In a stealthy ceremony Wednesday, a Navy one-star admiral took charge of the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, relieving a former American Airlines pilot turned Air Force brigadier who ran prison operations for just four months.
Rear Adm. Peter J. Clarke, a submariner, became the 16th commander of the prison currently housing 112 captives. About 2,100 troops and civilians staff the detention center — a mission called Joint Task Force Guantánamo, or JTF Gitmo — ranging from guards and intelligence analysts to contract caterers who run a kitchen that feeds the staff and prisoners.
In the next year, “the pace of operations is probably going to pick up,” Clarke told a small gathering at the ceremony, according to a audio tape released by the military more than 24 hours after the event. “The political environment within which JTF Gitmo exists is probably going to heat up. My job and my commitment to you is to keep the external noise to becoming a distraction.”
The 15th commander was, unusually, a special advisor to Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, commander of the Southern Command, the Pentagon subsidiary that has oversight of prison operations. Brig. Gen. Jose Monteagudo was the only Air Force officer ever to run the detention center, after a long string of admirals, and was installed on July 1 with advance notice and same-day release of an audio recording of the change-of-command ceremony, held at a Navy base chapel.
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The remote prison disclosed the latest change by simply switching the biographies of the prison commander on its website that boasts, “Safe, humane, legal, transparent” detention. The change was apparently so hasty the prison did not update Clarke’s official biography and instead showed him still assigned to the Joint Interagency Task Force South — an anti-trafficking intelligence center based in Key West. (On the tape, Kelly is heard cracking that Clarke has come to the new post in Cuba from “a sinful place. But a lot of fun.)
Prison spokesman: More than 200 people attended the 1 p.m. ceremony at the Navy base chapel
On Wednesday, even as the prison revealed the command change on its website, Southcom did not. Its most recent press release on its website dated back to June 25, when the headquarters announced the selection of Monteagudo as camps commander.
In a recording of the event, Monteagudo is heard explaining that Kelly asked him to take charge of the prison for “maybe two weeks, maybe a month,” an assignment that stretched to four months. In it, Monteagudo said his next assignment is not at Southcom, where he was based, but at the U.S. Air Force Central Command, at Shaw AFB in South Carolina, as “Mobilization Assistant to the Commander.”
Their medical and mental care is absolutely superb and better than what we in uniform get in our own military hospitals.
Gen. John F. Kelly, U.S. Southern Command
The transition comes at a sensitive time: The White House is putting the final touches on a proposal to Congress to move the captives from the base and close the controversial detention center that President Barack Obama pledged to shut even before he took office. Congress currently forbids the transfer of Guantánamo detainees to the United States — the core of Obama’s closure plan — a “stumbling block” his press secretary criticized in a press briefing Wednesday.
“This is a rather nonsensical position when you consider that there are already dozens of convicted terrorists who are doing time in prison facilities all across the country,” Josh Earnest told reporters, according to a briefing transcript. “There’s no reason that these detainees who’ve been held at the prison at Guantánamo Bay for some time now couldn’t do the same thing.”
In the recording Kelly is heard commenting on the possibility of closure. “Whether it’s here at Guantánamo or another location men and women like you will be doing this job for many, many years to com,” said the general who is due to retire soon.
Kelly also remarked that prison staff conduct a “perfectly executed mission” inside the detention center day in and day out by “taking care of these terrorists.”
“These detainees are taken care of with the greatest dignity, with the greatest humanity,” the general said. “Their medical and mental care is absolutely superb and better than what we in uniform get in our own military hospitals.”
He added: “We take care of them in a way that is more than in my opinion what they deserve. But we take care of them in a way that shows the world, and certainly those guys, that we’re the good guys and they’re the bad guys.”