A day after Attorney General Eric Holder revealed his plan to try alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed in federal court, the Chicago Tribune reported another change in the “war on terror” – the White House’s initiative to move some Guantanamo Bay terrorist detainees to a rural Illinois prison. The Justice Dept. and the Dept. of Defense would ship an unknown number of the more than 200 detainees still at the Cuban naval base to Thomson, Illinois, a village of 600 people, 90 miles west of Chicago. And Justice would convert the Thomson Correctional Center, which currently holds 200 minimum-security inmates, to a federal maximum-security prison.
Illinois Democrats were quick to champion the proposal as an economic stimulus for their state. Dick Durbin, the no. 2 Democrat in the U.S. Senate, and Illinois Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn have declared that the prison could create more than 3,000 local jobs. A White House economic report largely echoed Durbin’s assertions. Illinois Republicans, meanwhile, went ballistic. Rep. Mark Kirk, who is running for the U.S. Senate, declared that Illinois would become “ground zero for Jihadist terrorist plots, recruitment and radicalization.”
That al Qaeda could wreak havoc on rural Illinois is likely absurd. But that is not to say moving detainees to Thomson is a silver bullet for the local economy – or for national counterterrorism policy. “The relevant question is not where prisoners are held, but how,” says Joseph Margulies, a Northwestern University law professor who has represented Guantanamo detainees. “Will we reform our detention policies to comport with universal rights and the rule of law?”
On his second day as president, Barack Obama announced plans to shut down Guantanamo by Jan. 22, 2010. The detention center had become synonymous with human rights abuses, and politicians of both parties, including George W. Bush and John McCain, had called for Guantanamo to be closed. However, concrete steps to shut down the prison did not interest the U.S. Senate. The world’s greatest deliberative body voted 90-6 in May not to fund a relocation of detainees to maximum security prisons in the U.S. Lawmakers solemnly promised their constituents protection from the mortal danger of locked-up al-Qaeda members. “We’re not going to bring al Qaeda into Big Sky country,” proclaimed Montana Democrat Max Baucus, regarding a plan that would put detainees to an underused Hardin, Montana detention facility. “No way, not on my watch.” Despite these fears, U.S. maximum-security prisons currently hold 216 international terrorists and 139 domestic terrorists – and not one has ever escaped.
In the past month, the Obama administration belatedly responded to the Senate’s “Not In My Backyard!” display. The White House admitted that it can’t meet the deadline, but simultaneously laid out a plan to try some detainees – including Mohammed – in federal court. And the Departments of Defense and Justice proposed that the Thomson Correctional Center – a $150 million investment completed in 2001 – would be turned over from the Illinois state government to the Justice Dept. Federal Bureau of Prisons. The Bureau would control 75 percent of the 1,600-cell prison and use it as a maximum-security facility. The Pentagon would then control 25 percent – the part of the prison that would hold current Guantanamo detainees. How many detainees the facility will hold is unclear, though Durbin, who consulted with the White House on the plan, has said that the number will be less than 100.
That might be because it is hard to rationally defend the doomsday warnings. “In terms of breaking out, we don’t have breakouts in maximum security prisons,” says Karen Greenberg, executive director of the Center of Law and Security at New York University Law School. “Do we have such a complete lack of confidence in our ability to protect ourselves even at a small level?” Greenberg notes that al-Qaeda members never escaped or conspired together at Guantanamo. Also, recent studies and news reports indicate that al Qaeda is severely weakened, so the threat of some kind of coordinated terrorist action centering on the prison is unlikely. “Al Qaeda’s particular brand of radicalism is becoming increasingly discredited,” Margulies of Northwestern law says.The proposal was accompanied by two days of hysterical broadsides that mirrored the Senate Guantanamo debate. “This is a terrible idea that threatens the safety of Illinois residents,” huffed Dan Proft, a Republican candidate for governor. “Instead of keeping suspected terrorists off domestic soil, the President and Gov. Quinn are poised to bring to Illinois those with the ability to operate beyond the walls of any prison.” Such vitriol, though, was limited to Illinois Republicans. Illinois Democrats – including members of the Congressional delegation and Gov. Pat Quinn – publicly voiced their support. And even some Republicans have retracted earlier pronouncements – Rep. Kirk called last week for the debate to be “toned down.”
The economic impact of converting the Thomson facility is less cut and dried. The village of Thomson is located in Carroll County, which has 16,000 people – with 840 people, or 10.5 percent of the workforce, unemployed. A report by the White House Council of Economic Advisers claims that in its first four years of construction and operation, the federal prison will produce 2,800 jobs, including 1,400 in Carroll County (or 560 more than the number of jobs needed for zero unemployment). Overall, the White House estimates that the prison will produce anywhere between 3,170-3,870 jobs in its first four years. In the first year, the prison will generate 2,240-2,960 temporary or permanent jobs with “current local residents excellent candidates for 1,240-1,410 jobs.”
This includes corrections officers, medical personnel and food service workers to be employed in the prison. But the rosy figure also takes into account jobs produced by indirect economic effects. For example, some 220 jobs will be produced just from providing food, lodging and miscellaneous services to visiting attorneys, diplomats, law enforcement people, Red Cross delegates, and journalists.
Alan Sanderson, an economist at the University of Chicago, is dubious about these projections. “I’ve done a lot of work on economic impact studies and there tends to almost invariably be overestimates,” Sanderson says. “Thomson only has a population of 600, so it’s hard to believe so many jobs being created are being taken by local residents.” A more likely scenario is that trained prison personnel will relocate to the area. Even the CEA reports concedes that “if people move into the area as a result of the facility opening, the unemployment will not fall by as much.”
J. Fred Giertz, an economist at the University of Illinois and head of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs, predicts that the Thomson proposal will provide a modest stimulus. “It will provide some employment for people who are not necessarily highly skilled,” he says. “[Prisons] are not a great engine for economic spin-offs, but they are better than no activity at all.”
Ultimately, however, the most important question is not how many jobs a new prison for suspected terrorists will create. It’s whether the prison can be part of a “war on terror” that protects the country and enables the U.S. to regain international credibility after the closure of Guantanamo. “Who the heck is going there?” Greenberg says. “Is it people who are going to be tried? Are we going to determine there who gets tried by a federal court and who gets tried by a military court?”
White House employment projections make it seem like the Thomson facility will be holding its new prisoners for a long time — whether or not they ever receive trials. This might boost the local economy. But it will be a bittersweet accomplishment for the Obama administration, and Illinois, if Thomson simply becomes the Guantanamo of the heartland – a depressing, if economically stimulating, reminder of an incoherent war on terror.