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Officials, Leavenworth Residents Criticize Plan To Close GITMO Detention Center

Stephen Koranda

If President Obama closes the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba, the suspected terrorists who are housed there might be transferred to the military prison at Fort Leavenworth. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has spoken out against that idea.

Yesterday, he brought that message to Leavenworth and heard from the people who would be most directly affected: local residents. KPR’s Stephen Koranda was at the public meeting and files this report.

A couple hundred people packed the community center in downtown Leavenworth to hear what the governor had to say. Local resident Andy Johnson says he hasn’t heard that many locals talk about the president's proposal to transfer Guantanamo Bay detainees to the nearby military prison at Fort Leavenworth.

“A few, not too many. It’s been out there, but I haven’t heard too many people gnashing their teeth over it, if you will,” Johnson says.

But there was some definite teeth gnashing once the town hall meeting started.

“We are totally against Guantanamo Bay detainees coming to Fort Leavenworth,” says Leavenworth Mayor Lisa Weakley.

“Let me say from the get go, this does not imply that we lack faith in Fort Leavenworth to do this mission. We do not want this mission,” Weakley says.

She says while Fort Leavenworth has the military disciplinary barracks, its main mission is training soldiers, especially officers.

Brownback says he’s concerned housing the detainees would damage the educational mission of the army base.

“How hard would it be to conduct that mission when the image of the whole place is going to be about you having these high-value terrorist detainees here? I just think it stomps over the mission that we’ve worked so many years to establish here that is so valuable,” Brownback says.

Brownback argues the Guantanamo Bay facility is secure and building a similarly secure facility in Fort Leavenworth could cost billions of dollars.

“Some people are saying this is just a matter of ‘you just don’t want them in your backyard.’ I’m saying, not in anybody’s backyard, not here, not South Carolina. They are where they are for a reason and this has been a secure facility that worked,” Brownback says.

Multiple people shared concerns over security, saying bringing detainees to Leavenworth could make the community a target for terrorism.

“I was safe growing up here," says Lawrence Henderson, an attorney who grew up in Leavenworth. "I now have a family here. I don’t know what danger the detainees bring to the community, but what I can say is that the president, nor no other person, has a right to endanger my family."

John Duty, retired from the U.S. Army, says Fort Leavenworth is filled with possible targets for terrorists.

“I mean, if you wanted to lay out a target rich environment for terrorists: a school, daycare center and all those other facilities. The post is just not designed to take this kind of threat,” Duty says.

Brandon Johannes, with the Chamber of Commerce of Leavenworth and Lansing, says the plan poses another danger to the area, specifically to the area’s economy. He says just the image of having detainees could cause people to leave the area or think twice about coming to Leavenworth.

“Some of the military personnel who might be stationed at Fort Leavenworth may decide to leave their families behind and the soldier him or herself come alone. That would be a significant impact on the economy, because right now those soldiers bring their whole families with them,” Johannes says.

Only a couple people who spoke said officials should consider the plan. Paul Conway, an Iraq War vet, says the U.S. has a problem with Guantanamo Bay, and keeping detainees there makes the nation look bad on the international stage.

“I understand it’s inconvenient and expensive and causes a lot of problems to move detainees here, but I think they’re all do-able. It won’t happen overnight,” Conway says.

But Brownback and other elected officials say they’ll continue to fight any plan that brings detainees from the naval base in Cuba to the mainland of the United States.

Stephen Koranda is Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Radio covering health, education and politics.