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Some Guantanamo detainees to be moved to Illinois

  • Fewer than 100 suspects will be transferred from Cuba to Illinois prison
  • Government will buy prison, enhance perimeter security
  • Moving detainees is key to administration goal of closing facility
  • Deal could provide up to 2,000 jobs and $1 billion in federal money, officials say

Washington (CNN) -- Some terrorism suspects held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will be moved to an Illinois prison that the federal government will buy to hold them, the Obama administration announced Tuesday.

Fewer than 100 Guantanamo detainees would come to the maximum-security Thomas Correctional Center, 150 miles west of Chicago, said Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois. Republican Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois put the figure at 70.

An executive order issued by President Obama called for Attorney General Eric Holder to purchase the nearly vacant prison and for Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to "prepare the [prison] for secure housing of detainees currently held at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base who have been or will be designated for relocation, and shall relocate such detainees to the [prison], consistent with laws related to Guantanamo detainees."

The federal government will enhance one section of the prison to make it exceed perimeter security standards at the nation's only "supermax" prison in Colorado, according to a letter to Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Gates, Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair.

About 215 detainees are held at the controversial U.S. detention facility in Cuba, and finding a place to move some of the detainees was crucial to government plans to close it.

By closing Guantanamo, "we are removing from terrorist organizations around the world the recruiting tool" the detention center symbolizes, said retired Marine Gen. James Jones, the national security adviser.

At a White House briefing, senior administration officials authorized to speak on background said the Thomson prison would receive Guantanamo detainees facing trial in U.S. courts or by military commission. Detainees being sent to other countries would travel directly from Guantanamo without coming to the United States, they said.

Obama "has no intention of releasing any detainees in the United States," said the letter to Quinn. "Current law effectively bars the release of the Guantanamo detainees on U.S. soil, and the federal government has broad authority under current law to detain individuals during removal proceedings and pending the execution of final removal orders."

Read White House letter to Quinn (PDF)

However, senior administration officials in said current law would have to change for any Guantanamo suspects facing indefinite detention to be transferred to U.S. soil.

Quinn welcomed the plan, saying it would bring badly needed jobs to the region and help serve the national security interest. He said Illinois would charge a fair market price for the prison, which cost $145 million to build in 2001.

"The local community is united in wanting to have this federal prison located in Thomson, Illinois," Quinn said.

Republicans criticized the plan for bringing terrorism suspects into the country despite questions over the legality of terms of their continued detention.

"Without a vote, a public hearing or a detailed plan, the governor and the administration are moving quickly to force the citizens of Illinois to accept this risk," Kirk said.

In a statement by Military Families United, the former commander of the USS Cole, which was attacked by al Qaeda in Yemen in 2000, called closing Guantanamo a mistake.

"Congress and the American people must now stand up and prevent our communities, our justice system and our hard-earned money from being used by the Administration to prop up, perhaps, the most dangerous campaign promise ever uttered," the statement quoted Kirk Lippold as saying.

An anti-Guantanamo group welcomed the development.

"We applaud the Obama administration for taking an important step forward toward closing the debacle in Guantanamo Bay," said former Rep. Tom Andrews, director of the National Campaign to Close Guantanamo.

"President Obama is standing with Gen. Colin Powell, who has long called for the closure of Gitmo, and standing up to the politics of fear and manipulation," he said in a statement. "It's time for Congress to stop playing politics and join the president in removing this stain from America's standing in the world, save American taxpayers millions of dollars and deny al Qaeda one of its most potent recruiting tools."

The Obama administration hoped to close the prison by January but has admitted that it will not meet that goal.

Illinois state officials have said the plan would call for housing federal prisoners, including some Guantanamo detainees, in the largely vacant maximum-security facility in northern Illinois.

The letter to Quinn said federal prisoners from overcrowded facilities elsewhere would be transferred to the Thomson prison, which also will house Guantanamo detainees in the specially secured section.

The governor and other officials have said that such a deal could provide 2,000 local jobs and up to $1 billion in federal money to the area.

Durbin, the Senate's second-ranking Democrat, said in November that federal officials indicated that fewer than 100 detainees from Guantanamo would be housed in the 1,600-bed facility. They would be in a wing under the control of the Department of Defense, while the Bureau of Prisons would assume responsibility for the rest of the facility.

The Thomson prison was built in 2001 and sat empty for five years because the state lacked the resources to open it. Despite being built as a maximum-security facility, it houses 144 minimum-security male inmates, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections Web site.

Among the Guantanamo detainees are five with alleged ties to the September 11 conspiracy, including accused mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who will be transferred to New York for trial in civilian court.

CNN White House Correspondent Dan Lothian and Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty contributed to this report.