As if to underscore the political difficulties facing the White House in trying to moving Guantánamo Bay detainees to Thomson, Ill., the likely Republican candidate for the president's former U.S. Senate seat says he fully intends to make the plan a top issue in this fall's election campaign.
Illinois Rep. Mark Kirk, who is the overwhelming favorite to win his party's Feb. 2 nomination for the U.S. Senate race, told Declassified that he had just returned from a tour with the U.S. military in Afghanistan and he is now more committed than ever to blocking the plan to move Gitmo detainees to Illinois.
His reason: a classified briefing he said he received showing that "there are dozens" of former Gitmo detainees now fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan's southern provinces, and that the released prisoners "are some of the most committed, hard-core" Taliban fighters.
Kirk refused to identify the names of any of the Gitmo detainees now fighting for the Taliban, other than (as has widely been reported before) Mullah Abdullah Zakir, reportedly the Taliban's key operations officer in the southern provinces, who was released from Gitmo by the Bush administration in December 2007.
Still, Kirk's comments came on the same day that several news organizations reported that a new classified Pentagon report estimates that about 20 percent of the number of released Gitmo detainees have returned to extremist activity, up from an estimate of about 14 percent last April.
Such figures, combined with the heightened concerns about security in the wake of Northwest Flight 253 and President Obama's announcement that he will suspend transfers of detainees from Yemen, have prompted some experts to conclude it may be impossible for the president to fulfill his pledge to shut down Gitmo.
What has not been generally appreciated is the degree to which the Senate race in Illinois could prove decisive on the question. Kirk is generally considered a moderate Republican who in July actually backed the administration's proposal to transfer some Gitmo detainees to the U.S. to stand trial.
But his increasingly hard line against the Thomson proposal—and his apparent efforts to gain political mileage out of the issue—sets the stage for a high-stakes election-year battle.
The whole selling point of the Thomson plan—which calls for the state of Illinois to sell an underused state prison, 150 miles west of Chicago, to the federal government, which would build a new facility to house Gitmo detainees—is that it would create 3,000 new jobs in western Illinois.
And it has been thought, at least until now, to have widespread local support.
Indeed, all the Democrats in the Senate race are backing the president's proposal, including the frontrunner, State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, who last month issued a carefully worded press release saying that he believes the plan will bring new job opportunities to western Illinois, and that he trusts the U.S. military to "keep us safe."
A panel of state lawmakers voted by a 7-4 margin this week to endorse closing the Thomson prison, thereby giving Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn needed political cover to proceed with the sale.
But Kirk said he is convinced the politics is now running the other way. He pointed to one state poll taken last month that showed 51 percent of Illinois voters are opposed to the administration's proposal.
And that was before the Northwest incident. Now, he says, "the popularity of this is sinking pretty quickly."