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Vowing to “Stop Political Correctness,” Gen. John Kelly to Head Department of Homeland Security

StoryDecember 13, 2016
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Donald Trump has officially announced he will nominate retired four-star Marine General John Kelly to be secretary of homeland security. Kelly was formerly the head of United States Southern Command, where he oversaw the military jail at Guantánamo. Kelly becomes the third general tapped by Trump for a top position so far. We speak to Baher Azmy of the Center for Constitutional Rights and Roberto Lovato, who has looked closely at Kelly’s stances on border security and Latin America.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Donald Trump has officially announced he’ll nominate retired four-star Marine General John Kelly to be secretary of homeland security. Kelly was formerly the head of United States Southern Command, where he oversaw the military jail at Guantánamo. Kelly becomes the third general tapped by Trump for a top position so far. While the head of United States Southern Command, Kelly promoted the Alliance for Prosperity, a program that provides hundreds of millions of dollars in police and military funding to Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala. Kelly has also repeatedly called the U.S.-Mexico border a threat to national security, leading many to worry he’ll escalate the militarization of the border and U.S. immigration policy overall.

To talk more about Kelly’s nomination, we’re joined by two guests. In Los Angeles, Roberto Lovato is with us, independent journalist working out of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. And here, we’re joined by Baher Azmy, who is legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has been representing Guantánamo prisoners since 2002.

We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! Roberto, let’s begin with you. What is your understanding of General Kelly’s record?

ROBERTO LOVATO: [inaudible], Amy and everybody. General Kelly is a 40-year veteran of the Marines. And he, I think, embodies the military values that have been instilled, not just in the Marines, Air Force, Army, but also within the “homeland” itself. I think that you have somebody who is very clear in terms of what his mission is as a general and that it’s a communications function more than anything else, oddly enough. And he has this one quote, where he talks—this op-ed in the Miami Herald, where he says, “Colombia showed us the way.” He sees Colombia as an example of how to instill peace and bring prosperity into a country, where—I don’t know if anybody knows anything about Colombia, but there’s like 7 million people displaced, a massive paramilitary and death squad operation, and massive impunity on the part of the policing and security, and the fusion of military with police functions.

I mean, one of the good things about, I think, Kelly is that he makes obvious the militarization of not just immigration, but of U.S. society, since before Obama and Bush even. I mean, Homeland Security’s budget has gone from like $4.3 billion to now $34 billion. Look at Standing Rock. People didn’t—a lot of people didn’t realize, but there were Border Patrol agents, heavily armed Border Patrol agents, at Standing Rock. “What was the Border Patrol doing at Standing Rock?” is the question. And so, I think Major Kelly makes that really clear, in a way that Barack Obama, and telling us in the cadences of Martin Luther King that homeland security was a good thing, doesn’t do so. Again, responding with fear is kind of useless, when you have the most militarized Cabinet in U.S. history, right?


ROBERTO LOVATO: With Kelly, it’s three people. So, it doesn’t help us to respond with fear. I think we need to be clear. And the beauty, I guess, if there’s to be some beauty in this, is that it’s very clear what your government is doing with your tax dollars.

AMY GOODMAN: General Kelly said, responding to his nomination, “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.” Roberto, your response?

ROBERTO LOVATO: I would just look at what happened under Obama with Occupy, with Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock. The role of Homeland Security is very clear as far as Occupy and Black Lives Matter. There was massive surveillance and other, probably, sorts of interventions that we’re going to find out as those papers get released, although now, you know, we have reached the point where the privacy of the population has been diminished, while the privacy and secrecy of the government has been expanded to record-breaking levels.

