PI Original Adam Doster Monday November 16th, 2009, 11:49am

The GOP Loses It Over Thomson/Gitmo Plan

Illinois' prison system is finally making major headlines.  But not for the reasons we had hoped. Over the weekend, the White House announced that the near-empty Thomson Correctional Center in rural northwest Illinois has emerged as a potential candidate to house ...

Illinois' prison system is finally making major headlines.  But not for the reasons we had hoped.

Over the weekend, the White House announced that the near-empty Thomson Correctional Center in rural northwest Illinois has emerged as a potential candidate to house terrorism suspects from the Guantanamo Bay military prison. Federal officials, at the behest of the White House, are scheduled to inspect the facility today. Gov. Pat Quinn and Sen. Dick Durbin will hold a series of press conferences outlining the potential plan, which they argue would spur the local economy. If approved, the federal government would purchase the 1,600-cell, maximum-security prison and fill it with regular inmates. They would then set aside a section for the less than 100 Gitmo detainees as a way to help close the controversial prison in Cuba.

Yesterday, like clockwork, GOP lawmakers pounced on the issue, unleashing a barrage of attacks on Quinn and the White House for even considering such a move.

In a letter signed by the seven-member GOP congressional delegation, Rep. Mark Kirk warned that "our state and the Chicago Metropolitan Area will become ground zero for Jihadist terrorist plots, recruitment and radicalization." Not to be outdone, Rep. Peter Roskam suggested that 'terrorists have no place on American soil." Rep. Judy Biggert added a similar thought, suggesting that "these detainees pose a unique threat to America's security" and they should be "kept away from our shores, and far from America’s heartland." Later this morning, Kirk, Roskam, Biggert and Rep. Don Manzullo will air their grievances at a joint press conference. And they've already circulated a petition calling on President Obama to "stop Al Qaeda terrorists from coming to Illinois." Even two Republican gubernatorial candidates, Dan Proft and Andy McKenna, got in on the action, the former releasing a statement that calls the plan "a terrible idea that threatens the safety of Illinois residents" and the latter telling the press he opposed "efforts to move Gitmo detainees to our neighborhoods."

This is a serious issue that deserves serious scrutiny. For example, AFSCME Council 31, which represents Illinois prison guards, is angry that the state would sell off Thomson instead of using it to ease overcrowding at the state's maximum security prisons. But before pols get all hysterical, it's important to understand what exactly is being proposed.

Here are a few facts.  (Capitol Fax has a helpful compendium of links that offer some context.)

First, Roskam is just flat-out wrong when he said that terrorists "have no place on American soil." In fact, many are currently residing in U.S. prisons. Federal facilities currently house 216 international terrorists and 139 domestic terrorists. Thirty-five of those inmates are housed in Illinois. U.S. Bureau of Prisons spokesperson Traci L. Billingsley says that none of them have ever escaped. And Durbin -- one of only six senators to vote to fund the closure of the Guantanamo detention facility -- made a salient point on the Senate floor in May: Those who think our prisons can't handle these detainees "ought to have a little more respect for the men and women who are corrections officers."

It's also very important to remember that these detainees would be isolated from the general population. Other high-security prisoners would have no contact with these terrorists. No words would be exchanged and no ideologies discussed. They will be monitored very closely. Perhaps that's one reason why locals aren't too nervous about accepting the transfers.

Kirk will be sure to flaunt his military expertise at the press conference today, warning that he truly understands that threats posed by the Thomson proposal. But his inflated rhetoric on this issue proves he doesn't care about subtlety or thoughtful policy when a political point can be gained.

"It's hard not to wonder if these guys are even listening to themselves," writes Steve Benen. "Locking up terrorists is bad for security? Federal prisons are 'ground zero for Jihadist terrorist plots'? It's like listening to children."

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