Democratic Gov. blocks Obama, opposes transfer of Gitmo detainees to Colorado
By Valerie Richardson
DENVER — Colorado may have been President Obama’s best bet as a destination for detainees from Guantanamo Bay given the lack of opposition from the Democratic governor, but no longer.
Gov. John Hickenlooper now says that he will support the wishes of Fremont County residents living near the two prisons under consideration by the Defense Department if Mr. Obama follows through with his plan to close the U.S. Naval Station in Cuba.
“The reports we’ve gotten over the last couple months is the people are fairly united — they don’t want to take that risk,” Mr. Hickenlooper said at a press gathering, according to The Denver Post. “I respect that.”
His comments mark a shift from his previous position in which he said he would weigh the costs and risks.
“They should have the loudest voice in making that decision because it is their community,” the governor continued. “So if they are united in that sense — which it sounds like they are — I will respect their voice and I will be firmly against that transfer to Colorado.”
The remarks came a day after Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, who has led the charge against bringing the detainees to Colorado, hosted a town hall in Fremont County that drew more than 100 residents and local officials concerned about the possible transfer.
“I will do everything I can to prevent Guantanamo Bay detainees from being brought to Florence, to Fremont [County], to Colorado and to the United States of America,” Mr. Gardner said to a round of applause, according to the Canon City Daily Record.
Pentagon officials toured federal and state prisons last year in three states — Colorado, Kansas and South Carolina — but met with stiff opposition from Republican Govs. Sam Brownback in Kansas and Nikki Haley in South Carolina.
Mr. Hickenlooper, on the other hand, initially said he would weigh the risks, costs and benefits of accepting the Gitmo detainees, many of whom have ties to Islamist terrorist organizations.
Closing Guantanamo Bay has been on Mr. Obama’s checklist since his 2008 presidential campaign, but the president has been unable to overcome staunch opposition from Congress as well as governors in the states under consideration for the transfer of detainees.
He made a last-ditch push with the release of a plan Feb. 23 that examined 13 potential sites for the transfer of the 91 remaining detainees, including prisons in the three states and facilities at unnamed military bases.
“For many years, it’s been clear that the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay does not advance our national security,” said Mr. Obama at a press conference unveiling the plan, adding that keeping Gitmo open is “contrary to our values.”
Congress approved a Defense Department budget last year signed by Mr. Obama that prohibits the transfer of detainees to U.S. soil, leading to speculation that the president may attempt to close the facility via executive order.
One problem is that if the president does relocate the detainees, “you’ve just created Guantanamo North,” said Tom Joscelyn, senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
He noted that the president’s own task force has deemed 67 of the 91 detainees too dangerous to release.
“Of the 91 detainees who are left, you have 67 who have either been recommended for prosecution — and one who’s been convicted — and another 35 recommended for continuing long-term detention,” Mr. Joscelyn said. “Those are guys who have not been deemed innocent or risk-free or anything of the sort.”
At the same time, he said he wasn’t convinced that moving them to a U.S. prison would significantly increase the risk of an attack, given that any number of terrorist groups want to attack U.S. population centers and high-profile targets anyway.
But no location is as secure as Guantanamo Bay.
“Where they are now, it’s basically impossible for the jihadis to attack,” Mr. Joscelyn said. “So you go from a place that really they can’t attack at all to a place where there’s a little bit of a chance that they could.”
Colorado has two prisons drawing interest from the Pentagon: the Federal Correctional Complex, whose facilities in Florence include medium, maximum and supermax prisons, and the Colorado State Penitentiary II, also known as the Centennial Correctional Facility, in Canon City.
At Monday’s meeting Mr. Gardner said he would pursue an injunction in federal court to stop the Obama administration if the Pentagon closes the detention facility in Cuba.
Mr. Hickenlooper gave himself some wiggle room by saying he would support the will of the community, but also said that he doubts that the Obama administration will press the issue.
“At this point it’s hypothetical,” Mr. Hickenlooper said. “My guess is that this decision will never come.”
At the same time, he said, “If I begin to get an inkling that it is going to happen, I guarantee you I’ll go down to Fremont County before you can bat an eye,” according to CBS4 in Denver.
“We applaud Hickenlooper’s evolution on this serious issue and look forward to the conversation it brings about nationally on whether we should really be transferring terrorists to our backyards,” said Advancing Colorado’s Jonathan Lockwood in a statement. “Safety is not a partisan issue and the governor was right to stand up to Obama.”