STERLING, Ill. - Federal and state authorities faced harsh questioning from Republican lawmakers and a chilly reception from an audience yesterday over a plan to bring terrorism suspects from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to western Illinois.
State lawmakers organized a public hearing over a plan to sell the state prison in Thomson to the federal government.
Alan Liotta, principal director for detainee policy at the Pentagon, said the goal was to remove Guantanamo as a recruiting tool for terrorists.
"I appreciate your optimism," said State Sen. Matt Murphy, a Republican. "I can't say that I share it."
Jack Lavin, a top aide to Gov. Pat Quinn, invoked a sequence of leading Republicans such as Sen. John McCain who also support closing the Guantanamo facility.
Lavin noted that about 200 Illinoisans have died in combat since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Using Thomson, he said, would be another way Illinois could help keep the United States safe.
"We all have the duty to sacrifice for each other," he said.
State officials were frequently interrupted by boos and jeers, leading panel cochair Jeffrey Schoenberg to call for "decorum" and even threaten to remove audience members.
Murphy, who is running for lieutenant governor, pressed state officials on whether they think the risk for the state will increase by moving a symbol of the U.S. antiterror effort to Illinois.
Jonathon Monken, director of the Illinois State Police, said the only way state authorities could mitigate the risk is if federal authorities enter into a long-term financial arrangement. Monken said the state police would need at least $1 million up front to manage the risk.
State Sen. Bill Brady, a Republican running for governor, voiced skepticism. "We are in a time of war. Our enemy is the terrorists. We are detaining their troops," he said.
Hundreds attended the public hearing at Sterling High School, east of Thomson. The panel, the state Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, can merely offer an advisory opinion.
Before the hearing opened, several dozen opponents held signs and rang "liberty bells."
"If there is any way to change it - that would be awesome. But I think they've made up their minds," said Jill Weber, 48, of Sterling.
Sheryl Noble, 60, of Rock Falls, said the plan's economic benefits were overstated, compared with the risks. "I think it's wrong to bring terrorists here, especially when we don't know if their 'little friends' will be coming, too," she said.
The White House says the move would generate about 3,000 jobs.
The Thomson prison, built in 2001 at a cost of $145 million, now has about 200 minimum-security inmates who are part of a work camp, according to information released at the hearing.
Harley Lappin, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said at the hearing that a new perimeter fence and other measures would make Thomson "the most secure of all federal prisons in the country."
Critics have complained they could not comment to the panel before Quinn, with White House backing, decided earlier this month to sell Thomson to the federal government. It probably would take until May to complete any sale.