President Barack Obama’s commitment to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by next month may be delayed until 2011 because it will take months for the government to buy an Illinois prison and upgrade it to hold suspected terrorists.
The drawn-out construction timetable shows the political risk of Obama’s pledge, a delay that could even be extended by congressional opposition to funding the purchase and upgrades for the Thomson Correctional Center, an underused state facility about 150 miles west of Chicago.
Lawmakers in both parties have been wary of bringing detainees to the United States. Attorney General Eric Holder already has decided that self-declared 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others will be tried in federal court in New York City.
In the Senate, a spokesman for Republican leader Mitch McConnell promised that the GOP would use delaying tactics to prevent funding the Illinois facility and added that he expected support from Democrats.
“I think there will be bipartisan opposition” to bringing detainees to Illinois, Donald Stewart said.
Congress also needs to change a law prohibiting detention in the U.S. of detainees who are not awaiting trial.
The prison in rural western Illinois may not be purchased from the state until March and will need up to 10 months of construction, said Joe Shoemaker, spokesman for Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
Shoemaker said, “The end of 2010 or the start of 2011 has always been the mark the administration talked to us about.”
Obama originally said Guantanamo would close Jan. 22, 2010. While that date proved unrealistic, the president has directed administration officials to move quickly to acquire the maximum-security prison in Illinois.
White House spokesman Ben LaBolt on Wednesday would not say when Guantanamo would close.
“The president remains as committed today to closing the detention facility at Guantanamo as he was when he entered office, and substantial progress has been made in recent weeks,” LaBolt told The Associated Press. “The detainee population at Guantanamo is now smaller than it has been at any time since 2002.
“We will work with Congress to ensure that we secure the necessary funds to purchase and upgrade the Thomson prison — which will operate at a substantially lower cost to taxpayers — next year,” he said.
The failure to meet the timetable may have cost White House counsel Greg Craig his job, since Craig, who is leaving next month, was heading the effort to close the facility.
In addition to any appropriations struggles, current federal law requires that detainees can only be housed in the United States while their trials are pending. That law would have to be changed to cover detainees who have not yet been charged and will not be sent abroad. The change would have to specify that detainees could be kept on U.S. soil for any purpose.
The Justice Department said last weekend that since 2002, more than 560 detainees have departed the military prison in Cuba and 198 remain.
“We’re hitting the anticipated bumps” in the timetable for using the Illinois facility, Shoemaker said.
He added that many lawmakers would not vote to change the law or provide the funds until the administration submits a comprehensive plan on the handling of the remaining prisoners.
Federal officials tried on Tuesday to allay fears that moving terror suspects from Guantanamo to Illinois could make the state a terrorist target.
The director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Harley Lappin, told a state legislative panel that a new perimeter fence and other measures would make Thomson “the most secure of all federal prisons in the country.”
The 12-member Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability could vote on a recommendation to sell the prison that skirts the Mississippi River, but Gov. Pat Quinn does not have to follow the recommendation.
The commission said it would not vote on the proposal before Jan. 14.