Fort Leavenworth As high-profile Republicans increasingly join Democrats and civil rights groups in denouncing the U.S. holding of alleged terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, a proposal to move detainees to this historic Army post in the geographic heart of America is gaining widespread political support.
Under the plan, several hundred foreign detainees could be transported from the U.S. detention facility in Cuba, a prison that has evoked worldwide outrage amid allegations of strong-arm interrogation tactics, to the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks here, the Department of Defense's only maximum-security prison on U.S. soil.
The plan has drawn criticism from many residents around Fort Leavenworth.
While many of the detainees have yet to be formally charged, those who could be moved to the military prison, in the center of a small base just outside Kansas City, stand accused of crimes ranging from helping plan the attacks of Sept. 11 to working to establish al-Qaida networks around the world.
The move, supporters say, could quell criticism that the United States is using the isolated Guantanamo prison to hold detainees in substandard conditions and to use torture to obtain information. And although experts caution the transfer of these prisoners may do little to change the legal rights they are currently afforded, the proposal is reviving debate about how much - if any - constitutional protection these prisoners should have while in U.S. custody.
In addition, the potential detainee transfer has led many to question whether housing such prisoners in a section of the nation where there is little defense of key infrastructure would expose small Midwestern towns as easy targets for terrorists.
"The prison holds some of the world's most dangerous terrorists from around the globe," said Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., whose district sits across the Missouri River from the Fort Leavenworth prison. "They have threatened Americans and in some instances they have killed Americans. Having terrorists held so close to Americans would pose a significant risk if they were to escape or if the prison were to become a target for other terrorists."
Proposals to move prisoners to Fort Leavenworth initially garnered wide support among Democrats and civil and constitutional rights groups. Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., summed up their argument: "Since the time that captured 'enemy combatants' were first brought to Guantanamo Bay in 2002, the detainment facility has undermined America's image as the model of justice and protector of human rights around the world."
But now an expanding cadre of high-profile Republicans has urged that Guantanamo be shuttered, making it increasingly likely that the Leavenworth prison could be used.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates testified to Congress that he has been pushing to close Guantanamo and that any war crimes trials held there would lack international credibility because of the facility's "taint." Former Secretary of State Colin Powell urges a shutdown; presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., backs proposals to shift detainees to Fort Leavenworth; and even President Bush, according to White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe, has "long expressed a desire" to close Guantanamo.
Janet Wray, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, said prison officials were not commenting on the potential move. Yet a look at the prison by the numbers illustrates that an influx of the estimated 360 detainees in Guantanamo would require a shifting of some of Fort Leavenworth's current inmates to other federal facilities. Members of Congress recently estimated that the prison has space to take on 80 or so more prisoners right now.
Leavenworth, the community that sits just outside the gates of the Army base that shares its name, has for decades been synonymous with prisons. In addition to the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, the town is home to a federal penitentiary and a holding facility for prisoners of the U.S. Marshals Service. Just outside the city limits is a maximum-security Kansas penitentiary. Residents say they remember as children learning to distinguish between different types of warning sirens: one for fires, one for tornadoes, one for prison breaks.
The people of Leavenworth are used to the spotlight that comes with such notorious prisoners as Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and Robert Stroud, the "Birdman of Alcatraz." But the prospect of receiving prisoners from Guantanamo stirs considerable emotion.
"Let's be honest," said Donna Raymond, 40, a lifelong Leavenworth resident. "These are not your average criminals. I think I speak for a lot of people in town when I say that we don't want hundreds of terrorists brought in here."
Local business leaders, who have spent years working to brand the community as something other than a prison town, worry that the move will make it nearly impossible for potential residents or new businesses to focus on Leavenworth's beautiful brick buildings or the legend of "Buffalo Bill" Cody, who lived in town for years.
Yet there is no denying the economic bond between Leavenworth and the prisons. When the federal penitentiary shifted from maximum security to medium security a couple of years ago - a change that meant a much smaller guard staff was needed - the town estimated its economy took a $1.5 million hit.
Even residents who have always been most supportive of the prisons and the money they bring to the community are quick to point out the risk that they believe also could come with these new inmates.
Jim Timmons, 67, a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer, worried that his community is unprepared for what security changes might come.
"Leavenworth is a soft target," he said. "And why wouldn't we be? We've never had to worry about being a target before. But is this community prepared to deal with a new level of security? To guard our railways? Our water supply? Are we going to put guards on the bridge crossing the Missouri River leading into town?"
Detainees' legal rights
Even as the merits of the potential move are debated within Leavenworth, people far from Kansas are wondering how a change in geography might change the legal rights of the Guantanamo detainees.
In 2006, the GOP-controlled Congress passed the Military Commissions Act, which removed the detainees' right of habeas corpus and said "no court, justice or judge" could hear claims from foreign detainees categorized by the government as enemy combatants. The current Democratic-controlled Congress has vowed to repeal that act.
A federal appeals court this summer ordered the government to turn over almost all of its information on detainees who are challenging their detentions to the detainees' lawyers, and the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case in which defense attorneys will argue detainees have the right to challenge their imprisonment in federal court.
Guantanamo detainees have been brought before military hearings known as combat status review tribunals, but their attorneys complain the suspects have not been permitted to see much of the evidence against them or to have lawyers present during the hearings.
Changes in store?
This spring, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, introduced the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility Closure Act of 2007, a bill that would shut down the facility by cutting off its funding for everything except sending charged or sentenced detainees to U.S. prisons such as Fort Leavenworth, to their home countries or to another country that does not allow abuse of prisoners.
Many lawyers for Guantanamo detainees are skeptical that a change in address would do much to change the lives of these suspects, particularly since many guards at Guantanamo are military police officers based in Fort Leavenworth who rotate to Cuba for duty.
"Their daily life wouldn't change," said Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, a New York attorney who has represented detainees. "They would still be held in absolute isolation. The question is if their legal rights would change. So far, the government has argued that the people in Guantanamo have not a single right in a single court, so simply changing the place they are held without changing their legal opportunities won't lead to much difference in their worlds."
Colangelo-Bryan, like other defense attorneys, said although he welcomes the move to Ft. Leavenworth, he doesn't believe the detainees' legal opportunities will change until the Supreme Court or Congress mandates the detainees are extended new legal protections.