President Barack Obama has ordered the federal government to acquire an underused state prison in rural Illinois to be the new home for a limited number of terror suspects now held at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The federal government will acquire Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson, Ill., transforming the prison in a sleepy town near the Mississippi River into a prison that exceeds "supermax standards," according to a letter to Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair.
Those departments "will work closely with state and local law enforcement authorities to identify and mitigate any risks" at the prison, the letter said.
The decision is an important step toward closing Guantanamo Bay. Thomson, about 150 miles from Chicago, is expected to house both federal inmates and no more than 100 detainees from Guantanamo Bay.
Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin and Quinn touted the plan Tuesday after receiving briefings on the plan at the White House. They both highlighted the more than 3,000 jobs the prison would bring to their state as well as the security of the facility.
"This will be the most secure prison in America … of all time," Quinn said.
Administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they could not yet lay out a timeframe for when a transfer of detainees from the Navy-run detention facility to Thomson. They said the administration would have to work with Congress to amend laws and secure funding before any prisoners are brought to U.S. soil.
The officials said military tribunals for potential detainees would be held at Thomson. They also said that the facility could house detainees whom the president determines must be held indefinitely but can't be tried.
Republicans were quick to criticize the administration's plan.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the American people "already have rejected bringing terrorists to U.S. soil." He accused the administration of failing to explain how transferring the detainees would keep the public safer than keeping them offshore in Cuba.
With only 200 minimum security inmates in a facility built to house 1,600, the prison has a modern surveillance system, enough room to segregate terrorists and hold them indefinitely, plus a courtroom for trials, reports CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds.
And though it's only a mile from Main Street, not many in Thomson are worried.
"I think the town will probably be safer than ever before because of the prison," store manager Bev Smith told Reynolds. "I think it'll be very safe. I don't have any concerns about that at all."
In Thomson - where the hope is that new jobs will come with the prisoners - reaction to the plan is almost uniformly popular.
Village President Duke Hebeler called the popularity "about 98 percent" and said he envisions an economic boost for the town - "housing and groceries, gas … construction work."
Indeed, Illinois estimates the move will create some 3,000 new jobs and inject possibly $1 billion into the battered local economy over the first four years of operation.
An administration official told CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller that closing Guantanamo "is essential to protecting our national security" and would deprive al Qaeda of a "deadly recruiting tool."
Senior administration officials said security would be the "number one priority" for the White House and said Defense Department upgrades would make the Thomson facility "the most secure in the nation" - akin to the federal "supermax" prison in Florence, Colo.
The officials also noted there are currently 340 inmates in the federal prison system with ties to terrorism, including Ramzi Yousef and the blind sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman - two men convicted for their roles the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York.
Any detainees at Thomson would not be allowed visits from friends or family, the officials said.
Meanwhile, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is promising that Guantanamo Bay detainees brought into the U.S. for trial.
A detainee tried in this country would be treated for immigration purposes as though he is at a U.S. border trying to get in - and he won't get in, Napolitano said in Dec. 11 letter to Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee. The letter was obtained by The Associated Press.
The facility in Thomson had emerged as a clear front-runner after Illinois officials, led by Durbin, enthusiastically embraced the idea of turning a near-dormant prison over to federal officials.
Officials said the prison would create more than 3,000 jobs, half of which would be filled by local residents.
Durbin called it a "great opportunity" for Illinois at a time when "people are desperate for good jobs." Illinois' unemployment rate is currently 11 percent.
Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill., said he had "full confidence that the facility will hold these terrorism suspects safely and securely." In a statement, Burris also said the transfer will be "a great economic benefit to the state."
The Thomson Correctional Center was one of several potential sites evaluated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to potentially house detainees from Guantanamo Bay. Officials with other prisons, including Marion, Ill., Hardin, Mont., and Florence, Colo., had said they would welcome the jobs that would be created with the new inmates.
The Thomson facility was built by Illinois in 2001 as a state prison with the potential house maximum security inmates. Local officials hoped it would improve the local economy, but state budget problems have kept the 1,600-cell prison from ever fully opening. At present, it houses about 200 minimum-security inmates whom Illinois officials have said can easily be transferred to other state prisons.
Under the plan outlined Tuesday, the Thomson prison will be purchased by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and run primarily as a standard federal prison. A portion of the facility would be leased to the Defense Department to house a limited number of Guantanamo detainees.
The Thomson facility will receive upgrades that take it beyond the security level at any current U.S. prison. Already built to maximum security standards, the 146-acre Thomson facility will receive more upgrades from the Department of Defense including additional fencing and other security technology.
Some Illinois officials have not supported the idea. GOP Rep. Mark Kirk, who is seeking Mr. Obama's old Senate seat, said Tuesday he believes moving Guantanamo detainees to Illinois will make the state a greater threat for terrorist attacks. Kirk has lobbied other officials to contact the White House in opposition to using the facility.
Thomson will not solve all the administration's Guantanamo-related problems. There still will be dozens of detainees who are not relocated to Thomson, other legal issues and potential resistance from Congress.