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U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
News Transcript

Presenter: General John F. Kelly, Commander, U.S. Southern Command March 20, 2013

Department of Defense News Briefing with Gen. John F. Kelly from the Pentagon

MAJOR JEFF POOL: Good afternoon. I'd like to welcome General John Kelly, the commander of U.S. Southern Command to the Pentagon press briefing room.

General Kelly began serving his country when he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1970 rising to the rank of sergeant.

After graduating from University of Massachusetts, he was commissioned and served in command positions from platoon through the Marine Expeditionary Force.

General Kelly also served as the commandant's liaison officer to the U.S. House of Representatives, special assistant to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, and legislative assistance to the commandant of the Marine Corps.

As a commanding general, first Marine expeditionary force, he led multinational force West in Al Anbar in Western Ninewa provinces of Iraq.

General Kelly most recently served as the senior military assistant to the secretary of defense before taking command of U.S. Southern Command in November 2012.

General Kelly will provide brief opening remarks. And then take your questions.

With that sir, I turn it over to you.

GENERAL JOHN F. KELLY: Actually, no brief opening remarks other than to say hello to some old friends or young friends and future friends, but I'm prepared to take your questions.

Yes ma'am.

Q: General Kelly. Well first, thank you for doing this. We really appreciate it.

A couple questions on the detainees at Guantanamo. Obviously the -- I think you've said there's about two-dozen or 25 that are participating in the hunger strike.

Can you just give your sense of what you think some of the causes are?

What is being done in order to meet some of the concerns that they apparently -- and their lawyers -- have raised about searching Koran and things like that?

And, what is your assessment of the possibility of some being released in the near future? There are only -- I guess two, that were actually released last year to other countries. What's your assessment? Are we sort of at the end of these releases?

GEN. KELLY: Well I'll start with the fact that we -- if you -- if you define a hunger strike by -- we define a hunger strike, nine missed meals in a row. That's our definition, and it's based on just, you know, 10 years, 11 years of operating down there.

Now that said, as -- as I think you know, some of the detainees are held in individual cells depending on status, and others are held in a more communal setting.

So the ones that are in the communal setting we don't provide individual meals to that group of men, we provide kind of bulk food if you will. And they often -- it's semi-prepared, sometimes not prepared, they prepare it themselves to their -- to their own taste and whatnot. So it's kind of hard for us to say that, you know, detainee number one to whatever is not eating nine meals in a row.

And we -- we have observation into the communal area and into the cells, and we can see what they're up to and all. So -- but, you know, on -- on -- generally speaking, we think about 24 of them are on say, hunger strike-like, where they're eating a bit, but not a lot. But they've declared that they're -- they're not eating. And we can get into -- into that if you want in a follow up.

But the -- we believe -- and there is a lot of interaction between the guard force and the detainees, and obviously we -- they have a lot of interaction with medical personnel. Some -- some of it's very routine, some of it is not so routine. And then we have other -- we have Islamic or Muslim believers who are our translators down there in this interaction with the detainees.

And what we've learned is that the detainees had -- and their -- and their attorneys presumably had -- had great hope that the -- the facility would be closed, you know, President Obama has attempted to do that certainly. And they were particularly put off, I'm told, that when the president has really made no mention of closing the facility, he said nothing in his inauguration speech.

And this is them bringing this up to us, that nothing in the inauguration speech about closing it, nothing in the State of the Union. You know, he's not restaffing the -- the office that was, you know, focused on closing or transferring.

So from that they have decided, obviously, that they -- they need to be heard perhaps more than they have been. So they've -- in their world -- in their attempt to kind of regain some attention have in some cases declared a -- a -- that they're on a hunger strike.

And -- but other than that, they're not acting out in any way that's -- that's really unusual for them. And -- and as you probably know we don't -- you hear this term force-feeding, we have eight of the detainees that present themselves daily, calmly, and in a totally cooperative way to be fed through a tube.

We also know they're eating when they're in the cell. And I think that's just a -- in their cases just a -- their -- their attempt at some level of resistance or to demonstrate their -- their displeasure at what's going on.

So that's -- that's the way we see it.

Follow up just real quick.

Q: Yeah, the feature of any -- I mean, I'm sort of confused about...

GEN. KELLY: Totally outside my lane.

The president has stated that he's gonna close the facility and that's -- those are my marching orders. And I'll wait for them to tell me what to do.

So don't really have a -- a sense for that or whatever.

Go ahead.

Q: Camille (inaudible) from Al Jazeera English Television.

Some of the attorneys from -- for some of the detainees have -- have said that -- that their clients have told them it's because of mishandling of Koran's in recent weeks that the detainees are on hunger strike.

