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President-elect Donald Trump‘s pick to head the Department of Homeland Security was once the lead U.S. military official in charge of Guantánamo, and warned Congress that ISIS could send terrorists to illegally cross the border between U.S. and Mexico.
Major Garrett of CBS News reported on Wednesday that Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly—who until retiring this year was the longest-serving U.S. general in history—is Trump’s choice to head DHS. The four-star general of U.S. Southern Command—which includes Guantánamo and U.S. military operations in Central and South America, as well as Mexico—stepped down in January after taking over the role in 2012.
If confirmed as DHS Secretary, Gen. Kelly would lead the civilian agency in charge of everything from issuing visas to new immigrants to airport security to securing the border to Guantánamo.
Supporters of Kelly say he will prioritize cracking down on terrorists and undocumented aliens more so than any other leader in the agency’s history.
The general has regularly warned of the threat “Islamic extremism” poses to national security.
Throughout his tenure, the general refused to take a position on whether Guantánamo should remain open or close down.
“I do not do policy — whether (…Guantánamo) opens or closes, whether it ever should have opened. I do detention ops in my mandate from the president, through the secretary of defense, just to make sure that we’re in accordance with all laws, regulations, that the detainees, as long as they’re down there, are treated well, treated humanely, well taken care of medically and otherwise,” said Gen. Kelly at a Pentagon press briefing back in January.
Kelly suggested to reporters before stepping down that he believed President Obama’s goal of shutting down the controversial detention facility to be misguided, though he said logistically it wouldn’t be hard. Kelly back in 2013 downplayed reports of a hunger strike by Guantánamo prisoners to the House Armed Services Committee, according to the BBC.
The American Civil Liberties Union tweeted on Wednesday that it opposed to Kelly’s appointment due to his refusal to address the human rights concerns raised by civil rights groups and other nations had raised over Guantánamo.
Following the release of a Senate report that that detailed the brutal treatment of Guantánamo detainees by the CIA, Kelly said at a summit organized by Human Rights First that it was “foolishness” to suggest the United States had lost the moral high ground.
“Gimme a break. [Islamic State] is telling us we lost the moral high ground? I love it,” Kelly told the Washington Post.
He also warned Congress in 2014 that the recent influx of undocumented migrants from Central and South America crossing the U.S. border “posed an existential threat” to U.S. national security. Kelly’s comments were in stark opposition to Obama and Democrats in Congress who saw the flood of unaccompanied minors fleeing from drug lords in South and Central America that began in the summer of 2014 as a humanitarian crisis.
Kelly warned Congress that budget cuts would create vulnerabilities along the U.S.-Mexico border that can be exploited by terrorist groups and likened it to “crime-terror convergence” already seen in Lebanese Hezbollah’s involvement in the region.
According to the Fiscal Times, Kelly warned that mosques in the Caribbean region were radicalizing attendees to join the Islamic State and were aided by the low security of the island nations. Kelly estimated that anywhere from 100 to 150 individuals left the Caribbean last year to join ISIS.
“While in Syria, they get good at killing and pick up some real job skills in terms of explosives and beheadings, things like that,” he said during a press briefing in March.
Kelly led troops in three separate tours of Iraq, including one in which he served as deputy division commander to Gen. James Mattis when both men were a part of the 1st Marine Division back in 2003. Mattis—who is Trump’s pick to head the Defense Department—has been strongly critical of the Obama’s administration’s strategy to combat ISIS.
The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) said on Wednesday that Kelly’s appointment would bring “much-needed expertise” to “securing the nation’s borders against terrorism and illegal immigration.”
The anti-immigrant group has ties to the white nationalist movement. Both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League have classified FAIR as a hate group. FAIR also opposed the Obama administration’s plan to provide legal pathways to citizenship.
“General Kelly has spent his life defending our nation and fully understands the critical role border security plays in protecting the country from the threats of terrorism, uncontrolled illegal immigration, and drugs. He will bring a renewed commitment to controlling our borders and ensuring the safety of the American homeland,” FAIR President Dan Stein told the Daily Dot in a statement.
Kelly’s son—Marine 1st Lt. Robert Michael Kelly—was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. According to the Los Angeles Times, the 29-year-old had been leading his platoon on a combat patrol when he stepped on a concealed bomb.
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Mo.)—who is the lead Democrat on the House panel on Homeland Security—said in a statement Wednesday that he was “bothered” by Kelly’s “alarmist” statements but thought his experience in managing large, complicated organizations could be beneficial to DHS.
But Thompson added that Trump’s “extreme rhetoric” on terrorism and immigration was likely shared by some of his appointees and will likely “create an uphill battle” for the agency. Trump on the campaign trail has called for a ban on immigration from Muslim countries, a database of Muslims living in America, and deportation of all undocumented immigrants. Since winning the election, Trump has dialed down or refused to be specific about such proposals.
“Unfortunately, the President-elect has created an uphill battle for DHS with his extreme rhetoric on many issues from immigration to terrorism, and some of his appointments seem to share these views. However, the Secretary of Homeland Security must be a measured, unbiased voice with our nation’s national security as top priority,” said Thompson.
First established by President George W. Bush in response to 9/11, DHS has been hit hard by budget cuts and accusations of mismanagement since its creation. The agency’s responsibilities also include counter-terrorism and cybersecurity. DHS in conjunction with the director of national intelligence responds to cyber attacks, such as this summer’s DNC data breach by Russian hackers.
DHS and the FBI also share intelligence with state and local law enforcement in order to crack down on terrorist plots that happen stateside.
While Gen. Kelly was tasked with a directive by President Barack Obama to shut down Guantánamo, the general had many doubts. Kelly told the Military Times before stepping down this year that “there were no innocent men” in Guantánamo and the individuals held there “couldn’t simply be put in a prison in the United States.”
Shutting down the detention facility was a promise first made by Obama almost eight years ago on the campaign trail. Congress has blocked attempts to move Guantánamo prisoners to U.S. federal prisons.
Kelly disagreed with reports that the Pentagon has slowed down efforts by the Obama administration to transfer prisoners. He also fought back against the administration’s claim that leaving Guantánamo open risks it remaining a powerful symbol of U.S. hatred.
“Bombing the living shit out of ISIS in Iraq and Afghanistan, Syria, that would maybe irritate them more than the fact we have Guantánamo open,” Kelly told Defense One.
Kelly argued that terrorist groups and civil rights activists are both bothered by the fact that the detainees are being held indefinitely and without trial.
“It’s not the point that it’s Gitmo. If we send them, say, to a facility in the U.S., we’re still holding them without trial,” said Kelly.
Despite obstacles, the size of Guantánamo’s prison population has shrunk from more than 779 prisoners to 60 prisoners over the course of the eight years that Obama held office. The current administration plans to continue moving prisoners until the end of its term.
Amrita Khalid is a technology and politics reporter who specializes in breaking down complex issues into practical, useful terms. A former contributor to CQ, a Congressional news and analysis site, she's currently a master's candidate in international relations at the University of Leeds.