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Commission Member Wants Detainees In Ill.

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Commission Member Wants Detainees In Ill.

National Security

Commission Member Wants Detainees In Ill.

Commission Member Wants Detainees In Ill.

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Read former Ill. governor James R. Thompson's piece, "9/11 Terrorists In Our Backyard?"

James Thompson, member of the September 11 commission, believes detention officials in Ill. are capable of handling Guantanamo Bay detainees. In a piece for the Chicago Tribune, he argues bringing the detainees to American soil will make the country stronger and safer.


Though the deadline was slipped(ph), President Obama still plans to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. And there is one plan to relocate the detainees that's received a lot of attention, a nearly vacant penitentiary on the Mississippi River in Northwest Illinois. Critics say that housing dangerous men in the Thomson Correctional Center could make the prison itself, the local area, even the city of Chicago terrorist targets.

In an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, former Illinois governor James Thompson took the opposite view. Jim Thompson also served on the 9/11 Commission, and joins us in a moment.

So, we want to hear from our listeners in Illinois today. Is this the right decision for your state? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: You can find a link to James Thompson's op-ed which appeared in the Chicago Tribune on our Web site. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Governor Thompson joins us today on the phone from Chicago. Nice to have you with us.

Mr. JAMES THOMPSON (Former Governor, Illinois): Good afternoon. Nice to be here.

CONAN: And, well, I'm sure you've been - heard the question put this way: Why do you want what are viewed as the most dangerous men in the world in your backyard?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, first of all, I'm not sure they're some of the most dangerous men in the world. They're dangerous, to be sure, but they've got to be somewhere while they're being held for trial either in a civilian court in New York or before a military commission at a fort. We have this penitentiary that was built by one of my successors called the Thomson Penitentiary. Now, it wasn't named for me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: It was named for Thomson, Illinois, where it's located, and there's no P in Thomson, Illinois. So we should make that clear at the beginning. And it only has a couple hundred prisoners in it. And the city of Illinois spent over $140 million to build it, and we're not using it. And if we reached an agreement with the federal government to sell it to the federal government so it would become a federal prison, the government would provide a separate wing to house these al-Qaida prisoners.

CONAN: About 75, as I understand.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, about 75. And then the rest of the penitentiary would be used for, let's call them, regular federal prisoners who would otherwise go to a federal super max prison. And part of the agreement would be, as I understand it, that the wing in which the al-Qaida detainees were housed would actually be run by the Department of Defense, not the Federal Bureau of Corrections.

And, of course, the Department of Defense is capable of providing the highest security in the world. So I don't think it's a threat to the tiny town of Thomson, Illinois. I don't think it's a threat to the city of Chicago or the rest of the state of Illinois. We would return multi-million dollars to our capital budget where we desperately need those funds to create jobs in this state and to undertake capital projects.

And Thomson, Illinois would benefit by having these jobs, estimated at some two to 3,000, come to that part - northwest part of the state of Illinois where unemployment is high. So, as other people have said, this is a win-win. The federal government gets a place to house these people. The Department of Defense guarantees the security, and Thomson, Illinois and the environs benefit economically.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Scott in Lena, Illinois. I live in that region of Illinois, work in economic development. I recently sat in on a development meeting that included representatives from that specific area. There's not a doubt in my mind that a majority of the people who live in Thomson and the surrounding areas absolutely want these Gitmo prisoners there. The number of jobs and the economic impact in that area of Illinois, if this happens, would be staggering. It's very frustrating for those of us who live in this area to hear people who have no connection with this region at all, act like they know what's best for us.

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, I think that's right. And though it is not in his district, it's right next door to his district, Representative Jim Sacia, who's a representative of the Illinois House and a former FBI agent, has been strongly in support of this, too. So I think some politicians have been too quick to condemn it.

And, look, we've got prisoners with links to al-Qaida in Illinois penitentiaries now. There are some in Marion, which is a federal penitentiary in southern Illinois. There had not been any incidents. There had been no escapes. There had been no attacks on Marion or any place else in Illinois.

CONAN: It would be different. Yeah, you're right. There are some in Marion and there are some in other prisons around the country, too. But nevertheless, if a place was identified as the principal location, that might be different.

