The Air Force general in charge of Pentagon operations in Latin America and the Caribbean confirmed his upcoming retirement from military service in testimony at Congress Tuesday that included a defense of the controversial $744,000 soccer field at a Guantánamo prison camp as part of cost-saving measures.
Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser has been Southcom commander since June 2009.
He did not give an end date for his time in Miami during his testimony on the activities of the Southern Command in Doral, but said it was likely his last time testifying before the House Armed Service Committee
“We thank you for your service to your country and wish you all the best in your retirement,” replied Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, the Republican committee chairman from California.
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“Congratulations on your retirement,” Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., added later, according to a transcript of the hearing. “Hopefully, you’ll stay down in South Florida where we have plenty of golf courses for you to enjoy.”
President Barack Obama has already chosen Marine Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly to replace Fraser. The Senate has yet to hold a hearing on the nomination of Kelly, an Iraq war veteran.
Fraser’s status had been uncertain because the White House had announced no onward assignment for the 37-year career Air Force officer.
Some Southcom commanders have gone on to serve as NATO chief in Europe, such as Navy Adm. James Stavridis and Army Gen. John “Bantz” Craddock before Fraser. Others have retired from service in Miami, such as Marine Gen. Charles Wilhelm and Army Gen. Tom Hill.
During his testimony, Frasier defended the Pentagon’s decision to spend $744,000 on a new soccer field for cooperative captives at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, a quality-of-life improvement that has drawn protest from some Republican members of Congress.
At the hearing Tuesday, Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, an accountant from Odessa, called the investment “troubling, indeed head scratching.”
The general replied that the detention center had been downsizing to consolidate the prison camps while cutting contact between captives and captors as well as meeting U.S. obligations under the Geneva Conventions.
The new recreation yard lets captives move between their cellblocks and the field without escort — no shackling, which is labor intensive — and has built-in surveillance systems, from watchtowers to cameras.
“It provides a very secure environment for our guards, because it reduces their interaction, but provides an outlet, if you will, for the detainees,” the general told Conaway. “I think that investment in that field was worth the money.”
Fraser said the prison camps operation had reduced its troop force by 150 to 200 guards to save “conservatively, $3 million to $4 million” in prison camp operations. Southcom reported last year’s budget at $138.8 million.
The prison camps’ public affairs team did not immediately respond to questions about when the 200 guards were cut from the detention center force and how that translated into $3 million to $4 million savings. The detention center last reported its staff at 1,850 troops, contractors and agents and its detainee population at 171 captives confined to seven facilities. Five of the 171 captives are convicted war criminals