Politics & Government

Marine Lt. Gen. John Kelly testifies to lead Southern Command

The Marine who’s poised to run U.S. military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean said he’s ready to combat drug trafficking, one of the main duties of any commander of the Miami-based Southern Command.

Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly, who’s currently serving as an aide to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, appeared Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. If confirmed, Kelly would replace Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser. The full Senate still must confirm the nomination, as well as Kelly’s promotion to four-star general.

More than 1,000 Defense Department and other government employees work out of the Southcom headquarters in Doral, Fla., on a range of defense projects. They include humanitarian relief operations and running the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Born and raised in Boston, Kelly has served multiple deployments in Iraq. Kelly, 62, also worked as a Defense Department representative on Capitol Hill, a job in which he developed the political and diplomatic skills on display Thursday.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, warned Thursday that the United States has yet to make a meaningful impact on the flow of narcotics into this country. There’s one direct measure of success of the Southern Command’s mission, McCain said: the street price of cocaine.

"That price has not gone up, despite the billions of dollars of effort we have devoted to it," McCain said. "We’re going to have to have a national conversation about drugs and the illegal demand for drugs in this country."

The price of cocaine, Kelly agreed, "might be the best indicator" of progress.

Kelly also acknowledged diplomatically that the job comes with oversight of the detention center at the Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, which President Barack Obama has pledged to close but has not yet done so in part because of congressional objections. When asked by one member of the panel about the prison camp, Kelly said only that he had not yet visited it but would, if confirmed.

Here’s how he put it in the 42-page questionnaire submitted to the committee: "I will continue to ensure the safe, humane and legal treatment of detainees at JTF-Guantanamo, until otherwise directed. Finally, if confirmed, I will maintain focus on the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay to ensure all laws, regulations and policies are followed, until otherwise directed."

Kelly said Thursday that he doesn’t see a "traditional military threat" emanating from the Southern Command’s area of responsibility.

Instead, the region has non-traditional security challenges caused largely by the drug trade: illicit trafficking, transnational organized crime, narco-terrorism and violent extremist organizations. The region also is particularly vulnerable to natural disasters, and what Kelly called "the enduring challenges" of poverty and inequality.

He also emphasized that he’d work on strategic partnerships with Colombia, Chile and Brazil – countries that have "demonstrated growing military capabilities and a commitment to work cooperatively in Central America, Africa and across the world."

"I recently visited Colombia, Brazil and Chile in support of a trip by the secretary of defense and was impressed by the strong and growing security partnerships the U.S. has with these three countries," Kelly said.

Kelly, a 1976 graduate of the University of Massachusetts, joined the Marines before going to college. He served for two years as an enlisted infantryman out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., and left as a sergeant. He got his commission after graduation.

He’s the former commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, based at Camp Pendleton, Calif. He led the unit in Iraq beginning in early 2008.

He’s also one of the most senior military officers to lose a child in the war in Afghanistan. His 29-year-old son, 1st Lt. Robert M. Kelly, was killed Nov. 9, 2010, in Helmand province. He’s buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Like his father, Robert Kelly started off as an enlisted Marine; he was later commissioned after two tours in Iraq. The general’s elder son, then a Marine captain, was at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to receive the fallen first lieutenant’s flag-draped coffin.

On Thursday, Kelly expressed regret that neither son could be at his confirmation hearing, but he left unspoken why.

"No Marine, no family has made a greater contribution to the defense of this country than the Kelly family," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.

Reed, a West Point graduate, also teased Kelly about his pledge in his questionnaire to "build on my basic working knowledge of Spanish and familiarize myself with Portuguese." Kelly’s mastery of Spanish, Reed joked, "will always have a slight Boston accent."

Related stories from McClatchy DC