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, what would the consequences be? Can anybody seriously believe that other al-Qaida terrorists would attack the prison? That doesn't seem likely to me. Would they attack some place in Illinois as retaliation? Well, any place worth attacking in Illinois would be a terrorist target in any event? I mean, they chose that - al-Qaida terrorists chose the Twin Towers in New York, on 9/11, not because the Twin Towers housed al-Qaida prisoners. There were no al-Qaida prisoners that I know of in New York State at that time. They did it to wound America.

And if we ever have any attacks on American soil again - thank God, we haven't since then - they don't necessarily go to New York the second time. It could be Chicago, it could be Los Angeles, it could be San Francisco, it could be a mall, it could be a railroad line, it could be a gas pipeline, it could be attacks in several cities at once, with a truck bomb in each city. They could be anywhere.

And we have to, I think, demonstrate to the world we're not afraid of these people. We will deal with these people in our criminal justice system or military commission system, whatever the president decides, can deal with these people. Otherwise, you know, you're going to find the United States shrinking in fear, and we've never been that kind of nation.

CONAN: Let's get Henry(ph) on the line. Henry is calling us from Chicago.

HENRY (Caller): Hi. I'm a freshman at the University of Chicago. And I just - I hear everything that's being said about the economic benefit to Illinois and I agree. But I'm proud, actually, for another reason. All these states keep talking about how they want Guantanamo to be closed and the prisoners to be moved, but not into their states. I think it's really great that it's in Illinois. It makes me proud that we can be a part of hopefully stopping al-Qaida from taking any more lives. And also, hopefully, having the prison on U.S. soil will keep any bad interrogation techniques from happening like they did in Guantanamo. Hopefully, a little bit of oversight will come from its relocation to Illinois as well.

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, it's the - you know, it's the NIMBY principle at work - Not In My Back Yard. People want their garbage and wastes picked up every day and they never want to see it again, but they don't want a waste disposal site anywhere near their house. People want electric power in their house, but they don't necessarily want to live next to a - an electrical power generating plant.

You can find a lot of instances where people will demand vital services, both from the private sector and from the government, as long as it's near somebody else's property. And it's got be near somebody's property.

CONAN: Go ahead, Henry.

HENRY: In this case, Illinois actually wants it near their property. I mean�

Mr. THOMPSON: Right.

HENRY: �I see that there is a not in my back yard principle. But it's coming from other places in the country. We in Illinois want it. I think we should get it.

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, I - there are some places in Illinois or some people - I'd say some people in Illinois that don't want it in Thomson. And I think it's pretty clear that a majority of the people in that town would like to have it. They've got this empty penitentiary. They were promised economic benefit when that was built. They, as taxpayers, helped pay for it and we're not using it appropriately.

CONAN: Henry, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

HENRY: Thanks.

CONAN: And we should point out that those people who oppose it do not include the senior senator from the state of Illinois, Dick Durbin, nor the present governor, Pat Quinn.

Mr. THOMPSON: Correct.

CONAN: They're both in favor. There are - there's a law in the U.S. passed by the U.S. Congress. It says you cannot relocate any of the Guantanamo prisoners to the United States. You're obviously a very successful and capable politician. How would you help the - change that?

Mr. THOMPSON: I think a majority of the Congress would be so happy to have Guantanamo closed and find somebody willing to take the prisoners in their facility that they'd quickly amend that law. It's, you know�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: �we all benefit from - at least in Illinois and other states as well - from electricity generated by nuclear power, right?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. THOMPSON: Illinois has more nuclear facilities than any other state and we've not had issues with them. And we all benefit from the application of nuclear medicine and there's got to be some place to put the waste. So the federal government, for years, has planned to shift it to Yucca Mountain in Nevada. And the Congress was always in favor of doing that except for the two senators and the congressman from Nevada.

CONAN: And anybody running for president.

Mr. THOMPSON: And anybody running from president.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: So I think you'll find the same theory here that if the Illinois agrees to sell this facility at Thomson, Illinois, to the federal government, and the Department of Defense runs it and people can be persuaded that the Department of Defense will secure the facility with the appropriate law enforcement and Department of Defense personnel that they'll be very happy to change that law.

CONAN: We're talking with former governor of Illinois, James Thompson.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go with Eric(ph). And is it Viola, Illinois?

