White House Keeps Pushing to Move Guantánamo Bay Inmates to Illinois

A prisoner runs inside an exercise area at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in April 2009 Michelle Shepard / AFP-Getty Images

The Obama administration still wants to shut down the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Apparently seeking to breathe new life into the bogged-down effort, national-security adviser Gen. James Jones sent a letter to Congress on Wednesday, reaffirming the administration's desire to transfer Gitmo detainees to a vacant state-owned maximum-security prison in Thomson, Ill. Although state officials have expressed support for the plan, Congress has been considering various legislative measures to block it. The general's letter refers to a May 7 request from several representatives who asked that he urge President Obama to "(1) halt all activity related to the closure of Guantanamo; and (2) immediately prohibit all detainee transfers from Guantanamo." Nevertheless, Jones replies, "I believe both proposals are counter to the national-security interests of the United States."

The letter, addressed to Rep. David Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, cites three senior U.S. defense officials-"Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Adm. Michael Mullen, and U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus-"all of whom want to close the detention facility, which has become, in Mullen's words, "a recruiting symbol" for jihadists and other U.S. enemies. Jones adds his own emphatic agreement: "Based on my years of military service and extensive work with U.S. allies and partners, it is my firm conviction that maintaining the facility at Guantanamo indefinitely will have a lasting and deleterious impact on our standing in the world."

Jones refers to the administration's efforts to find a secure facility where Gitmo detainees could be transferred, and he points out that staff from several congressional committees have now personally inspected the modern but unoccupied supermax Thomson facility. Based on their visits, the letter says, congressional officials should have "seen firsthand" that the Thomson prison "is one of the most secure facilities in the country." The Pentagon believes that transferring detainees from Gitmo to Thomson will save significant taxpayer funds, reducing the $150 million annual price tag on Gitmo detention operations by 50 percent or more, according to the letter. "Widespread support" for the plan exists in Illinois, Jones adds, including strong support from law-enforcement groups. President Obama issued an order this past December instructing the attorney general and the defense secretary to acquire the Thomson prison for the federal government and start preparing it to receive Gitmo inmates the government considers too dangerous to be released. Nevertheless, those plans continue to be held up by opposition in Congress.

The letter also criticizes pending congressional moves to ban any detainee transfers out of Gitmo. In Jones's view, such legislation would disregard "the Department of State's remarkable progress resettling detainees in third countries." Nevertheless, he writes, the Obama administration is treating "with utmost seriousness" allegations that some former Gitmo prisoners have returned to the jihad. Although many of those alleged returnees to the front lines were freed under the authority of President George W. Bush, at least one detainee released by the Obama administration has reportedly rejoined the Taliban. Jones insists that the Obama administration has given Congress much more extensive information and advance notice about pending releases of Gitmo prisoners than the Bush administration provided. He also contends that "significant improvements" have been made in the vetting of Guantanamo detainees before they can be transferred to a foreign country-including an end to the "stovepiping" (limiting the distribution of classified information to very narrow channels) of secret intelligence on detainees. Instead, Jones writes, the administration now maintains "a single repository" for the compiling of "the best information available relating to Guantanamo detainees."

A White House spokesman indicates that Jones's letter speaks for itself.