President Obama has directed the federal government to buy a maximum-security Illinois prison to hold Guantánamo Bay detainees setting off what promises to be a spirited Capitol Hill battle with Republicans. House Minority Leader John Boehner vowed to "not spend one dime to move those prisoners" to the United States. The announcement also prompted questions about the extent to which the federal government has the authority to imprison indefinitely those it does not have the evidence to prosecute but deems too dangerous to release.
Just what to do with the detainees is, according to the president, "the toughest single issue" that he faces. The choice of the Thomson Correctional Center 150 miles west of Chicago marks a sizable step toward carrying out the executive order to shut down Guantánamo that Obama signed during his first day in office. But some critics point out that the administration has yet to come up with clear and defensible standards regarding the legal authority under which these prisoners will continue to be held.
More immediately, the administration will need help from Capitol Hill before it can move them anywhere. Congress's chief order of business will be changing a law that prohibits the transfer of Guantánamo detainees to U.S. soil for any reason other than prosecution. The Obama administration also needs Congress to approve funds for key upgrades to the Thomson prison, including a wider security perimeter. Boehner said the White House will seek some "tens of millions of dollars" for improvements--he also promised that the administration would not get it. It could take months to get the funding, which the administration may push to put in a supplemental appropriations bill for the Afghanistan war in late March or April. That could also mean that Guantanamo doesn't close until 2011. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell matter-of-factly noted that, "The American people and a bipartisan majority of the Congress have already rejected bringing terrorists to U.S. soil for long-term detention." Other GOP lawmakers said (disingenuously, according to Democrats) that they are simply opposed to moving potential terrorists into the neighborhoods of law-abiding citizens.
To help quell the controversy, the White House pointed out the job-creating possibilities and issued a sheet of responses to frequently asked questions. A familiar one cropped up again: "How many of the detainees who fall into the status of 'too dangerous for trial or release' would be brought to Thomson?" The questionnaire took issue with that phrasing, pointing out that Obama technically has "never designated a category of detainees . . . so dangerous that they can never be prosecuted." It did concede, however, that there are some who cannot be prosecuted because evidence against them is tainted or nonexistent but who "nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States." A team of "60 career prosecutors, attorneys, and analysts" is working on what to do with these detainees and hopes to have answers early next year, according to the release. In the meantime, the results of a Supreme Court ruling that every detainee held at Guantánamo has the right to a habeas corpus hearing has raised some eyebrows: Of the 40 hearings conducted so far, 31 have found in favor of release.