ERIC (Caller): Yes, correct, Viola.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

ERIC: My comment is, I live about 50 miles south of the Thomson facility. And, well, first off, these are terrorism suspects. They aren't necessarily known terrorists. So in theory, probably, some of the worst offenders have a trial that they're looking at or should be looking at. So in theory, it seems to me like this should be almost a temporary thing. And so, I say, you know, bring them here. We've got this blight from a previous governor, this prison that's been sitting empty for so long. I mean, why don't we just put him in there with these detainees? I think that'd be great.

CONAN: Well, part of the concern, Eric, is if - as you say, they are suspects; they're not convicted of anything. And if, for some reason, they were put on trial and there were some procedural problem with their handling - oh, they were tortured - a judge might say, well, then, all of these prosecutions are invalid and we have to release you into the community.

ERIC: Well, we could use some more diversity.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: I think, Eric, you're putting us on.

CONAN: I think so, Eric.

ERIC: I'm oversimplifying it, I'm sure. But I think it's a process. And there's something that we as a country have to look at. And we have to be very judicious about how these processes are handled, and how they're created, and how was, you know, Guantanamo created originally. I mean, it was - seems like it was done is somewhat - in haste. And I think we have to look more critically on how our country does make these major decisions without (unintelligible) going through.

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, and that's what I said in my op-ed piece in the Tribune on Sunday. I said the state of Illinois and the federal government have to sit down, analyze the whole issue and come to a reasoned agreement where Illinois will be repaid for its cost building this prison. And if you're right that this is temporary, and we don't get anymore detainees beyond those they are sending from Guantanamo, then I presume that the Federal Bureau of Prisons would take over that wing, and it would run as a normal�

CONAN: Federal penitentiary, yeah.

Mr. THOMPSON: �federal penitentiary, even as a supermax penitentiary.

CONAN: Well, part of, I think, this controversy involves, not just bringing these detainees from Guantanamo Bay so they can close the prison there, but it's all part of a policy that brings Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other alleged 9/11 plotters to a trial in New York City to essentially relocate all of this problem from Guantanamo Bay where it was at arm's length. And to say, all right, we're going to try these people in federal court, not - or some of them would be tried in military tribunals and then if they serve their time, they would do so perhaps at that prison either in Marion or some other supermax prison, and perhaps this one in Thomson.

Mr. THOMPSON: Right.

CONAN: Is that the right policy, do you think?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yes, I think that's the right policy. I have been surprised, as I said in my op-ed piece, at the diversity of opinion on the national political scene over the closing of - or not diversity, but the unanimity of opinion on the national political scene about closing Guantanamo.

I mean, Senator McCain has endorsed that. Presidents endorsed it. A number of members of Congress and members of the military have endorsed it. But if you close Guantanamo, you've got to send these people somewhere. And it seems to me that under the appropriate circumstances, with the right amount of security being invested, both by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and by the Department of Defense, that the prison in Thomson, Illinois, which Illinois built, paid for and has been losing money on, is as good a place as any.

CONAN: And just finally, Governor Thompson, do you have any insight on when a decision is expected?

Mr. THOMPSON: No, I don't think so. But my guess is that since the president originally promised to close Guantanamo in January of 2010, and admittedly that deadline is going to slip, that he will want to sit down with Governor Quinn, and the local people, and the Department of Defense and work out this agreement. And my guess is it would be the obligation of the president to get the legislation changed so that this could be accomplished. And I would think he would be able to do it by spring, at the latest.

CONAN: And got to get Congress to amend the law. But anyway, Governor Thompson, thank you very much for your time.

Mr. THOMPSON: My pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: Former governor of Illinois, James Thompson, a member of the 9/11 Commission as well. His op-ed appeared yesterday in the Chicago Tribune. He joined us today from his office in Chicago. Again, you can find a link to his op-ed on our Web page. That's at; click on TALK OF THE NATION.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: A quick correction. Lynn(ph) in Minneapolis emailed: you will save many letters from disgruntled Saint Paul listeners, home of Joe Mauer, if you'd correct that the twins are the Minnesota Twins, not the Minneapolis twins, don't feel badly, Katie Couric made that same mistake in her coverage of the Republican Convention in Saint Paul. I apologize. I don't know how I made that mistake.

Anyway, tomorrow, with millions of people getting ready to hit the roads this week, we'll look at why so many Americans still die in traffic accidents, what we're willing to do for safer roads.

I'm Neal Conan. TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News.

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