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Charleston, S.C. wonders if it'll house Guantanamo detainees

CHARLESTON NAVAL WEAPONS STATION, S.C. — Once a storage depot for Cold War missiles, this military base is quiet these days, with miles of oak and pine, freshwater marshes, fishing piers, and a sleepy golf club.

But the serenity of the 16,000-acre base could change soon if, as nearby residents suspect, the Obama administration chooses suburban Charleston as the next lockup for some of the 240 or so detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Debate has simmered here for months, mostly out of the national spotlight, over whether the base should be the next lockup for the men accused in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks or swept up early in the war on terror.

"I'd like to see them out in the middle of the desert somewhere," says Mayor Michael Heitzler of Goose Creek, which, along with the town of Hanahan, abuts this sprawling, secluded base.

"But you don't win wars by pushing responsibility down the road. If it's our time to serve, it's our time to serve."

On his third day in office, President Barack Obama fulfilled a campaign pledge by ordering that the prison camps at Guantanamo be emptied within a year. Attorney General Eric Holder is leading a task force to determine which detainees to transfer to the U.S. and prosecute for alleged crimes and which to send overseas.

Holder said the detainee dilemma was "indisputably the most daunting challenge I face" as the country's top law enforcer.

So far, only France has agreed to accept a single prisoner.

Holder and other administration officials say no decision has been made on where to move the Guantanamo detainees but opposition is mounting overseas — and in U.S. communities with military prisons from Fort Leavenworth, Kan., to San Diego.

"We have just enough resources to do traffic control," says Hanahan administrator John Cribb, whose bedroom community of 15,000 has a 32-member police force.

Some residents wonder whether moving suspected terrorists into the brig — which currently houses military violators — might make their community a target of al Qaeda cells or others who hate America.

Opponents have powerful allies. Former vice president Dick Cheney is campaigning to keep the men at Guantanamo. And Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, argued in a floor speech that the White House should keep "some of the most dangerous men alive" exactly where they are.

Hanahan property owners fear the publicity of housing Guantanamo detainees at the 400-cell brig would scare off prospective homeowners and harm property values in this community of church-goers, where evening social life revolves around after-school sports.

"Imagine that young couple thinking about buying here," says Hanahan Police Lt. John Blackmon. "It brings a little bit of anxiety that's gonna increase."

Blackmon believes the military is equipped to prevent any terror suspects from busting out of the brig. But if the Obama administration chooses to move Guantanamo detainees here, "Little ole Hanahan's gonna have a dot on the map."

Town officials plan to lobby for federal funds for the police force.

Residents believe that the Charleston brig may top the list of prospective sites because it housed the only three enemy combatants the Bush administration held on U.S. soil — including Jose Padilla, who was ultimately tried and convicted in Miami of supporting al Qaeda.

U.S. Marshals moved the last terror suspect at the brig to Illinois in March, under Obama's order to dismantle enemy combatant policy and seek trials for captives who committed crimes.

Guantanamo and indefinite detention without trial, the president argues, eroded U.S. standing around the world and undermined its commitment to the rule of law.

Meantime, a national debate rages over where the detainees go next.

The Washington D.C. lobby Military Families United is collecting pledges from members of Congress to resist relocation into their community, but hasn't released how many have signed on.

South Carolina State House member James Merrill even took a page from the playbook of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and threatened to write legislation to cut off power and water to the Charleston brig if the Pentagon moved in detainees.

In 1964, Castro threatened to cut off utilities to Guantanamo to get the U.S. military to leave. The Pentagon put in a desalination plant and to this day produces its own power and water.

Merrill's legislation was sidelined in favor of a more generalized condemnation.

But such talk angered Heitzler, the Goose Creek mayor, who says his community has long known dangerous duty. During World War II, the U.S. government interned thousands of German and Italian POWs in the area. During the Cold War, the Defense Department used Charleston as a strategic nuclear weapons depot.

"Nobody has said we won the war with al Qaeda. They haven't said 'We surrender.' Cutting off water and electricity? That's treason as far as I'm concerned," he said.

"Their job is to terrorize. It sounds like they're being successful."

The Obama administration isn't saying which sites it prefers. Nor has it said where it will send detainees that foreign countries won't accept, or what it will do about prisoners whose brutal interrogations make some cases hard or impossible to prosecute.

For now, his handling of the case of Ali al Marri, 43, a Qatari who was held for years at the Charleston brig with little notice, is the blueprint of what the Obama administration says it will do with some Guantanamo prisoners.

In February, the Justice Department charged the father of five with conspiracy and supporting terror, alleging he was an al Qaeda sleeper agent posing as a business graduate student in Peoria, Ill, at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

It was the same allegation that years earlier had led the Bush administration to arrest and hold him as "an enemy combatant," under a White House power that argued he could be held and interrogated without charge for years.

In his first year at the brig, Marri was subjected to some of the brutal interrogations described in the so-called torture memos released by the Obama administration — sensory deprivation, sexual humiliation, such mind-numbing isolation that his attorney says he hallucinated.

Navy Cmdr. Daniel Spagone, in charge of the brig, declined a request for both an interview and a tour.

Last week, rather than face trial, Marri offered a guilty plea on a charge of providing material support for terrorism. He'll be sentenced in July.

"It's setting a precedent for future detentions. I think that's clear," says Andy Savage, a Charleston criminal defense attorney who spent years lambasting the Bush administration for holding the Qatari man without the bedrock American protections against self-incrimination, or even a charge.

"What happened to Ali al Marri is un-American," Savage said. But, "those days are gone and I personally don't believe we will see that again."

Now Savage argues the brig's background of having held and then transferred Marri and two others before him leaves it uniquely suited to the post-Guantanamo assignment.

"This is a highly skilled, highly trained, highly committed staff," says Savage, noting that the compound of segregated cellblocks meant for U.S. service members has received high marks from the American Correctional Association.

Once the interrogations stopped, Savage said, Marri not only bonded with his guards but each side treated the other with respect — and ultimately provided Marri and his lawyers extraordinary access.

By the time Marri was sent to Illinois, says Savage, the Qatari's detention was supervised by a 41-member, 80-bed Special Housing Unit. He could range between three cells, speak daily by telephone with his lawyers, and meet both Savage and his wife, Cheryl, who brought kosher-style food in consideration of his Islamic beliefs.

"It's not about the brick and mortar. They are entitled to some due process," he said.

But Frank Sally, 66, is furious. The Hanahan brig is his backyard, behind a chain-link fence he can see from his woodshop.

"The problem is we don't have a military man running this country," says Sally, a Gulf War veteran who chose to retire in the area.

"It's a beautiful community to live in," says Sally. "I hate the idea of them bringing those people to this base. I hate the fact that we're going to give them the freedom to sit in court and have a fair trial — not cut their heads off."

Counters Lillian Lawrence, 53, who grew up in the Navy here and now lives 10 miles from the brig: "I feel we have to do our part as citizens and support whatever they decide."

At the height of the Cold War, she remembers, the Pentagon brought nuclear warheads to Charleston by train for the submarines. That's why the base is called the Charleston Naval Weapons Station.

"We had nuclear submarines here," she said. "How could we not have already been a target?"

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