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Illinois leaders split on taking Guantánamo detainees at state prison

Idea of transferring Guantánamo detainees to a prison in Illinois has backing of state's top Democrats, but Republican congressmen balk.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 17, 2009

The Thomson Correctional Center is pictured in Thomson, Illinois, about 150 miles west of Chicago, Monday. Obama administration officials will visit the virtually empty Illinois prison this week as a possible location to house foreign terrorism suspects moved from the Guantánamo Bay prison.

Stephanie Makosky/Reuters

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As it maneuvers to close the Guantánamo Bay terrorism camp and move detainees to the US, the Obama administration is eyeing an underused state prison in tiny Thomson, Ill., a town of about 600 people on the Mississippi River in the northwest part of the state. On Monday, a delegation from the US Bureau of Prisons toured the Thomson Correctional Center.

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To overcome a congressional ban on detaining the suspects on US soil, local support for the move would likely be key – a hurdle helped over the weekend by strong backing from Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) and Sen. Richard Durbin (D). Both touted the idea as a rare opportunity to bring some 3,000 jobs and up to $1 billion over four years to a part of the state in desperate need of an economic jolt.

Housing any of the detainees at Thomson would be "good for our state, good for our economy and good for our public safety," Governor Quinn said Sunday at a news conference.

But already the plan is generating controversy, with politicians dividing primarily along party lines in a debate that comes down to jobs versus security.

Republicans – including Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, a candidate in next year's US Senate race, and Rep. Donald Manzullo, who represents the district where Thomson is located – are questioning the wisdom of bringing some 100 terrorist suspects to Illinois, potentially making the area a target for Al Qaeda attack.

If the prisoners are moved to Thomson, "our state and the Chicago Metropolitan Area will become ground zero for Jihadist terrorist plots, recruitment, and radicalization," wrote Representative Kirk in an open letter to President Obama. "As home to America's tallest building and leading defense suppliers, we should not invite Al Qaeda to make Illinois its number one target."

Kirk also noted that any trials of detainees in civilian court would need to take place either in Rockford, Ill., or downtown Chicago, because there are no court facilities near the prison. On Monday, he called for a "homeland security impact study" to examine the danger posed to O'Hare Airport and Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, before any federal funds could be spent to transfer prisoners to Thomson. Another House Republican from Illinois, Aaron Schock, said he would introduce a measure, modeled after one trying to keep Guantánamo detainees from being shipped to South Carolina, that would prohibit the use of federal dollars to move detainees to Thomson.

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