I wondered if you could comment on that?

GEN. KELLY: It's nonsense.

There's absolutely no mishandling of the Koran.

I have a fair amount of time in -- in Iraq, and I have been presented on more than one occasion in Iraq on my three tours a copy of the sacred Koran by, you know, Muslim believers for things -- good deeds that I was responsible for.

No less a personality than the -- than the -- the senior cleric in Anbar, seniors -- Sunni cleric in Anbar province, the head of the Sunni endowment gave me a beautiful copy of the Koran.

So, there's -- there's nothing wrong with a non-believer touching the Koran. But that said, we -- anyone that touches the Koran down there in the -- in the normal course of operations is in fact a believer, one of our translators who -- who are -- would always be Islamic in -- in their beliefs.

No way has a Koran in any way shape or form been in any way abused or mistreated. So their claims are nonsense.

Q: Sir, you have raised, yesterday, the issue of Iran's networks in Venezuela many countries in Latin America. Could you give us an update about that issue?

GEN. KELLY: Sure, the last five or six years there's been an increase in their establishment of embassies, you know, normal, you know, kind of country team embassies in Latin America, cultural centers too, and, you know, as -- as you probably know, there's a fair number of -- of Muslims that live in -- they're clustered in various places in -- in Latin America, but, you know, embassies, cultural centers. So all of that's above board. And -- and if that's what they want to do -- they don't -- they're not getting much traction by the way in terms of influence, although there are some Latin American countries that I won't go into that are -- that are concerned because they -- they -- although they haven't got much traction in certain places, they're getting traction in other places.

The concern is that, you know, certainly they're looking, I would guess, for influence say for votes in the U.N. on sanctions or whatever, try to -- to warm up to people and gain friends. I mean, that's certainly the way international politics works. But also, and I've warned some of the -- made mention to some of our friends in -- in the region that these guys are very, very good at what they do, and very, very skilled at what they do, and that people should just be careful as to who they're dealing with, whether they claim to be an Iranian journalist or an Iranian, you know, peace worker or something, just -- just to be careful because these oftentimes are not what they -- what they appear to be or they're stated that they're -- what they're doing in their country.

So I just -- I think I need to let it go at that. I can't get into anything classified.

But go ahead, sure.

Q: (inaudible) what's your main concern? I mean, do you think these activities are -- could be related to terrorism, for example?

GEN. KELLY: Yes. Not -- not accusing them of that, but that's kind of the business they're in in many parts of the world, we think. We do know that some terrorist organizations are able to skim -- skim off fairly substantial sums of money from the drug profits that come out of America. And so there has to be kind of a network for that to happen.

So, that's kind of what we're looking at, but nothing to, you know, in a sense, nothing to be too concerned about right now, but -- but, you know, they're establishing an above-board network and I'll leave it go at that -- an above-board network of interaction with many countries in Latin America.

Q: On the issue, you mentioned in your testimony this morning that there were examples of, say, Pakistanis who had used the crime -- drug trafficking crime networks in Latin America to gain access to the United States. And you made the point that they're not coming to the United States to drive a cab in D.C.

Can you give us some examples of what they're actually -- how recent is this activity? You know, what are, in the case of Pakistanis, what would they be -- what indications do you have of what they're doing?

GEN. KELLY: No -- you know, the United States is not my -- is not my kind of playground. So all I know is that the network that we deal with is very sophisticated, and anything can move on it. You know, people, drugs, anything that money -- and it works both ways. I mean, the amount of money that comes out of the United States because of our abuse of drugs is -- is astronomical sums. I mean, pallets of money that has to be laundered. Some of it's laundered effectively in the United States. Some of it comes down to various Latin American countries. But it comes out literally in pallets.

So the network goes both ways. And for -- for a buck, anything can get on the network. There is a -- a very sophisticated network to move people within that network. And my point today was if you're someone from the Middle East, as an example, and are trying to get into the United States for a better life for you and your family, just like if you're Mexican, if you're Cuban or whatever, there's ways to do that. But they're -- they're not -- you don't pay a lot of money for a single person to get into the network, to be moved, to get to Latin America, to then get very, very good documentation made that will pass the test at border entry points, and then you get into the states.

What they do when they get here, I don't know. You know, that's entirely someone else's responsibility -- FBI, people like that. But we do know that there are people that pay a great deal of money, that come from other parts of the world not, as I said today, for economic purposes -- to drive a cab -- to get into the United States.

So that network -- the point of it all is the network is a very dangerous thing to have working as effectively as it does, because anything can get on it.

