President Barack Obama partially fulfilled a campaign promise Tuesday when he announced plans to transfer up to 100 terror suspects currently held at the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay to a federal maximum-security prison in Illinois. Moving the inmates to the American mainland brings his administration a step closer to begin putting them on trial in civilian courts here and shutting down the Guantanamo facility, which Mr. Obama said has become a global symbol and recruiting tool for al-Qaeda.
Congress still has to ratify the president's decision. Earlier this year, lawmakers prohibited the administration from bringing terror suspects from Guantanamo into the U.S. unless it intended to put them on trial. Presumably, Attorney General Eric H. Holder determined that the government has enough evidence to win convictions against at least some of the approximately 215 inmates still at Guantanamo. Those are the ones who will be transferred to Illinois, and Democratic leaders have suggested they might lift the ban after seeing the administration's plans to try them in federal criminal court.
It remains unclear, however, what will happen to the remaining inmates at Guantanamo when the facility is closed. Some can't be tried in U.S. courts because the evidence against them is tainted or because their confessions were coerced, and prosecutors have declined to pursue charges against others because their cases involve sensitive intelligence information that might compromise national security if revealed in a public trial. The administration has attempted to send some to other countries, but persuading those nations to take them has been a tough sell. Continuing to hold these suspects indefinitely as "enemy combatants" who are not entitled to the protections of U.S. law has been a sore point for the president's Democratic allies, who object to the use of military tribunals in such cases.
Congressional Republicans were quick to criticize the president's plan to move any of the terror suspects to the United States. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell denounced the proposal, saying the American people "already have rejected bringing terrorists to U.S. soil." Others charged the move would make Illinois a target for terrorist attacks or pose a risk of inmates escaping. Administration officials counter that no one has ever escaped from a federal Supermax and that the government is already holding thousands of violent criminals as well as several hundred convicted terrorists without endangering the public.
We're inclined to agree that the notion of inmates escaping to threaten citizens is overblown scare talk. The administration plans to take over an underutilized prison in Thomson, Ill., a rural area of the state 150 miles west of Chicago, and the plan has the blessings of both Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin and Gov. Pat Quinn, who say it will bring 3,000 new jobs to the area.
But we're less sanguine about Mr. Obama's plan to continue holding the 112 inmates the government says can't be put on trial and are too dangerous to release. The whole point of closing Guantanamo was to end the perception of America trashing its own democratic values and rule of law; it's hard to see how that goal can be accomplished if we just exchange Guantanamo for another gulag of indefinite detention somewhere else.