So, that said, I think that when Kelly talks like that, you have—you know, you always have foreign wars and domestic suppression being Siamese twins. And so, having such a militarized Cabinet, I think you have—they’re getting ready to do what many people fear, is that, you know, it can’t happen here, as Upton Sinclair said. It’s happening here, Amy. And it’s happening through the back door of, say, for example, immigration, where a lot of people thought that Homeland Security was primarily about repressing immigrants. I have written about this. I’ve dedicated a big part of my adult life to writing about immigration. But it’s not just about immigrants. It’s about immigrants being used to normalize the militarization within the borders, going around what’s known as the Posse Comitatus Act. And so, again, you know, it’s disturbing, but responding with fear isn’t going to help, and responding with clarity is.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring in Baher Azmy. You have long been dealing with Guantánamo, representing prisoners there since 2002. What is General Kelly’s position?

BAHER AZMY: Well, just in general, Amy, I think to have someone in charge of the largest civilian agency in the United States who not only defended, but further distorted, one of the most grotesque extralegal practices in American history, in Guantánamo, is really, frankly, chilling. And what’s more, during his time there, it’s fairly well documented on record that he attempted to undermine, indeed, his officials in Guantánamo, sabotage President Obama’s efforts to transfer detainees.

AMY GOODMAN: What evidence do you have of it?

BAHER AZMY: Well, there’s a very compelling Reuters report that demonstrates sort of open hostility to State Department efforts to match detainees with foreign countries. In a case involving one of our own clients, a long-term hunger striker, a foreign delegation was interested in meeting with him, and his—our client. His officials said that our client hadn’t released his—hadn’t consented to release his medical records. That was a lie. He was also in charge during a hunger strike, a mass hunger strike, in 2013, and he responded brutally, through mass force-feedings, solitary confinement, to punish detainees. And he called these mass hunger strikes—changed the term. He called them long-term, nonreligious fasting, mapping perfectly, with a kind of Orwellian cast of mind, in Guantánamo that he would want to internalize inside the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the fact that he lost his son in Afghanistan in 2010, making General Kelly the highest-ranking military officer to lose a son or daughter in Iraq or Afghanistan, has had an impact on his policies?

BAHER AZMY: Some of the reporting suggests that it has and that a lot of Defense Department officials felt that way in terms of the population there. So, there’s a way of running national policy from—based on personal experience. As sad as that may have been, that shouldn’t interfere with a mandate from the president and his obligation to treat detainees humanely.

AMY GOODMAN: Overall, your response to the fact that Kelly is the third general named to Trump’s Cabinet—others, Flynn heading NSA and “Mad Dog” Mattis as defense secretary—and then, overall, the Trump picks so far?

BAHER AZMY: Right. Well, I mean, I think it’s remarkably worrying. I mean, so, to put my academic hat on, the commander-in-chief power is given to the president of the United States not, as many people think, to magnify his war-making power; it was done because the framers were worried about military running civilian government, so that we would have civilian control, because the military generals, think what you might about how necessary they are, they are not—that’s not a democratic institution. They are not responsive to democratic politics or democratic accountability. There’s a separate system of justice. They don’t have the same obligations to things like transparency and deliberation. So I think that it’s very worrying.

And in particular, his statement—I hadn’t realized that he wants to end political correctness in national security policy—is just a really worrying kind of dog whistle to the “alt-right,” who wants more torture and more profiling. But torture is not problematic because it’s politically incorrect; it’s problematic because it’s illegal and immoral. Registration and surveillance of Muslims is not problematic because it’s politically incorrect; it’s illegal and immoral. And so that he would think that this is a problem in national practice is incredibly concerning.

AMY GOODMAN: And the possibility that Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state, though he was considered for Homeland Security, could be his deputy?

BAHER AZMY: Even more worrying. Kris Kobach is the architect, or the sort of intellectual godfather, of numerous laws designed to exclude and criminalize immigrants. He was the author of SB 1070, a number of other laws. And I think what’s worrying is—

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.

BAHER AZMY: —he would basically empower—nationalize Arpaio’s policy, if at the federal government.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. Baher Azmy of CCR and Roberto Lovato, thanks so much for joining us.

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