Skeptics dominate hearing on Guantanamo detainees in Illinois

Federal and state officials faced hard questions and some jeers at a public hearing on the proposed transfer of Guantanamo detainees to a prison in northwest Illinois.

By , Staff writer

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    Area residents listen to an Illinois legislative hearing Tuesday in Sterling, Ill., regarding an Obama administration decision to buy the Thomson Correctional Center to house up to 100 Guantanamo Bay detainees.
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Federal and state officials faced a vociferous public and skeptical state legislators here Tuesday at a public hearing on the proposal to transfer Guantánamo Bay detainees to the Thompson Correctional Center in northwest Illinois.

Three issues dominated the debate: whether or not the state will lose money in selling the correctional center to the federal government, whether giving up an underused facility was wise given the overcrowding in the state's prisons, and finally, whether the safety of Illinois residents is at stake in housing terror suspects in their backyards.

“We’re talking about bringing terrorists to Illinois,” said state Sen. Bill Brady (R). He was one of several who chastised state officials such as Illinois Department of Corrections Director Michael P. Randle with “doubletalk” in suggesting the state prison was at average capacity while at the same time endorsing an early release program for 200 prisoners to shore up bed space.

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“Our enemy is the terrorists and we’re detaining their troops. By concentrating [100 to 150 detainees] in one location, we’re increasing the risk,” said Mr. Brady.

About 800 local residents went through security screening to attend the hearing at a high school auditorium. The hearing stretched from early afternoon into the late evening as a state commission charged with government accountability raised questions about whether the Thompson center should be sold and reconfigured into a “Super Max” prison to accommodate terror suspects from Guantánamo Bay.

Located about 150 miles from Chicago, Thomson has largely sat empty since its construction in 2001 due to a decline in state funding. The transfer of detainees to the facility – to face military tribunals or indefinite detention – is part of President Obama's plan to close Guantánamo as soon as possible.

US Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Harley Lappin told commissioners that, upon its elevation to “Super Max” status, the facility will be comparable to the federal prison in Florence, Colo., where, he said, “there’s never been an escape or an internal attack.”

But some were not convinced. “How are you sure Al Qaeda will not use Thompson in the future as a recruiting tool?” asked state Sen. Matt Murphy (R). During a break in the hearings, he added to reporters: “No one has given us a clear indication of what this will do from a security standpoint. Right now we’re being told there is minimal risk ... I kind of feel the state of Illinois is being rolled.”

Panelist Jack Lavin, the chief operating officer for Illinois Gov. Patrick Quinn (D), pressed the benefits of turning the facility over to federal prison officials and the Department of Defense, which will operate military tribunals on the property. He said the move would generate 3,000 new jobs in the area. “The number of [jobs] will be higher than if it remained a state facility,” he said.

Sterling, a town of 15,000, was once called “the hardware capital of the world” but has lost many of its manufacturing jobs.

Still, a skeptical mood dominated the hearings, with the audience frequently interrupting with applause commissioners who pressed hard for answers or jeering at panelists who insisted everything was being done to ensure the pending sale is the result of an informed decision.

Outside the proceedings, peopled continued to voice their doubts. “This is a national security issue for our country. These terrorists, they’re ruthless,” said Stacey Mathia, who made the journey to Sterling from Bay City, Mich. “They want their people out. We don’t want them on our soil.”

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