Officials seek to reassure Illinois residents on Guantanamo prison transfer


Facing anxious citizens afraid of becoming terrorist targets, federal officials confirmed Tuesday that some of the most notorious Guantanamo detainees could be sent to Illinois if the Obama administration buys a state prison.

Illinois prison: An article in Wednesday’s Section A about a public hearing on whether to sell an Illinois prison to the federal government for housing detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other federal inmates said a state advisory commission would not vote on the proposal before Jan. 14. In fact, the panel has until Jan. 14 to make a recommendation to Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn. —

The proposed federal prison in Thomson would be the site for military tribunals for five alleged plotters in the 2000 bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole, said Alan Liotta, the Defense Department’s principal director for detainee policy, at a public hearing on the plan.

The prison could also house some of the alleged Sept. 11 plotters, perhaps including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, if they are convicted in an upcoming federal trial in New York City, officials said.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, plans to sell the underused Thomson Correctional Center to house up to 100 Guantanamo detainees and other maximum-security inmates. Thomson, about 150 miles west of Chicago along the Mississippi River, now houses about 200 minimum-security inmates, far below its capacity.

The state Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, which conducted the six-hour hearing, could not torpedo the federal prison plan even if it wanted to. Its recommendation on whether to sell the site would merely be advisory. The panel said it would not vote on the proposal before Jan. 14.

Quinn, who was en route to Germany, did not attend.

Surrounding communities welcome the proposal, as do many state officials, because of the estimated 3,000 jobs it could create.

But that brought no comfort to opponents, who called the plan too risky.

“Terrorists would want to hit us to make a point, here in the Midwest, in the American heartland,” Amanda Norms told the Associated Press. “Is a little economic gain worth the risk?”

She was among dozens of demonstrators who massed outside in the cold.

Security was tight: Attendees were patted down and bomb-sniffing dogs inspected bags. More than 300 people crowded into a high school auditorium in Sterling.

Speakers who supported the plan were frequently interrupted by boos and jeers, causing a panel co-chair, Democratic state Sen. Jeffrey Schoenberg, to call for “decorum” and threaten to eject disruptive people.

William Tonne, president of Blackhawk Hills Resource Conservation and Development, said opponents’ fears were unfounded. “We are ‘infidels.’ We were ‘infidels’ before 9/11,” he said. “How could we be any more at risk?”

But Beverly Perlson of the Band of Mothers group of military families said citizens should consider the worst-case scenario.

“I don’t think the jobs are going to mean anything if we have one more dead American,” she said.

Liotta, the Defense Department official, tried to reassure the crowd.

“Let me be clear: The security of the facility and that of the surrounding region is our paramount concern,” he said.

“I appreciate your optimism,” said state Sen. Matt Murphy, a Republican who is running for lieutenant governor. “I can’t say that I share it.”

President Obama has pledged to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by January, but administration officials have acknowledged that the deadline will be missed. Because of the security upgrades required, a new federal prison is unlikely to open before 2011.

Some of the Guantanamo detainees would face trial before military commissions at Thomson; others would be detained indefinitely without trial. But for them to be transferred here, federal law would have to be altered: Current law prohibits transferring detainees to U.S. soil except for trial.

Federal and state officials said independent appraisals of the Thomson property had yet to begin. Afterward, both sides must negotiate a price. The state spent about $145 million to build the prison in 2001.

Jack Lavin, an aide to Quinn, likened the Thomson proposal to Illinois’ wartime sacrifices since the Sept. 11 attacks.

“We all have the duty to sacrifice for each other,” he said.