Retiring Marine Gen. John Kelly, ending his career at Southern Command next week, told the Pentagon press corps Friday that the majority of Guantánamo detainees are currently compliant “bad boys.”
“I run Guantánamo Bay directly for the President of the United States through the Secretary of Defense,” said Kelly, who as Southcom commander has oversight of the detention center that Friday held 104 captives and a staff of around 2,000 troops and civilians. “And we do that superbly.”
Kelly dismissed suggestions that the detention center’s existence somehow inspired the Islamic State movement. He declined an invitation to offer an opinion on the figures of released detainees who “have returned to the fight.”
If they go back to the fight we'll probably kill them. So that's a good thing.
Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, on released Guantánamo detainees
“If they go back to the fight we’ll probably kill them. So that’s a good thing,” Kelly said, wrapping up what he described as his last press conference in uniform. Kelly retires after he leaves Southcom on Thursday to Vice Adm. Kurt Tidd in ceremonies at the Pentagon outpost in South Florida.
He said the vast majority of the Guantánamo captives “are right now pretty easy to work with” but called them “all bad boys. Some of them were more effective in being bad boys than others. I think we can all quibble on whether 13 or 12 or 8 years in detention is enough to have them having paid for whatever they did. But they’re bad guys.”
Kelly denied as “complete nonsense” and an “insult frankly” reports that suggested he and other members of the military used their authority to slow detainee releases and thwart President Barack Obama’s efforts to close the detention center by emptying it of captives the U.S. military no longer needs to control.
The general said he helps foreign envoys visit the prison to meet captives they might want to offer sanctuary and, when ordered, has his troops provide medical summaries of individual detainees’ conditions and deliver captives to transfer flights. Of foreign visitors, he said: “We never ever, ever, ever, ever do anything but facilitate their immediate movement when they want to come to Guantánamo Bay.”
In the case of one captive’s full medical record, the general said it numbers “at least 15,000 pages,” which he estimated would require “two years” for government agencies to black out sensitive or secret material before release to a would-be resettlement country. So, instead, the general said he simply advocated releasing the captive. “I just thought it would be a better idea to transfer the guy than to just hold him there for two years unnecessarily.” He did not name the prisoner.
One prisoner’s medical dossier runs 15,000 pages. Rather than redact them for a would-be host nation, which Kelly figured would take two years, he advocated releasing the prisoner.
Kelly also told reporters, in comments that went unchallenged, that he welcomes both the press and Congressional delegations at Guantánamo, and “they come down frequently.” He omitted his ongoing blackout on access to the Detention Center Zone, which he imposed in October after a visiting journalist was “very abusive” to a soldier.
On other topics, Kelly said:
▪ It was a “dicey transfer” to evacuate five Taliban from the base in the May 31, 2014 trade for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl because media and “families of the 9/11 crowd” were at the Guantánamo airstrip departing from a military commissions trip just before the prisoners went wheels-up in a C-17 cargo plane for Qatar. “We never got caught,” he chuckled.
The general’s memory was a bit wobbly. The hearing that week was in the USS Cole bombing case. No Sept. 11 victims were on the base, where his military commanders pleaded ignorance about the reason for the two C-17s that had been parked at the airstrip for several days.
He offered no opinion on the trade that has stirred outrage in some U.S. circles, calling it a “policy decision. I don’t try to slow down transfers. I facilitate transfers.”
▪ Nobody ever asked Southcom about the per-prisoner costs of running the detention center, which some at the White House crunch by dividing the number of captives by $399 million, the publicly known 2015 budget for various detainee-related enterprises at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba. Kelly said Friday that Southcom handles a detention center budget of more than $100 million. “I don’t really have an opinion on whether it’s too expensive or not. I just know that the money I’m given I spend frugally.”
▪ ”Drones would nice,” as a U.S. resource for gathering intelligence to interrupt drug trafficking en route to the United States. Partner counties in Latin America and the Caribbean sometimes buy drones, he said, probably from Israel or Russia and “maybe China.” He described Southcom’s Key West inter-agency anti-trafficking center as “probably the best tactical fusion center in the world.”
▪ He had “no idea” about the location of a missing U.S. Hellfire missile that was mistakenly shipped to Cuba. He appeared surprised to learn that the dummy missile containing sensitive U.S. technology had landed in the region where he is responsible for U.S. military activities, news broken by The Wall Street Journal a day earlier.
▪ Southern Command has good partnerships with nations in Latin America and the Caribbean that “like the United States” and want to be associated with it. “There’s a few down there that didn’t get the memo about democracy and human rights, and that kind of thing. But some of that is even turning around.”
▪ ”The vast majority of the people that follow the Muslim faith are good, law-abiding folks,” but he worries about pockets of Islamic extremism in the Caribbean and Venezuela and estimates that perhaps 150 of them have gone to Syria to join the Islamic State as fighters.
▪ Every U.S. military decision from personnel moves to acquisition should be viewed through the filter of “does it make us more lethal on the battlefield?”