Obama administration backs off on detainee transfer to Thomson

By:  Ed Tibbetts
Quad-City Times

The Obama administration conceded Monday it won't move detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to a little-used prison in Thomson, Ill.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder sent a two-page letter to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., on Monday, saying the Federal Bureau of Prisons would operate the facility solely for prisoners in the U.S. prison system.

"The Thomson facility would only house federal inmates and would be operated solely by the Bureau of Prisons," Holder wrote.

Durbin said Monday he thinks this ends the possibility of the Obama administration moving detainees to Thomson.

"From my point of view, the policy is clear," Durbin said.

Republicans and Democrats in Illinois' congressional delegation last month sought the administration's pledge in the hopes it would loosen congressional purse strings and allow purchase of the prison, which would lead to the creation of 1,000 new jobs in the region.

For months, the idea of moving detainees to Thomson - first raised by the administration as a possibility in November 2009 - has laid dormant in the face of bipartisan opposition in Congress.

However, the administration's request for $237 million to buy, renovate and operate the prison as a maximum security lockup to ease overcrowding also hasn't been able to get through Congress.

Last month, Durbin joined congressional Republicans from the state in asking the administration to clarify its intentions.

Republicans, led by U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., already had said Congress wouldn't pay for the purchase of Thomson without a guarantee from the administration that it would not move Guantanamo Bay detainees there. Republicans, led by Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., already had said Congress wouldn't pay for the purchase of Thomson without a guarantee from the administration that it would not move Guantanamo Bay detainees there.

"We appreciate the administration's reversal of position in agreeing not to transfer any Gitmo detainees to Thomson and look forward to working with them to complete the sale of Thomson to the Bureau of Prisons for use only as a federal prison," said a statement issued by Kirk and attributed to a number of lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling, who represents the 17th District. "We will remain vigilant to ensure Congress stands with the American people and extends the current prohibition on transferring any Gitmo detainees to the United States."

The fate of Thomson, built in 2002 but sparsely used, has been hanging in the balance of a national political debate since the administration announced in December 2009 that it planned to purchase the prison to house the detainees.

The administration predicted more than 3,000 jobs would be created in the region if the plan, part of a strategy to close the controversial Guantanamo Bay facility, were approved.

Most of the jobs would have been tied to security requirements the Defense Department would maintain to keep suspected terrorists locked up.

Congressional opposition stalled the plan, however. Critics said it would open up U.S. territory to possible terrorist activities, a charge the administration rejected.

Republicans initially were the most critical, but Democrats in Congress also objected to the move. Members of both parties joined to back measures prohibiting the use of federal money to move the detainees.

In his letter to Durbin, Holder noted that the administration opposed the congressional restrictions, and he said he was confident Thomson would be "amply secure enough" to house the foreign detainees.

Holder's letter came the same day he announced the administration wouldn't try accused plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

The administration initially had proposed trials in New York City, which drew bipartisan opposition. Holder blamed that opposition for the administration's reversal.

It still is not clear whether Congress will approve money to buy Thomson. Holder said in the letter that the continuing resolutions that have funded the federal government while Republicans and Democrats have haggled over a budget to carry on operations through Sept. 30 haven't provided enough money for the Thomson purchase.

Durbin said, with the Holder letter, he hoped that "people in good faith can now move forward together."