presidential memorandum made official the federal government's intention to acquire the largely empty maximum-security facility about 150 miles west of Chicago.

A senior White House official said in a background briefing that the 146-acre prison was the intended site for the latest version of the military commissions trials, meant for war on terror captives accused of committing war crimes. The official also said the administration intended to transfer any so-called indefinite detainees to the facility, which would require congressional action.

Many Illinois officials and congressional Democrats support the idea, but Republicans cited concerns for Americans' safety, and human rights advocates underscored opposition to indefinite detentions on or off U.S. soil. Others worried Obama is being rushed by the antiwar base.

The latest move comes after nearly a year of obstacles being thrown in the path of Obama's plans to close the military prison in southeast Cuba.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a military lawyer, agrees with emptying Guantanamo camps "if done correctly," but suggested the latest development is more evidence that Obama's team "has lost its bearings in an effort to close Guantanamo as quickly as possible.

"The administration has sent a confusing message to our troops on the battlefield who no longer know when civilian law enforcement rules or the laws of war might apply," Graham said.

Even advocates of Guantanamo's closure viewed the skeletal plan outlined Tuesday with skepticism, however. "If Thomson will be used to facilitate (detainees') lawful prosecution, then this is truly a positive step," said Joanne Mariner, the counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. "But if the administration plans to hold the detainees indefinitely in the Thomson prison without charging them, President Obama will simply have moved Guantanamo to Illinois."

"It will pose no danger to the community," National Security Adviser James L. Jones said Tuesday, while Durbin vowed, "We will never forget 9/11."

On paper, officials said, the facility, first opened in 2001, would be the nation's most secure.

The letter to Quinn said acquiring Thomson would allow the federal government to carry out Obama's order to close the facility at Guantanamo, where suspected terrorists have been housed since 2002.

Reported abuses at Guantanamo during the Bush administration inflamed Islamic radicals and incurred disapproval from the international community. Obama sought to empty the prison camps at Guantanamo by Jan. 22, but has acknowledged the deadline can't be met.

Of detainees still at Guantanamo, five have been designated for federal trial, with another 25 under consideration. The Pentagon's Chief War Crimes Prosecutor, Navy Capt. John F. Murphy, has said his staff is building war crimes court cases for as many as 55 of the 210 detainees now at Guantanamo.

Separately, officials said they'd also use the portion of the Thomson prison used for Guantanamo detainees — as opposed to federal prisoners — for indefinite detainees, of whom there were nine approved by the federal courts through habeas corpus review, the yardstick a senior administration official said he'd use.

Two senior administration officials, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity at White House insistence, said current law would allow Guantanamo detainees awaiting military commission proceedings to be transferred to Thomson and would allow the facility to become the new site for those proceedings.

Guantanamo detainees awaiting prosecution through civilian courts wouldn't go to Thomson but to the jurisdiction where they'd be tried, such as alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four fellow accused, whom Attorney General Eric Holder have designated for trial in New York. Detainees to be sent to other countries would stay at Guantanamo until leaving the U.S., the officials said.

As for "indefinite detainees," whom the government likely couldn't prosecute but who are considered too much of a threat to national security to release, administration officials said they'd need Congress to change the law before they could be transferred to U.S. soil.

(Talev reported from Washington. Rosenberg, who reports for the Miami Herald, reported from Miami.)

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