WASHINGTON — The latest round in the political fight that has blocked the Obama administration from bringing Guantanamo Bay detainees into the United States is playing out in the new federal budget.
The Justice Department is requesting $66.9 million to house regular federal inmates at a shuttered Illinois prison that it originally intended to be part of the plan to close Gitmo.
Suspicions in Congress that the administration really still wants to move detainees to the Illinois facility could put the new request under a shadow despite top-level assurances that the money is for renovations to accommodate traditional federal inmates.
"It's not in our budget and we will not put that money in our budget because they would then move detainees up from Guantanamo Bay," Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee that controls the purse strings for the Justice Department, said Wednesday.
In 2009, the federal government began considering buying an under-used state prison at Thomson, Ill., 150 miles west of Chicago, to hold a limited number of the Gitmo prisoners, along with federal inmates.
Republican Illinois Congressman Donald Manzullo, whose district includes Thomson, has long been trying to separate the Gitmo issue from Thomson as a place for traditional federal inmates. A fully populated prison would bring some jobs to the largely rural area and boost the local economy.
"While we are aware of the administration's continued desire to house Gitmo terrorists at Thomson, Congress continues to strongly oppose it," Manzullo said when asked about the latest budget proposal.
The Obama administration should "abandon the plan to move the Gitmo terrorists to U.S. soil so we can focus all our energy on opening Thomson as a federal prison," said Manzullo.
The detainee portion of the administration's plan for Thomson is on indefinite hold while the Justice Department tries to proceed with the rest of the plan, citing prison overcrowding.
"Right now, all our plans for Thomson" are "just for federal prisoners," Deputy Attorney General James Cole told reporters Monday.
The $66.9 million budget request would renovate and re-open the facility.
The fight over bringing Gitmo detainees to the U.S. became a political issue for the Obama administration after Attorney General Eric Holder announced in November 2009 that professed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged henchmen would be brought before a civilian court in New York City to stand trial. The same month, the administration said it might buy Thomson to house detainees from Guantanamo along with federal inmates.
Amid widespread criticism from Republicans and New York Democrats, the Obama administration backed away from the New York trial plan and revived the possibility of using a military tribunal instead of a civilian court. The administration still has not announced a decision on how to proceed with trials or shutter the Guatanamo prison that still holds 172 detainees.
The only Guantanamo detainee to have a U.S. civilian trial, Ahmed Ghailani, was sentenced last month in New York City to life in prison for his role in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa.
In December, Congress barred the transfer of Guantanamo Bay detainees to the United States. In several other congressional votes last year, many Democrats joined Republicans in opposing bringing Gitmo prisoners to the U.S. for trial or detention.
The December vote by a Democratic-controlled Congress rebuffed a last-minute appeal by Holder not to bar bringing detainees to the U.S. for trial. The executive branch "must have every lawful instrument of national power to ensure that terrorists are brought to justice," he wrote congressional leaders before the vote.
A Republican takeover of the House in the midterm election last November has further reduced the chances for a reversal of the December vote by the lame-duck Congress.
One other problem: The state of Illinois still owns Thomson because an administration request for $170 million which included money to buy it, is tied up in Congress, which still hasn't passed the budget for this year. And that request is caught in the same political fight.
"We are still hopeful" of getting money to buy Thomson, Justice Department official Lee Lofthus said at Monday's budget briefing. "Acquiring that prison is a savings of probably somewhere of $50 million plus over having to build one"
A 1,600-cell prison, Thomson would be converted by the federal government into a maximum-security facility. Built by Illinois in 2001, budget problems prevented it from ever fully opening. Only about 200 minimum-security inmates were ever held there.