With earnest voices, sometimes shaking with passion, residents at a town hall meeting Thursday took direct aim at the prospect of Guantánamo Bay detainees being transferred to Fort Leavenworth.
One by one, a host of speakers came to the microphone at Riverfront Community Center, many to express fears that the fort, town and region would serve as a new target for terrorist attacks if the detainees were housed here. Just a few said those concerns were overblown.
The overwhelming sentiment against transferring detainees here was what Gov. Sam Brownback no doubt expected when he announced the town hall event last week.
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The Republican governor immediately opposed any transfer plans when he learned a few weeks ago that the Defense Department had surveyed the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth and the U.S. Naval Consolidated Brig in South Carolina to assess the possibility of housing Guantánamo detainees.
“I love the base. I love its mission,” Brownback told the crowd Thursday. “We’re going to fight this with everything we’ve got.”
That fired up the room of more than 200. Leavenworth Mayor Lisa Weakley said a detainee transfer to Leavenworth offered no positives for the area.
“This does not imply we lack faith in Fort Leavenworth,” Weakley said.
“We do not want this mission,” she said to vigorous applause. “This is putting a huge target on our community. This will not bring jobs to our community.”
Many of the town hall participants had ties to the fort and to the military. Robert Katzenberger of Platte County told the crowd his son died in June 2011 serving in Afghanistan.
“He told me, ‘Dad, we fight the terrorists over here so you don’t have to fight them over there,’” Katzenberger recounted.
Security was the No. 1 issue for most participants.
Several said that Leavenworth would become the new “rallying cry” for terrorists, replacing Guantánamo for that unwanted distinction. Speakers noted that the base’s campuslike setting couldn’t be beefed up enough to thwart terrorist attacks.
Brownback agreed, saying that the United States already had a secure facility to handle terrorists in Guantánamo. No detainees should be moved to U.S. soil, he said.
“I’m saying not in anybody’s backyard,” he said.
Bruce Simpson of Easton, Kan., said the concern is real: The presence of the detainees would attract the attention of terrorists.
“We’ve got schools. We’ve got churches,” he said. “Their followers will be here, and this community will not be able to absorb that kind of threat.”
A few speakers veered from that theme, sometimes to jeers from the crowd.
Several Leavenworth High School students attended the meeting, including senior Tyler Hyde, who asked: “What about the Cubans’ backyard?”
Paul Conway of Leavenworth County, a veteran of the Iraq war, said he thought the danger was being overplayed, and he chided some of the residents for creating images akin to a Chuck Norris movie.
“You can get people afraid of anything, and that’s what this is for,” he said about the town hall meeting.
Others also saw Brownback’s call for a town hall meeting as political.
“It’s wholly political,” state Sen. David Haley, a Democrat in neighboring Kansas City, Kan., said earlier in the day. “The town hall meeting is a political sideshow to help marginal incumbents get re-elected and to get people to forget about Brownback’s tax increase record.”
Haley said there should be no worries about safety for Fort Leavenworth or the community.
“Leavenworth is secure enough to hold any potential detainees,” he said. “Some of the most dangerous people in our history have been housed there.”
At the end of the town hall meeting, Brownback thanked residents for making their voices heard and expressed confidence that their wishes would prevail. Also voicing opposition to any detainee transfer were state Rep. Tony Barton and state Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, both Leavenworth Republicans.
“We’re going to push back hard,” Brownback said. “We’re not going to take this.”
The issue of moving the detainees to Fort Leavenworth also came up in Johnson County on Thursday.
In letters addressed to U.S. Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran and Rep. Kevin Yoder, the Johnson County Commission expressed concerns about public safety.
“This action could make our area a high value target for future terrorist activity,” said the letter, which was copied to Leavenworth County Commission Chairman Dennis Bixby. “There is no way to know or control who the terrorists at a detention facility would attract to the region.”
Federal law prohibits moving Guantánamo detainees to U.S. facilities.
While President Barack Obama has made it clear that closing Guantánamo is a priority for him, Congress passed a law in 2010 that bans detainees from the United States.
The purpose of the site visits to Leavenworth and South Carolina was to collect information on cost and facility requirements, Defense Department officials have said, and no decisions had been made on housing detainees. Other facilities also were surveyed. One reported administration proposal would relocate about 60 detainees to the United States for prosecution or holding.
Roxie Hammill contributed to this report.