By William Fisher
Human and civil rights advocates and members of the Republican Party found unusual common ground yesterday. Both registered strong objections to the announcement that the Obama administration would be transferring detainees from Guantánamo to a maximum security prison in Illinois.
But their reasons were starkly different.
The Weekly Standard, a conservative political publication and a reliable barometer of GOP sentiment, wrote, “In announcing this decision, there still remains no explication of how closing Guantanamo makes America safer. Quite to the contrary, unnecessarily importing al Qaeda terrorists into the United States 1) gives them more legal protections, including Constitutional rights, than they have now at Guantanamo, 2) increases the chances they may be released into the country, and 3) in exchange for these significant costs, does not appease the Democratic base, and certainly will not appease al Qaeda.”
Human and civil rights leaders, on the other hand, worried not about security concerns, but rather about the impact of Guantanamo transfers on the U.S. justice system.
Typical of the views of this group was Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, an organization that has mobilized dozens of pro-bono lawyers to defend Guantanamo prisoners. He told IPS, “Closing Gitmo physically is not closing it, if the practices underlying Gitmo remain. Pres Obama is rewrapping Gitmo, but a new wrapper can’t make it constitutional. Preventive Detention is still preventive detention in Illinois; military commissions are still military commissions in Illinois; and holding people even though the courts or the government have exonerated them is still a barbaric practice whether at Gitmo or in Illinois.”
Ratner asked rhetorically: “Can Obama really think he can fool all of the people all of the time?”
A similar view was expressed by Brian J. Foley, Visiting Associate Professor at the Boston University School of Law. He told IPS, “A change in location doesn't end the problem, which is this: imprisoning human beings based on little or no evidence or unreliable evidence that they have done anything wrong or are otherwise a danger. This is a shell game fueled by fear and cowardice. This sweeping power grab by our government endangers all of our human rights and civil liberties."
An even more condemnatory note was sounded by Francis A. Boyle, a professor at the University of Illinois Law School. He told IPS, “Obama's "Gitmo on the Mississippi" simply represents the importation of the illegal Gitmo Kangaroo Court System into the United States and thus the needless and unprincipled perversion of our Article III federal court system founded by the United States Constitution in 1787, together with America's Bill of Rights.”
He added, “Britain, which does not have a Constitution and a Bill of Rights and against which America fought a Revolution, set up a similar ‘preventive detention’ system over a generation ago in order to deal with alleged terrorists in Northern Ireland. Known as the infamous Diplock Courts, their perversions of justice were routinely documented and condemned by every human rights organization and court to have examined them.”
“It is the height of tragic irony for a teacher of U.S. Constitutional Law to have these new Obama Courts go down into the annals of jurisprudential infamy along with the Diplock Courts,” he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the nation’s largest human rights group, agreed. Anthony D. Romero, the ACLU’s executive director, said, “The creation of a 'Gitmo North' in Illinois is hardly a meaningful step forward. Shutting down Guantánamo will be nothing more than a symbolic gesture if we continue its lawless policies onshore.”
He said, "Alarmingly, all indications are that the administration plans to continue its predecessor's policy of indefinite detention without charge or trial for some detainees, with only a change of location. Such a policy is completely at odds with our democratic commitment to due process and human rights whether it's occurring in Cuba or in Illinois. In fact, while the Obama administration inherited the Guantánamo debacle, this current move is its own affirmative adoption of those policies. It is unimaginable that the Obama administration is using the same justification as the Bush administration used to undercut centuries of legal jurisprudence and the principle of innocent until proven guilty and the right to confront one's accusers.”
A somewhat more hopeful view was expressed by Chip Pitts, president of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, and a lecturer at Stanford University law school. He told IPS “Notwithstanding the political opposition’s fake grandstanding about supposed enhanced threats, this move to a civilian rather than a military facility is a welcome symbolic and practical step toward closing Guantanamo. It affirms that the United States is not afraid to deal with accused terrorists on its own soil, and sends a vital message of distance from Bush administration illegalities”.
He added, “Whether intended to do so or not, it could also represent a first, tentative step toward treating accused al Qaeda members like the common criminals they are instead of holy warriors locked in battle with a superpower. Now the administration needs to match that courage with equal courage in submitting all of the accused to the rigors of the US justice system and avoiding recourse to indefinite detention or kangaroo military courts of the sort our country has always condemned. Finally affording these prisoners (over) due process of law would be one of the most effective means of counterterrorism imaginable.”
The Weekly Standard summed up its presentation of the Republican viewpoint with this passage: “Voluntarily bringing al Qaeda terrorists into the United States is a fantastically bad idea for multiple reasons, as it clearly fails any cost/benefit analysis. The tremendous costs of this decision include increasing the chances al Qaeda terrorists may be released into the United States, and providing them more legal protections than they currently have at Guantanamo.”
But Congressional Republicans have not been alone in expressing fear of “terrorists being set free on the streets of our neighborhoods.” Democrats, especially those from Conservative districts or those who are facing tight election races in 2010, have been equally outspoken in opposition to the President’s plans. Earlier this year, Congress voted to deny the President any funds for transporting Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. – even for trial – without permission from Congress following a 45-day waiting period.
Under President Obama’s plan, GITMO detainees would be transferred to The Thomson Correctional Center, a maximum security prison located just outside of Thomson, Illinois. Built in 2001, it is owned by the State of Illinois, from which the Federal Government will have to buy it. The Federal Bureau of Prisons will erect a more robust perimeter fence to increase security. The portion of the prison that will be used to house Guantanamo detainees will be operated by the Department of Defense (DOD), while the rest of the prison, which can hold 1,600 men, will be operated by the Bureau of Prisons, part of the Department of Justice. The DOD’s Military Tribunals would presumably be held there.
Illinois officials, including the governor and the state's two senators, have welcomed the move because it will create several thousand new jobs in Illinois, where the unemployment rate is currently at approximately 11 per cent. One of the state’s senators, Richard Durbin – the number two Democrat in the Senate – estimated that about 100 prisoners would be transferred to Thompson.