A plan to transfer prisoners currently held at Guantanamo Bay to a nearly deserted Illinois jail is sharply dividing the state's politicians, with Democrats largely supporting the plan and Republicans hell-bent on blocking it.
On the day a delegation from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons inspected the Thomson Correctional Center in western Illinois, several Illinois Republicans announced a barrage of legal and bureaucratic hoops aimed at thwarting the plan.
Warning that Chicago could become "ground zero for Jihadist terrorist plots," North Shore Congressman Mark Kirk called for the Government Accountability Office to conduct a vulnerability study of O'Hare Airport and the Willis Tower. His colleague Aaron Schock (R-Peoria) plans to introduce a bill that would prohibit any federal dollars from being used to transport terror suspects to Illinois.
Illinois House Republican Leader Tom Cross said Monday he would introduce legislation that would require Gov. Pat Quinn to take up the debate in the state legislature.
And Republican Rep. Don Manzullo, whose district includes the Thomson prison, said that even the federal government's plan to add additional security measures beyond what any maximum security prison in the country has still would not move him. (Scroll down for a look inside the prison.)
"I adamantly oppose this plan to bring the terrorists to northwestern Illinois, where they could one day be released into our communities," Manzullo told the Chicago Sun-Times.
The outrage could backfire.
"We need this to help our community, our communities around us and us are hurting big," Thomson Village President Jerry Hebeler said Monday, after a private meeting with federal officials and residents. It was a sentiment echoed by many residents over the weekend and the reason two of the state's leading Democrats, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Gov. Quinn, have been championing the plan.
"We have an opportunity to bring thousands of good-paying jobs to Illinois when we need them the most," Durbin said at a press conference Sunday. "We have an opportunity to bring them to a part of our state that has been struggling and that's an opportunity we are not going to miss."
Durbin, who has led the sale effort, dismissed the Republican opposition and instead tried to focus the discussion on the possible financial benefits. Durbin said selling the near-empty Thomson Correctional Center could land the cash-strapped state around $200 million and bring 3,000 jobs to the area.
"This move will have a significant positive impact on the local economy," Durbin said. "We should not let the unsupported and misplaced fears of a few stand in the way of this historic economic boost to our region."
Not long after, the finger-pointing began.
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate David Hoffman eviscerated Kirk for what he described as playing politics, spreading fear and mis-stating facts in opposing the plan.
"This is just the latest instance of Mark Kirk trying to pander to the right," Hoffman said in a statement. "He has courted Sarah Palin, He has voted to restrict a women's right to choose, he has flip-flopped on climate change and finally he has tried to scare voters. People are sick of politicians putting their own political agendas ahead of the nation."
Democrat Alexi Giannoulias also attacked Kirk, accusing him of flip-flopping, but stopped short of endorsing the plan outright.
"Thirty-one days ago, Mark Kirk voted to allow Guantanamo detainees to come to U.S. soil for trial after a risk assessment, yet today, he's engaging in dangerous fear-mongering and scare tactics instead of working with the U.S. military, the Department of Justice, or the residents of Thomson to come to the best decision for our state," Giannoulias said in a statement. "Voters demand responsible, principled leadership, and Mark Kirk has failed that test yet again. I pledge to work with all the parties involved to find a resolution that protects our national security and maximizes job creation."
Republican Patrick Hughes, Kirk's main GOP primary challenger, voiced his opposition to the plan in a statement released by the campaign.
"I am vehemently opposed to bringing enemy combatants, including the Gitmo prisoners, to Illinois and was also opposed the closing of Guantanamo Bay," Hughes said. "This is failure of leadership of the Democrats - from the President down to Governor Quinn. As U.S. Senator, I will enact policies that will advance America's national security interests and oppose any plans that weaken those interests - like this one being proposed by the Obama Adminstration [sic]."
Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Proft teed off on the plan, calling it a terrible idea that would threaten the safety of Illinois residents.
"It is emblematic of the Obama administration's erratic public policy choices," Proft said in a statement. "The President issues an edict that he will close Gitmo without a plan for the detainees there. Instead of keeping suspected terrorists off domestic soil, the President and Governor Quinn are poised to bring to Illinois those with the ability to operate beyond the walls of any prison."
Proft's fellow GOP gubernatorial candidate Andy McKenna also tried to use the Thomson plan to score political points against Quinn.
"I wholeheartedly oppose Governor Quinn and President Obama's efforts to move Gitmo detainees to our neighborhoods," McKenna said in a statement.
Quinn's Democratic primary rival, state comptroller Dan Hynes, took aim the plan's "alarmist" critics, but stopped short of signing on.
"I trust President Obama to do the right thing in terms of keeping Illinois communities safe," Hynes said in a statement. "I also fully support the President's commitment to close Guantanamo Bay because it's important for America's image abroad and thus our national security. The kneejerk, alarmist response by some to this news is not helpful, in my opinion. That said, there are more questions than answers right now about the situation at Thomson, and I have concerns that I expect will be addressed in the days and weeks ahead. The only factor that should be taken into consideration is the safety and peace of mind of our communities."
Not all of the critics are Republican. As Progress Illinois reports, AFSCME Council 31, which represents Illinois prison guards, would rather Thomson be used to curb overcrowding in the state's other maximum security prisons.
Built in 2001 for $145 million, the 1,600-bed maximum security prison is completely empty. The facility's minimum-security operation has about 200 prisoners. The administration's plan would bring fewer than 100 Gitmo inmates to the prison about 150 miles west of Chicago.
Federal facilities currently house 216 international terrorists and 139 domestic terrorists, 35 of which are housed in Illinois. None have ever escaped.
Watch footage from inside the prison shot in 2005:
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