Pentagon & Congress

General tackles 'politically tricky' Gitmo command

Air Force Brig. Gen. Jose Monteagudo, interim commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo, sees his job as keeping his troops focused on the mission despite outside criticism of U.S. detention operations.

"We're performing the mission that we've been given, we do it to the best and most professional way we could possibly do it, and yet we are being looked at through a microscope," said Monteagudo, a reservist who assumed temporary command July 1. "That's difficult — not for me — but really a lot of times for those who are performing the mission, whether it is the 18-year-old guard on the block or the medical personnel taking care of the detainees."

The future of Joint Task Force Guantanamo is uncertain because President Obama has repeatedly said he wants to close the prison, at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba, where suspected terrorists captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere are held.

"We fully support what the president says," Monteagudo told Air Force Times on July 8 Wednesday. "Obviously, there's a lot of policy decisions and legal decisions that have to happen. None of them will happen here on the island. As far as the game plan: Do we have one? Not at my level. When the time comes to execute that particular plan, we will be ready."

Two days later, the Defense Department named Navy Rear Adm. Peter Clarke to replace Monteagudo as the next commander at Guantanamo, the Defense Department announced on Friday. However, the Navy has not yet picked who will fill Clarke's current job. That means Monteagudo, the first Air Force general officer to lead the task force, could remain in the job for months, depending how long the Navy takes to find Clarke's replacement, said Army Col. Lisa Garcia, a spokeswoman for SOUTHCOM.

Friday's The July 10 announcement is the latest round of musical chairs at Guantanamo. Navy Rear Adm. Fernandez Ponds was had been selected to take command of the task force, but he opted to retire instead, Garcia said.

Marine Gen. John Kelly, commander of SOUTHCOM, selected Monteagudo to replace Ponds because Monteagudo's experiences dealing with Guantanamo issues at SOUTHCOM for nearly two years made him "the best choice for the job," Garcia said.

Monteagudo told Air Force Times on Friday July 10 that he went into this assignment knowing he would be an interim commander. He expects to continue as commander at Guantanamo for about three months.

"This was part of the plan all along," Monteagudo said. "This in the past has been a Navy assignment."

Monteagudo said he will be able to stay at Guantanamo long enough to help Clarke transition into the job. At SOUTHCOM, Monteagudo's job was to prepare incoming commanders for the job before they arrived in Cuba.

"The last part of it would be the commander transition," Monteagudo said. "He would arrive here about a week prior to that, and then do a hand-off from commander to commander, but he would already be pre-briefed by myself, my team at SOUTHCOM."

After Clarke assumes command at Guantanamo, Monteagudo will become the mobilization assistant to the commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command.

Monteagudo is an F-16 instructor pilot with more than 4,000 flight hours. Previously, he served as the deputy director of operations for U.S. Southern Command.

"I've been involved with Guantanamo Bay for the last two years, so my priority is to keep going in the direction we've been going over the last few years, which is providing the best care for the detainees and maintaining my troops' motivation to be able to do their jobs," he said.

As head of the joint task force, Monteagudo is in charge of an Army brigade commander, whose military police handle detainee operations. He also manages security, providing medical care to the detainees and other functions.

"From my view, after 27 years of service, by far this is the most complex mission I've ever been associated with," Monteagudo said. The detention mission is not hard, but the media, lawyers, the international community and U.S. politicians are intensely interested in what goes on at Guantanamo Bay.

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charlie Dunlap, former deputy judge advocate general, said Monteagudo is a "great fit" for the job."When things go wrong there, it's front page news around the world," Dunlap said in an email to Air Force Times.

"The job needs a special kind of strong and savvy leader. As a Reserve officer with lots of time in the civilian world as a commercial pilot, as well as recent SOUTHCOM [Southern Command] experience, Gen. Monteagudo seems like a great fit for this politically-tricky assignment."

Other general and flag officers may not want the job of leading the task force because it could pose a risk to their careers, said Dunlap, who teaches law at Duke University.

"Fortunately, there are still those who will 'march to the sound of the guns', so to speak, and in today's environment Guantanamo and everything associated with it may not be especially physically dangerous, but it is as politically-risky as anywhere on the planet," he said.

Obama came into office vowing to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, but he ran into fierce opposition from Congress about transferring detainees to a prison in the U.S. During this year's State of the Union address, he reiterated that he wants to close the detention center.

"As Americans, we have a profound commitment to justice," Obama said in the Jan. 20 speech. "So it makes no sense to spend $3 million per prisoner to keep open a prison that the world condemns and terrorists use to recruit. Since I've been president, we've worked responsibly to cut the population of Gitmo in half. Now it is time to finish the job. And I will not relent in my determination to shut it down. It is not who we are. It's time to close Gitmo."

However, in March, Obama told an audience in Cleveland that he should have acted quicker to end detention operations at Guantanamo Bay when he first took office in 2009. At the time, he felt there was a bipartisan consensus to close the detention center.

"But the politics of it got tough and people got scared by the rhetoric around it," Obama said in his March 18 remarks. "And once that set in, then the path of least resistance was just to leave it open, even though it's not who we are as a country. "It is used by terrorists around the world to help recruit jihadists. So instead, we've had to just chip away at it, year after year after year. But I think in that first couple of weeks we could have done it quicker."

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