FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. — An idea to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp for war-on-terror detainees and transfer the prisoners to the military prison here — championed for more than a year by Republican presidential hopeful John McCain — has drawn sharp opposition from the base's commander and both of Kansas' U.S. senators.
The opposition is a sign of a split within the GOP over detainee policy in a state that traditionally has voted Republican in presidential elections. Both Kansas senators, Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts, are Republicans.
In a letter to their fellow senators Wednesday, the two pleaded that their state not become home to any prisoners still in U.S. custody when Guantanamo is closed, something both McCain and Democratic hopeful Barrack Obama have pledged to do as president.
"We do not believe it is fair to ask our best corrections officers to disrupt the mission they perform so well in order to take on a detainee mission that will not improve on arrangements at Guantanamo Bay," the senators wrote. "Nor is it fair to ask the Kansas community to assume the responsibility associated with being located immediately adjacent to these detainees."
Their concerns are echoed by Army Lt. Gen. William Caldwell IV, the base commander, who told McClatchy on Monday that while he hadn't been asked his opinion, he had decided on a response: "If you really want to bring them someplace back on the mainland of the United States of America," he said, "you should find some other location. Not here would be my proposal."
Caldwell said the Fort Leavenworth prison, known formally as the Disciplinary Barracks, would require a major revamping if foreigners were to be housed here.
"Our facilities aren't built or equipped to really handle that type of population. There would have to be dramatic changes that would be made here. I mean significantly dramatic changes," Caldwell said.
Caldwell also said holding suspected terrorists in an area that also houses military families would present problems as well.
"We have a huge family population at Fort Leavenworth. I mean it's enormous," he said. "Is that what you want literally a mile away from where you have all these young families?"
What to do about the prisoners held at Guantanamo is all but certain to be one of the thorniest issues McCain or Obama face when one of them assumes the presidency in just seven months. Both Obama and McCain have promised that they would close Guantanamo, which today holds 270 war-on-terror captives.
Obama has offered no suggestion of what specifically he'd do with the people held there, most of whom are not expected to face criminal charges; Pentagon prosecutors have brought charges against 19 and have said they expect 80 eventually to face some kind of criminal charge.
McCain, however, has been specific. "I would close Guantanamo Bay. And I would move those prisoners to Fort Leavenworth," he said in an interview with CBS's 60 Minutes that aired in April 8, 2007. He's used similar words since in interviews with Fox News, CNN, Charlie Rose and at a January campaign appearance in Michigan.
Brownback spokesman Brian Hart said the senator, who was a candidate for the GOP nomination before withdrawing and endorsing McCain, has yet to speak to McCain on the subject. But he plans to as part of his campaign to head off transferring the detainees here. Hart said Brownback met Wednesday with Defense Department officials to argue against the move.
"The limitations of Fort Leavenworth aren't currently well understood outside of Kansas, and Brownback is currently laying out all the relevant facts," Hart said.
In their letter, Brownback and Roberts cited a series of deficiencies that argue against Fort Leavenworth as a prison for suspected terrorists, from insufficient cell space to the inappropriateness of imprisoning foreign captives near American prisoners who are members of the U.S. military.
They also said holding the detainees at the facility would pose the same legal questions and create the same image problems as holding them at Guantanamo, without the security of an isolated base surrounded in part by water. They estimated that moving Guantanamo detainees to Kansas would require 750 additional staff, such as guards and other jail personnel, and noted there is now no place to house them at the base.
Moreover, the senators wrote that Fort Leavenworth has no "24-hour hospital or an emergency room. So after-hours medical emergencies would require moving detainees off-post and through the city of Leavenworth — an unacceptable security risk."
The senators urged members of Congress to visit Fort Leavenworth. "We are confident any visitor wouold conclude that Fort Leasvenworth Disciplinary Barracks is not capable of handling these detainees," they wrote.
McCain has said he'd like to close Guantanamo because its image has hurt the United States' international standing. His campaign's national security advisor, Randy Scheunemann, has said that McCain believes that some of the men could be held and tried by military commission at Fort Leavenworth.
Democratic Sen. Barack Obama also has pledged to close Guantanamo. But he has not said where he might move the men, who include the five alleged 9/11 co-conspirators and other reputed senior al Qaida terrorists.
(Rosenberg, of the Miami Herald, reported from Miami; Youssef from Fort Leavenworth. David Goldstein contributed to this report from Washington)