The commander of the U.S. Southern Command installed his detention policy deputy as commander of the Pentagon detention center at Guantánamo Wednesday in an address to troops that apologized for his failure to lift a court order forbidding female guards from touching the alleged Sept. 11 plotters in transit to and from legal meetings.
Marine Gen. John F. Kelly cast the arrival of his new prison commander, Air Force Reserve Brig. Gen. Jose Monteagudo, a former career American Airlines pilot, as a homecoming of sorts.
“He’s Cuban American. His parents are from Cuba. So in a way Jose's coming home,” Kelly said with a chortle. “And I just hope the Castro brothers really appreciate the fact that someone of your status has risen to the top of the Air Force — fighter pilot, first and foremost I think. But a great leader, a great staff guy and I know you'll be a great, great commander.”
Kelly twice mentioned the Castros in the brief ceremony on the 45-square-mile U.S. Navy base on the same day the Cuban government issued a statement insisting the U.S. return the base to normalize relations. The general introduced himself to the audience as someone who in 1971 did his first overseas duty at Guantánamo — a place that although once was “almost under assault by the Castro boys, no longer is.”
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Monteaguedo replaced Rear Adm. Kyle Cozad, who had been on the job for a year and, according to Southcom’s Army Col. Lisa Garcia, invoked the commander’s prerogative of excluding independent media from the event at a church at the remote base in southeast Cuba. The Miami Herald listened to a somewhat fuzzy audio recording on a Pentagon website in which all three men bristled at press and other civilian portrayals of the prison.
Kelly, who as Southcom commander supervises the prison, lashed out repeatedly at what he said was an unfair public portrayal of the prison now holding 116 captives — 52 of them cleared for release by a federal task force — and at military court orders forbidding female guards from handling certain captives who invoked a religious privilege.
Media coverage, he said, “breaks my heart because I know the reporting is wrong, and I believe the media representatives that report what goes on here know it’s wrong but they go on their merry way highlighting the negative aspects of what might go on at Gitmo, never giving you credit for what you do here.”
“What’s even more frustrating, frankly, is that some of us are not even allowed to do the jobs you were sent here to do,” said Kelly. “Since November, we have labored under an order that discriminates specifically against some of our personnel because of who they are. And that’s un-American. And I as a personal failure have not been able to convince people [who] could change that ruling to change that.”
Eight months ago, the first of two military judges issued an injunction against female troops touching certain detainees in Guantánamo’s Top Secret lockup for former CIA prisoners, Camp 7. The captives’ Pentagon lawyers had protested the introduction of female guards in a transport unit, saying the prison had until then honored the prisoners’ religious and traditional belief that, as Muslim men, only women who are close relatives can touch them.
Although the Navy judge for a captive called Abd al Hadi al Iraqi has lifted his injunction, the Army judge for the alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four alleged defendants has kept his intact pending a hearing on the question in the now mostly stalled death-penalty case.
The departing prison commander, Cozad, celebrated the “maturity and professionalism” of the Camp 7 guards, both men and women, as they’ve “complied with a court order which prohibits the use of certain qualified members of my guard force for over 10 months now in deference to religious rights of the detainees currently on trial.”
“Although we have yet to resolve this issue after an unexplainably long decision delay,” Cozad continued, “the guards directly impacted have maintained the moral fiber. They have bonded more closely together.”
Some female guards have filed Pentagon administrative discrimination complaints against the judges. Kelly told Congress in March that he considered the religious objection bogus. Advocates of the female-touching ban note that U.S. troops in Muslim countries are specifically cautioned against touching members of the opposite sex, and that Guantánamo already has a guard policy that prohibits female guards from supervising male prisoners’ showers.
Monteagudo became the 15th commander of the detention center that opened in January 2002 and has a largely temporary 2,000-member staff of soldiers and civilians and the 116 detainees, whom Kelly described as “among the most hateful and violent men on the planet.
“Their world view about human rights, about the rule of law, about the status of women in society, about other religions, their world view of that is certainly a Seventh Century view that has long since faded into the past, or should have.”
Monteagudo, whom Kelly called by his combat pilot call sign “Hoser,” is a Reserve Air Force officer who spent nearly two years working for Kelly at the Southern Command on detainee issues. Kelly gave him the post late last month after the admiral chosen by the Department of Navy declined the assignment to retire, citing family reasons.
“We are part of history,” Monteagudo said. “And I think when it’s all said and done we’re going to be on the right side of history for having done the right thing, the professional thing to do day in and day out no matter what they say and what you read in the papers.”
Kelly recited “our core values as military people” — loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, personal courage — and declared: “The self-appointed and self-anointed critics of what goes on here don’t even understand those words let alone understand what they mean in our hearts.”
“The whole world watches what we do here,” he added. “And one false move and one little hiccup — which frankly in the 2 1/2 years I've been here we haven't had a one in spite of what we read in the agenda-driven press — but one false move and the critics are here to condemn everything that we do.”
Follow @CarolRosenberg on Twitter