Election 2016

Trump Just Picked a Mass Torturer Who Cheerleads for the Drug War to Head DHS

General John Kelly, who oversaw Guantánamo Bay, has been appointed to lead the Department of Homeland Security.

Photo Credit: a katz / Shutterstock.com

President-elect Donald Trump announced Monday that his pick to head the Department of Homeland Security is John Kelly, the retired Marine general who oversaw and aggressively defended mass torture at Guantánamo Bay. Kelly also calls immigration an “existential threat” to the United States and urges an escalated war on drugs.

In a statement that appeared to signal hardline policies to come, Kelly responded to the appointment by declaring, “The American people voted in this election to stop terrorism, take back sovereignty at our borders, and put a stop to political correctness that for too long has dictated our approach to national security.”

The nomination instantly provoked rebuke, with Baher Azmy, legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, telling AlterNet, “It is chilling that someone who oversaw, defended and deepened Guantánamo Bay—one of the most barbaric and unlawful experiments in U.S. history—would take over one of the largest civilian agencies in the United States.”

Kelly joined the Marines in 1970 and retired this year after a four-year term as the head of U.S. Southern Command, which oversees Central America, South America and the Caribbean, including the notorious U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. While imposing a a media blackout on the prison, Kelly vigorously defended the mass torture carried out by the U.S. military. In March 2015, he told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “As we begin the 13th year of detention operations at Guantánamo, we continue to provide dignified, humane, and lawful care and treatment of detainees. In fact, the only people not treated humanely or having their human rights protected are the guards.”

That statement followed remarks Kelly made in February 2014, in which he told the House Armed Services Committee, “I have never been prouder of any troops under my command than I am of the young military professionals who stand duty day and night at Guantánamo, serving under a microscope of public scrutiny in one of the toughest and most unforgiving military missions on the planet.”

The United Nations human rights office has condemned the force-feeding of hunger strikers in Guantánamo Bay as torture that violates international law, and the practice has drawn comparisons to water boarding, due to its reliance on the painful insertion of tubes to pump the stomach, which can cause asphyxiation and internal damage. Yet Kelly has vigorously defended the practice. Meanwhile, long-term solitary confinement of men detained at the prison has prompted rebuke from the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture Juan E. Méndez.

“His actions reflect an Orwellian state of mind, which I guess maps well with how the new administration is thinking,” said Azmy. “After a mass of hunger strikes that were threatening to destabilize the prison, he engaged in a retributive campaign, including aggressive force-feeding and solitary confinement to punish strikers. He refused to call them hunger strikers, instead referring to it as ‘long-term, non-religious fasting.' It was within that period that he excluded the press from visiting Guantánamo Bay.”

According to a Reuters report released in 2015 by journalists Charles Levinson and David Rohde, Kelly actively worked to obstruct the Obama administration’s efforts to shut down the prison, which many critics charge were lackluster to begin with. Kelly has publicly defended keeping the prison open, proclaiming in 2016: “They’re all bad boys. We have dossiers on all of them. Some of them were more effective in being bad boys than others. I think we can all quibble on whether 12 or 13 or eight years in detention is enough to have them paid for whatever they did, but they’re bad guys.”

Azmy referred to those remarks as “utterly transparent nonsense,” noting that “most recently, the majority of the men he chose to imprison were cleared for release by a unanimous process that involved all relevant government agencies.”

The Guantánamo Bay prison is not Kelly’s only legacy. During his post heading Southern Command, Kelly threw his weight behind the Obama administration’s Alliance for Prosperity Plan in the Northern Triangle of Central America, which was announced in 2014 and ostensibly aimed at stimulating “economic growth” and reducing inequality. The initiative was assailed by human rights organizations for its heavy allocation of resources for so-called security measures, which campaigners argue only increased militarization, violence and displacement.

Dan Beeton, international communications director for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, told AlterNet that the Alliance “promoted a raft of projects while neglecting human rights concerns in the process. It basically includes all manner of neoliberal economic projects that, we would argue, make the human rights situations in these countries worse.”

Meanwhile, Kelly has repeatedly signaled his support for a crackdown on immigrants and an escalation of the war on drugs. “In comparison to other global threats, the near collapse of societies in the hemisphere with the associated drug and [undocumented immigrant] flow are frequently viewed to be of low importance,” Kelly told Defense One in 2014. “Many argue these threats are not existential and do not challenge our national security. I disagree.”

Also in 2014, Kelly argued that legalization of marijuana in the United States poses a threat to U.S. foreign policy objectives in Latin America, stating that states are “confused by the signals that our legalization sends, and when they’re investing so much in resources and blood they have to question that.”

Kelly told the Military Times in November that he staunchly opposes the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana, stating, "The solution there is for Americans to stop using drugs. Now, you're never going to go to zero, but we've got great programs to convince Americans not to do things."

“Kelly is a big-time drug war zealot,” Michael Collins, deputy director of Drug Policy Alliance’s office of national affairs, said in a press statement. “As head of Southern Command he demonstrated that he is a true believer in the drug war, and it’s incredibly worrying that he could now head up Homeland Security.”

Kelly’s role is slated to be vast. According to DHS, the secretary oversees “efforts to counter terrorism and enhance security, secure and manage our borders while facilitating trade and travel, enforce and administer our immigration laws, safeguard and secure cyberspace, build resilience to disasters, and provide essential support for national and economic security—in coordination with federal, state, local, international and private sector partners.” Kelly is the third general to officially join Trump’s cabinet and will lead an agency that is one of the largest jailers in the U.S. government.

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.