Pentagon officials traveled last week to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, home to the military’s only domestic maximum-security prison, to evaluate it as a potential alternative to the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, a Defense Department spokesman said Monday.
The Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, S.C., is the only other military base department officials are considering as they prepare to send Congress a detailed proposal to shutter Guantánamo, which the Obama administration has tried and failed to close since 2009. Non-military sites are also in play, but spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis declined to provide specific locations.
The backlash from elected officials has been fierce as lawmakers jockey to keep detainees out of their states and districts.
Already, Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts has threatened to hold up the nomination for the next Army secretary if the administration moves forward with any plans to move the detainees to Leavenworth. In 2009, Roberts held up the nomination of outgoing Army Secretary John M. McHugh amid similar concerns.
In an Aug. 14 letter to Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, Roberts stressed that Kansas in general – and Leavenworth, in particular – are not ideal for a domestic detention facility.
“Fort Leavenworth is neither the ideal nor right location for moving Guantánamo detainees,” Roberts wrote to Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter. “The installation lies right on the Missouri River, providing terrorists with the possibility of covert travel underwater and attempting access to the detention facility.”
Additionally, Roberts wrote, the base’s boundary line runs parallel to a public railroad.
“Because of these impediments, I expect your staff will find Fort Leavenworth unfeasible for housing Guantanamo terrorists,” he added.
The prison at Leavenworth, from which no one has ever escaped, has long been viewed as a potential site for the detainees. But after the administration nixed an Illinois site from its short list, political efforts to keep detainees out of Kansas have only ramped up.
The area has long been accustomed to holding serious offenders. In addition to the maximum-security military prison, the Leavenworth area also includes a state correctional facility and a medium-security federal prison, making prisons an important industry.
Nonetheless, Kansas Republican Rep. Lynn Jenkins, whose district includes Leavenworth, called any plans to relocate the detainees to the United States a “reckless proposal.”
“I will continue my work to keep these terrorists from being transferred to Fort Leavenworth or anywhere in the United States,” she said in a Friday statement.
Pentagon officials will travel next week to Charleston, where they will face similar political hurdles. South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has already blasted efforts to put the detainees at the Brig, arguing in a statement last week to the Washington Post that the area is too heavily populated for such a dangerous mission.
Congress has used the annual defense authorization and appropriations bills to block not only Guantanamo’s closure but also the construction of any facility within the United States to house the detainees.
The White House, however, has a rare – if still long – shot at selling Congress on closing the detention center. The Senate’s version of the fiscal 2016 defense authorization bill (S 1376) requires the administration to submit a plan, subject to congressional approval, for transferring the remaining prisoners at the facility to a maximum security prison within the United States.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., has said he would endorse the plan, and try to sell it to his colleagues, if he considers it credible. It must, for instance, include transferring the prisoners to a secure facility run by the Defense Department.
Under McCain’s proposal, Guantánamo would close if Congress approves the plan. But if lawmakers reject the administration’s proposal, the existing ban on domestic transfers would stay in place and heightened standards in the bill for foreign transfers would remain.
It’s not yet clear whether House and Senate negotiators on the sprawling defense bill will sign off on McCain’s language when they return to Washington next month.
The House-passed bill (HR 1735) does not contain a similar provision and includes more restrictive language on Guantánamo than the Senate measure.