Illinois House GOP boss to fight 'Illinois Gitmo'

  • An undated photo of the Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson.

    An undated photo of the Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson. Associated Press

Published: 11/16/2009 2:25 PM | Updated: 11/16/2009 7:32 PM

Republicans launched an effort Monday to derail a plan to bring suspected terrorists from Guantanamo Bay to a western Illinois prison, potentially one of the cornerstones of President Barack Obama's proposal to shut down the controversial facility in Cuba.

Republican members of the Illinois Congressional delegation held a news conference Monday morning using increasingly dire predictions if the proposal comes to fruition, while GOP state lawmakers angled to ensure it comes to a vote in the state Capitol.

Meanwhile, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Springfield decried the effort as an attempt to "scare" the public and stood by the idea as federal officials toured the near-vacant Thomson Correctional Center off the Mississippi River.

"They are trying to scare people," Durbin said at a dueling news conference in Chicago Monday. "It's about fear. It is. They know better."

Quinn and Durbin have called plans to sell the maximum-security Thomson prison, built in 2001 for about $145 million, "a dream come true," saying it could bring $1 billion in development and 3,000 jobs to the western region of the state.

The prison is viewed as "a leading option" for purchase from the federal government, which would house more than 1,000 regular inmates there and then set aside a separate section for Gitmo detainees. Durbin says there would be fewer than 100 detainees at the prison in all.

But Republicans, who generally oppose the closure of Gitmo to begin with, have been quick to pounce on the idea of moving suspected terrorists to an Illinois prison.

"It's more like a nightmare," said U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, a Hinsdale Republican at a Chicago news conference with other suburban Republicans denouncing the plan.

U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam of Wheaton said flatly, "Al Qaida terrorists have no place in northern Illinois."

U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk, a Highland Park Republican who seems to be leading the charge as he runs for U.S. Senate, claimed Monday the detainees would be allowed to have visitors who might be terrorists.

"I just wonder if it is an acceptable risk," he said, adding that he thought the move was "a danger to our families."

The detainees would not be allowed visitors other than attorneys, just as they aren't in Cuba, Durbin says.

Proponents also counter that Illinois is already home to about 35 imprisoned terrorists, and the U.S. prison system safely holds more than 300 inmates with terrorist ties.

A federal prison in downstate Marion has managed convicted terrorists as well as Colombian and Mexican drug kingpins.

"We can handle this," said Durbin, who has been key in the negotiations of the deal.

The Republican members of the Illinois delegation will get a chance to vote on the proposal in Congress, which will likely be submitted as part of an overall plan by Obama to close Gitmo.

It remains unclear where most of Illinois' Democratic delegation stands. U.S. Rep. Bill Foster of Batavia says he is still studying the issue while U.S. Rep. Melissa Bean of Barrington says she opposes such a move without added security assurances. She declines to elaborate.

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Evanston supports the plan.

The fervor among Republican U.S. House members has spread to the state Capitol, where both Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont and House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego say the move is dangerous.

Plus, they want to vote on it - putting the entire General Assembly on record over the controversial issue on the eve of next year's elections.

"I don't think the folks in the state of Illinois feel it is appropriate for two people - Senator Durbin and Governor Quinn - to act together to make this happen without a public vetting," said Cross.

Quinn maintains he doesn't need General Assembly approval to sell the state facility to the federal government.

Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, agrees with him, according to a spokeswoman. Democrat House Speaker Michael Madigan of Chicago is not commenting.

But Cross and Radogno are looking more closely at the laws. Cross has said he may even ask Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to weigh in on the issue.

Part of the uncertainty stems from vagueness about exactly how the sale and transfer of jurisdiction will take place legally.

• Daily Herald Senior State Government Editor John Patterson contributed to this report.