By Sam Youngman and Susan Crabtree - 12/15/09 03:32 PM EST
President Barack Obama on Tuesday directed the federal government to acquire an Illinois prison to house Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detainees.
Despite that directive, administration officials acknowledged that the president will need congressional action to change the law and pay for the facility.
Republicans, however, presented immediate and unified opposition to the plan, and some Democrats could waver over an issue so politically perilous.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he would “appeal” to members of Congress to change the law and fund the facility, and he said he hopes to have bipartisan support.
Senior administration officials said they would need a change in law in order to hold some detainees indefinitely. Current law, they said, would prohibit bringing them to U.S. soil for any reason other than to await trial.
“Closing the detention center at Guantánamo is essential to protecting our national security and helping our troops by removing a deadly recruiting tool from the hands of al Qaeda,” said one senior administration official. “Today’s announcement is an important step forward as we work to achieve our national-security objectives.”
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) pledged to oppose any funding requests made to improve the Northwest Illinois prison for the transfer of detainees.
“I suspect they are going to call for tens of billions of dollars to be spent to upgrade the facility in order to move those prisoners there, and I can tell you
I will not spend one dime to move those prisoners to the United States,” the top-ranking House Republican said on Tuesday.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Obama’s opponent in the presidential election, also came out strongly against the decision.
“I have supported the closure of the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay for many years, but I have always stated that we need a comprehensive plan to close Guantánamo safely and legally,” McCain said. “The administration still has not crafted such a plan, and I do not think we should transfer any detainees into the United States until such a plan is presented to the American people and approved by the Congress.”
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the president will work with Congress on changing the law and funding the facility, but he singled out Boehner’s criticism. Gibbs suggested that Boehner meet with intelligence officials to watch al Qaeda recruiting tools that use Guantánamo Bay as “a clarion call to bring extremists from around the world” to the group’s cause.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said he’s committed to helping the administration accomplish its goal.
“President Obama is taking prudent steps to ensure we are able to finally close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay,” Leahy said. “Doing so will make us safer and is critical to restoring our reputation as a nation of laws.”
Most Democrats initially praised the announcement as one more step toward closing the facility in Cuba, something Obama had promised to do in his first year in office.
The president has since conceded he expects that deadline to slip, and neither administration officials nor Durbin could say when they think detainees would begin arriving at Thomson.
Rep. Pete Hoekstra (Mich.), the ranking Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a candidate for governor in Michigan, offered a resolution during a panel meeting that would force the administration to provide the Illinois delegation access to relevant security information related to the detainees. The panel rejected the measure on partisan lines and watered down another resolution of inquiry on the impact the move would have on counterterrorism efforts.
Others, including Rep. Lamar Smith (Texas), who serves as the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said accused terrorists would get more rights once on U.S. soil.
“It’s not an issue of how secure the prison is — it’s an issue of giving terrorist enemy combatants access to the same rights as U.S. citizens,” Smith said.
“Once on U.S. soil — whether detained in a prison or awaiting trial — Gitmo terrorists can argue for additional rights under the Constitution that may make it harder for prosecutors to obtain a conviction.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a military lawyer and lead sponsor of the legislation creating military commissions to try terrorism suspects, had supported Obama’s drive to close Guantánamo until the administration decided to try the detainees in civilian courts.
Graham and the White House had been in talks for months about finding a way to close the Guantánamo Bay facility without harming intelligence-gathering. Those talks broke down about a month ago, Graham said.
“They’ve messed it up,” he said. “The problem with the Gitmo start-over is we’re confusing the soldiers on the ground and releasing potentially dangerous people. My problem is not the location of the Thomson, Ill. [facility]. It’s the [administration’s] entire detainee policy.”
Graham was referring to an unreleased Pentagon report providing details that conclude one in seven of the 534 prisoners already transferred abroad from the prison in Guantánamo Bay has returned to terrorism or militant activity. The New York Times reported on the document’s existence earlier this year.
The letter, signed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Attorney General Eric Holder, among others, noted that Quinn suggested using the facility in a letter last month.
The secretaries noted that “security of the facility and the surrounding region is our paramount concern.”
Molly K. Hooper contributed to this report.