President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to be secretary of the Department of Homeland Security is a retired Marine Corps general who clashed with reporters over what information could be released about suspected terrorists held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Retired Marine Gen. John Kelly is the third general Trump has named to a top national security post, raising concerns among some that the president-elect, who lacks defense and foreign policy experience, is ceding too much power to military figures instead of civilian advisers.
The move was immediately criticized by immigrant rights groups while praised by those advocating for stronger borders.
Kelly served three years as head of U.S. Southern Command before retiring early this year. He sometimes clashed with President Barack Obama over women in combat and whether to close Guantánamo. Kelly opposed closing the prison.
If confirmed, Kelly would be tasked with protecting U.S. borders and overseeing immigration policies, two centerpieces of Trump’s presidential campaign. Trump has vowed to boost deportations and build a huge wall along the Mexico-United States border.
General (John) 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. Dan Stein, the Federation for American Immigration Reform
Kelly is the second retired marine general to be nominated for a post in Trump’s Cabinet. Marine Gen. James Mattis is Trump’s choice for defense secretary.
Trump has named a third retired general, Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, to be his national security adviser and is reportedly considering retired Army Gen. David Petraeus to be secretary of state or director of national intelligence.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., who worked with Kelly when he was in Miami, commended the pick and said Kelly’s knowledge and experience will be critical.
“Now more than ever, we need someone at the helm of DHS who will ensure the United States is protected from any threats, whether domestic or foreign,” Diaz-Balart said.
Groups seeking tighter restrictions on immigration also praised Kelly’s selection, noting the appointment will bring “unwavering commitment to securing the nation’s borders against terrorism and illegal immigration.”
“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,” said Dan Stein of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Homeland security programs should not paint individuals’ national origin or religion as suspicious. Fear and hate do not make Americans safer. Margaret Huang, Amnesty International USA
Immigrants’ rights activists, however, said they opposed the appointment of a retired general who oversaw a prison plagued with allegations of human rights abuses to lead a civilian agency criticized for alleged human rights abuses.
Margaret Huang, executive director for Amnesty International USA, said Kelly should not turn the country’s surveillance power against ordinary people, including Muslims and Syrian refugees, in the name of preventing terrorism.
“Homeland security programs should not paint individuals’ national origin or religion as suspicious,” she said in a statement. “Fear and hate do not make Americans safer.”
Kelly’s long military career began when he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1970. Two of his sons also have served, and one, Marine 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, died in 2010 while fighting in Afghanistan. Kelly also worked during the Obama administration as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s senior military adviser.
That didn’t mean he always agreed with his bosses’ decisions. He publicly opposed the Obama administration’s decision to allow women in combat positions, warning that combat readiness could be hurt if standards were lowered to allow women to qualify.
As leader of the Southern Command, Kelly often defended the Guantánamo prison when it came under attacks from human rights activists about treatment of detainees and allegedly inspiring the Islamic State movement.
At one point in June 2013, lawyers for detainees said 100 captives had gone on a hunger strike when they felt the U.S. military disrespected their copies of the Quran. As many as 46 were tube-fed on a single day, a statistic Southern Command had routinely released for years. Kelly, however, ordered that the number of hunger-striking prisoners be kept secret and it has not been released since.
By the time he ended his career at the Southern Command earlier this year, he told reporters that the majority of Guantánamo detainees currently are compliant “bad boys.” There are 59 men held at the facility, 20 of whom have been cleared for release.