Pentagon to search for ‘Guantánamo North’ in Colorado

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has three types of prisons at Florence, Colo., housing 2,661 inmates, 90 miles south of Denver.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons has three types of prisons at Florence, Colo., housing 2,661 inmates, 90 miles south of Denver.

A Pentagon team tasked with finding potential alternatives inside the United States for Guantánamo captives is resuming its site survey in Colorado, the Defense Department said Friday.

The White House notified state and congressional politicians that a team would inspect a now empty state facility, Colorado State Penitentiary II, as well as a federal prison 10 miles away adjacent to the Florence “supermax” prison.

Criticism of the plan soon followed. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado, whose district has the two prisons, called it “a dangerous fantasy that will go nowhere” because the law forbids the transfer of Guantánamo detainees to the United States — and an “outrageous and unacceptable” waste of time and taxpayer dollars.

Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, was less dismissive. He “wants to have a full understanding of the costs, risk and impacts for Colorado,”said Kathy Green, Hickenlooper’s communications director. “At present, there are no plans, nor is it legal under federal law, to move detainees to the U.S.”

Navy Cmdr Gary Ross said the surveys would happen in “the next few weeks.”

Ross said the team would visit FCI-Florence, short for the Federal Correctional Institution at Florence. It has 1,517 inmates in a medium-security setting, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons online guide, on a site of three prisons collectively housing 2,661 inmates.

Florence is better known for the maximum-security “supermax” penitentiary now holding 405 inmates, many of them convicted terrorists. They include former Guantánamo detainee Ahmed Ghailani, 41, convicted of the East Africa embassies bombings; Ramzi Yousef, 47, the nephew of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, serving life for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; ‘Unibomber’ Ted Kaczynski, 73, and FBI agent turned spy Robert Hanssen, 71.

Guantánamo has 114 captives, 53 of them cleared for release to other countries with security assurances. The idea, according to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, is to move to the United Statesthose 114 “who, in the interest of our national security, should remain in law of war detention.”

Carter, like President Barack Obama, says the current detention operation in Cuba costs too much and is “a rallying cry for jihadi propaganda.” More than 2,000 temporary troops and contractors run the sprawling operation at an estimated cost of $3.4 million a year per detainee.

The state facility under consideration is an empty 948-cell solitary confinement prison at Cañon City, about 10 miles northwest of Florence. It is also known as Centennial South, and has been vacant since 2012. The state closed it as unneeded surplus maximum-security cell space after a drop in the state crime rate, according to a 2013 state study.

Like the federal prison at Florence, it is part of a multi-prison complex. “The potential for a sale or lease of the facility to another jurisdiction is quite limited due to the location of the facility in the middle of a state correctional complex shared with another facility,” the study said.

The team has already visited the Army-run prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and the U.S. Navy brig near Charleston, South Carolina, over the protests of politicians in those states. Those surveys kicked off renewed opposition to the idea of relocating the detainees to the United States, including by Republican lawmakers from Colorado who suspected the state was on the look-at list.

“Transferring some of the world’s most dangerous terrorists to our backyard places a target on Colorado,” Rep. Scott Tipton said in a press release in September.

At the Pentagon, Ross said the survey team would “meet with facility staff to discuss ... engineering considerations, force protection, troop housing, security, transportation, information security, contracting, and other operational issues.The facilities also will be assessed for their ability to serve as military commission sites.”

At this point, the effort is highly theoretical: U.S. law blocks the Pentagon from bringing Guantánamo’s captives to the United States for any reason — neither for trial nor for medical care — and the latest draft of the National Defense Authorization Act keeps that embargo, and adds additional restrictions on overseas releases. The House adopted it this week. The Senate is expected to take it up Tuesday.

The White House has said Obama would veto the legislation over its use of war funding as a workaround for spending caps — and also wants the Congress to loosen transfer restrictions.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg


The governor was notified by the Pentagon today that they would like to assess various Colorado facilities, as they are doing in other states. The governor, like the Pentagon, wants to have a full understanding of the costs, risk and impacts for Colorado. At present, there are no plans, nor is it legal under federal law, to move detainees to the U.S. ▪ Kathy Green, communications director for Colorado’s Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper

Despite House passage of an NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act] that strictly prohibits the transfer of terrorists from Guantánamo Bay, the Obama Administration is instructing DOD [Department of Defense] officials to come investigate the Federal Supermax facility in Florence and a Colorado penitentiary facility in Canon City as potential destinations for terrorists. It is outrageous and unacceptable for President Obama to waste time and taxpayer dollars on a dangerous fantasy that will go nowhere. The people of Colorado do not want the world’s worst terrorists housed in our own backyard and we will not stand for this. I will do everything in my power to resist these unlawful terrorist transfers from taking place. ▪  Rep. Doug Lamborn, Republican whose district has both prisons