The Miami Herald

New admiral takes charge at Guantánamo Bay camps

Rear Adm. John Smith Jr., commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo, talks with guests at a reception held at the Bayview Officer's Club after he took charge of the detention center  June 25, 2012.
Rear Adm. John Smith Jr., commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo, talks with guests at a reception held at the Bayview Officer's Club after he took charge of the detention center June 25, 2012.
A native New Yorker who came up in the military as a Navy helicopter pilot took charge of the prison camps on Monday with a warning to the troops: “Everybody’s watching us.”

Rear Adm. John W. Smith Jr. took command of the 1,600 or so guards and other Pentagon staff in perhaps the grandest change-of-command ceremony of the decade-old detention center. His predecessor, Rear Adm. David Woods, had the prison staff take over the Navy base’s outdoor cinema on Sunday, down the road from the McDonalds, to build a stage and festoon it with a 30-foot-tall American flag as backdrop.

It’s hurricane season and the troops were soaked by back-to-back morning downpours that subsided by the time the senior staff and other special guests arrived, including retired Marine Col. Bill Lietzau, the senior Pentagon official responsible for detainee policy and Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, commander of the U.S. Southern Command in Miami.

Smith, a 30-year Navy veteran who came from Southcom’s anti-trafficking intelligence center in Key West, struck a mostly serious note as he promised the guards and other staff responsible for the 169 prisoners “tough mission, long hours.” He called their job “essential to the long-term safety of our nation.” Then he ended on a light note, quoting actor/rapper Will Smith, “Let’s get jiggy.”

Fraser praised Woods for managing the “constant strain of distinguished visitors,” a consolidation of most prisoners into just two penitentiary-style buildings, and for running the project amid “constant national and international scrutiny.” Woods’ next assignment is in San Diego, running a Navy training program.

Woods was not meant to be detention center commander. Instead he came on board after President Barack Obama’s missed deadline for closure and was in charge during a year of just two releases from the prison camps, Uighur Muslim men moved to El Salvador years after a court ordered them released as wrongfully detained.

The ceremony also winds up a year of controversies that surrounded Woods’ leadership — from his decision soon after arriving to have prison staff inspect attorney-client communications for “informational contraband,” a policy that the chief defense counsel has labeled unethical, to his decision to spend $744,000 on a new high-security soccer field for about 100 of the prisoners.

Woods was subpoenaed to testify about prison camp controversies — a first for a detention center commander at commissions. In one source of confusion, a Navy prosecutor made reference to a security lapse at the detention center that somehow supposedly let a copy of the al Qaida magazine Inspire reach a prisoner. Woods at first would not elaborate, then weeks later said the magazine never breached the prison camps security net because it arrived by the regular U.S. postal service and was screened out in the routine detention center censorship process.

Woods finished up his command with a sworn affidavit defending his decision to personally take charge of vetting the courtroom wardrobe of the alleged Sept. 11 mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, and his four alleged co-conspirators. He refused to let the men adopt paramilitary attire brought to the base by their Pentagon-paid lawyers, alternately calling it culturally inappropriate and a source of potential confusion for his guard force.

The ceremony brought out both troops and translators from the complex operation, as well as Navy base staff and two senior officials from the Pentagon who work on military commissions: Michael Chapman, chief of staff at war court headquarters outside Washington, D.C., and Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, chief war crimes prosecutor for the trials being staged at Guantánamo.

Monday’s ceremony comes at a time of transition at the base in southeast Cuba. The base commander, Navy Capt. Kirk Hibbert, leaves this week, too, after an indoor ceremony at the base chapel, up a hill from the McDonald’s. He’s being replaced by Navy Capt. J.R. Nettleton, coming from San Diego.

The base commander runs the seaport and the airport and most of the other facilities on the 45-square-mile base, minus the prison camps complex and the base hospital.

He also meets monthly with Cuban military officers along a break in the minefield on the Cuban side and the Marines’ 17.4-mile fenceline, a chance for each side to update the other on coming activities such as big visitors and training exercises that might be a source of misunderstanding or tension. The Pentagon established the meeting, attended by a State Department envoy, in the ’90s and also set up direct communications.

About a year ago, Hibbert said, Cuban authorities notified the base that they were in pursuit of drug runners headed in the general direction of the base, a sign of the quality of relations between uniformed military members with common interest. Also, during heavy rains the Cubans notified the base of the potential for pesticide contamination of the U.S.-controlled portion of the Guantánamo River, where U.S. troops go fishing on their days off.

Hibbert said he introduced his successor at the last meeting and was presented with the Cuban military’s traditional farewell gift: a box of Cohiba cigars that under the U.S. embargo can’t leave the base. Hibbert said he’d share them with staff this week before his departure for his next assignment at Norfolk, Va.

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