Plan to house detainees in Ill. prison is delayed
WASHINGTON - Rebuffed this month by skeptical lawmakers when it sought finances to buy a prison in rural Illinois, the Obama administration is struggling to come up with the money to replace the Guantanamo Bay prison.
As a result, officials now believe they are unlikely to close the prison in Cuba and transfer its population of terrorism suspects until 2011 at the earliest - a far slower timeline for achieving one of President Obama’s signature national security policies than they had previously hinted.
While Obama has acknowledged he would miss the Jan. 22 deadline for closing the prison that he set shortly after taking office, the administration appeared to take a major step forward last week when he directed subordinates to move “as expeditiously as possible’’ to acquire the Thomson Correctional Center, a nearly vacant maximum-security Illinois prison, and to retrofit it to receive Guantanamo detainees.
But in interviews this week, officials estimated that it could take eight to 10 months to install new fencing, towers, cameras, and other security upgrades before any transfers take place.
Such construction cannot begin until the federal government buys the prison from the state of Illinois.
The federal Bureau of Prisons does not have enough money to pay Illinois for the center, which would cost about $150 million. Several weeks ago, the White House approached the House Appropriations Committee and floated the idea of adding about $200 million for the project to the military spending bill for the 2010 fiscal year, according to administration and congressional officials.
But Democratic leaders refused to include the politically charged measure in the legislation. When lawmakers approved the bill on Dec. 19, it contained no financing for Thomson.
The administration will probably not have another opportunity until Congress takes up a supplemental appropriations bill for the Afghanistan war.
Lawmakers are not likely to finish that bill until late March or April.
Moreover, the administration now says the current focus for Thomson financing is the appropriations legislation for the 2011 fiscal year. Congress will not take that measure up until late 2010.