LEAVENWORTH, Kansas — Mary, a 60-something retiree, shudders at the thought of Guantanamo Bay detainees living across the street from her.
“I am right there, across the street,” she said in an interview not far from Fort Leavenworth, the US Army installation that is home to the Department of Defence’s only maximum-security prison in the United States.
She gestured with her hand to accentuate the closeness between her home and the installation.
“It’s kind of terrifying,” she said.
The issue of Fort Leavenworth has become a significant one in the 2014 election for US Senate in Kansas, which finds Republican incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts facing a fierce challenge from independent businessman Greg Orman.
The Obama administration is reportedly considering possible ways for President Barack Obama to unilaterally shut the military’s detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, making good on one of his earliest campaign promises. As the Defence Department’s only maximum-security facility, Fort Leavenworth has often been floated as a possible destination for Guantanamo’s remaining 149 detainees inside the continental US.
Roberts has reacted furiously to the reports, making it a central issue in his campaign platform. During a press conference last week in Overland Park, he looked straight into a camera and pledged to “shut down the Senate” if Obama tried to close Guantanamo Bay and send its detainees to Fort Leavenworth.
“Not. On. My. Watch,” said Roberts, a former Marine, pausing after each word for emphasis and saying he’ll do “anything” — shut down the government, filibuster — to keep it from happening.
Fort Leavenworth is about a 45-minute drive from the Kansas City metro area. There’s almost no one in the town of Leavenworth who thinks transferring Guantanamo detainees to Fort Leavenworth is a good idea. Business Insider spoke to more than a dozen residents of the town, all of whom rejected the idea.
“I’m not in favour of anything Obama ever did,” said Dave Luce, a resident who declined to provide his age or occupation. “But this is especially dumb.”
Mayor Mark Preisinger recently estimated that the last time the option was under consideration, 95% of the town’s residents opposed the move. Even in a town that holds four prisons and is adjacent to another one in Lansing, Kansas, the possibility of hosting these detainees goes too far.
Residents’ concerns are three-fold. First, they consider the closure of Guantanamo a mostly politically motivated effort to fulfil a campaign promise without a strategy. They’re anxious about the possibility the detainees could be granted access to lawyers more sympathetic to their cases. And they worry about the potential that the town could become a target for terror attacks.
“I don’t know that you’ll find anybody in favour of it here,” said Marty, a resident who declined to give his last name or occupation. “They’re another kind of animal.”
He was quick to add: “No one thinks they would escape or anything. But just having them here would put a black mark on the town.”
One Republican strategist involved in the Roberts campaign told Business Insider that Fort Leavenworth has become the “No. 1 issue” in the Kansas City metro area. Kansans are worried, the strategist said, about the possibility of constant media exposure.
For his part, Orman has said Obama is “absolutely wrong” to consider transferring detainees to Fort Leavenworth. But the Roberts campaign, in its push to nationalize the race and tie Orman to Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, has questioned whether Orman would be willing to buck Obama if he were elected.
“The thought of Greg Orman standing up to Obama on any issue or shutting down the Senate on any issue is laughable,” the strategist said.
A spokesman from the Orman campaign recently came under fire when he mocked Roberts’ campaign in an attempt to criticise Roberts for fear-mongering on the issue. Sam Edelen, the spokesman, tweeted a line from a piece in Washington Monthly:
He added a jab at “the senator’s Bedwetting Caucus,” a reference to a phrase in the piece whose author said “is made up of the people most likely to urinate on themselves out of irrational fear.”
The Kansas Republican Party was quick to demand an apology from Orman’s campaign, which relented. According to two people with knowledge of the move, Edelen was “reassigned” after the flap from the tweet.
“In 2009, when the president wanted to bring Guantanamo Bay prisoners to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Sen. Roberts stopped him,” Corry Bliss, Roberts’ campaign spokesman, told Business Insider.
“And he’s been very clear that if the president tries to do it again, he’ll do whatever it takes. He’ll shut down the Senate if he has to. Greg Orman’s response to Sen. Roberts’ leadership is to mock him and say it’s not a real issue. So whether it’s preventing terrorists from coming to Kansas or Obamacare or amnesty, on every issue, Greg Orman is nothing more than a rubber stamp for Barack Obama.”
Polls in the Kansas Senate race have tightened over the past few weeks, with Roberts overcoming a double-digit deficit to pull into a virtual tie with Orman. In doing so, he has sought to position himself as someone who will be able to stop Obama on a variety of foreign-policy and national-security issues.
During last week’s press conference, Roberts tore into Obama’s handling of both the crises involving Ebola and the extremist group ISIS (also known as the Islamic State or ISIL), saying he was constantly “two steps behind” on every crisis.
Some of the residents of Leavenworth, at least, are starting to take notice. Luce has never been a fan of Obama — a generous way to put it, given that he deems the President a “waste of skin.” But he wasn’t planning to vote in this election. The vehemence with which Roberts has come out against the possible transfer has made him reconsider.
Said Luce: “I’ll probably vote for him.”
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