Q: General, like all of the operational commanders, you're going to be affected by sequester. You talked on the Hill about the impact on the drug -- your drug interdiction movement if the Navy doesn't send ships. But you also have a mission of interacting with our allies and partners down there. You know, is there anything -- how is that going to be affected? And is there anything you can do, you know, to kind of, you know, fill in the gaps if you're losing ships and aircraft in the area?

GEN. KELLY: Well, the -- you're -- I can comment to both points or maybe just pick up the engagement point. The good news about Latin America and my part of the world is that there are no wars. There's -- you know, they're not throwing rocks at each other. They're getting along. And with the exception of the notable -- a few notable countries, they all want us in their lives. I mean, we are deep into their lives now economically throughout Latin America, but they're all, you know, they're all individual nations and for the most part they all want us in their lives.

Take Brazil, a world power, fifth or sixth largest economy in the world. They want us in their lives, but they want us in their lives in a different way than, say, Honduras wants us in their life. But they all want us to one degree or another. And what's interesting is they don't ask for a lot. They're not -- when I go down and visit, they're not asking for an awful -- they're not asking for money. They're not asking for equipment. They're willing to pay their own way. But they oftentimes will ask for expertise. As an example, I was in Peru recently and they're -- they're attempting to do what we did here so painfully, and that is get their services to work together.

As you know, there's absolutely no parochialism in this building whatsoever between any of the services. But they're trying to get joint, if you will, or more joint than they are and break down the stovepipes. So they asked, 'Is there any way you could, you know, maybe send down some people to talk to us about how to do that?' So we find some people from the joint staff to do that.

Colombia, we still give some support to Colombia, but they're dealing with a terrible IED problem in Colombia. You know, the FARC and many of the larger growers of the -- the crime syndicates protect the factories in the jungle with IEDs, that they make cocaine. They protect the field or the orchards, if you will, where the coca is grown with IEDs. They have a tremendous IED problem, second only to Afghanistan, and actually they may surpass Afghanistan because of the direction Afghanistan is going in terms of us coming out.

So, that's -- so they ask us for some help in terms of dealing with IEDs. So JIEDO has sent down a couple of advisers, just on a temporary basis, a week or something, to go down there and talk to them about IEDs and how we approach the IED fight. They're very interested, by the way, in how we treat, at least until now, our -- our wounded, because they have large numbers of kids -- soldiers who have their legs and arms blown off and they don't have the same kind of support system that we have.

In fact, my predecessor Doug Fraser took a -- a number of Colombian businessmen and some officials up to Brooke Army Medical to the Intrepid Center in Texas last fall to show them the kind of joint partnership between the U.S. -- or between the government. So that's what they ask for, very little, even -- even the ones in the northern tier, in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, believe me, Belize. All good friends, all suffering mightily from our drug problem, that is in terms of violence.

The -- the profits from the drugs is so big, you know, that they just have bought off many police departments, judicial systems, judges, some people high up in their governments. The armies remain fairly clean, workable.

And it's interesting, talking, I think we were in either Honduras or Guatemala, to an official who was either in ministry of defense or interior or something, said, 'You know, I wouldn't take a nickel of their money, but, you know, when you receive a CD in the mail and it's your two -- two or three kids going out of, skipping off to school in the morning, and then, you know, cut to they're playing in the school yard; cut to the whole family walking down the street going to Sunday mass, you get the message.' So, even the clean ones are -- are under tremendous assault. I hesitate even to identify her, but there's a great -- great woman prosecutor in Guatemala that's doing a terrific job. And I just hope they -- they go to the ends they need to protect her.

So my point is anyway, they -- they don't ask for much, except for some advice, some assistance, and, frankly, for us to be in their lives.

Is that good?


Q: You've been doing riverine patrol, things like that, low -- small units, a lot of small unit training. Is that going to be able to continue? That's not big bucks.

GEN. KELLY: The answer to that is no. You know, even my own travel -- when I go down there, second only to secretary of defense, I mean, I'm a rock star when I show up. Because they -- because it's -- they see that the nation is committed. I was just talking to the secretary of defense a little while ago. I recommended to him to get down there, because it means a lot, particularly defense, particularly me. But a lot of that stuff, Otto, will have to be curtailed.

I mean, a couple of -- a couple of squads of Marines to go to Guatemala, Honduras and teach them a little bit about riverine is huge. But the Marine Corps can't afford that this year. So, that's the -- that's the way of the -- that's the way of the budget. And it's just not necessarily the $500 billion of sequestration. You know, when they took $487 billion and then started to rotate to the Pacific, or whatever -- what's the term we use? Rotate...

GEN. KELLY: Pivot -- pivot, yeah, rebalance, yeah. And all of that, and hope there's no wars in the Middle East, we didn't have much then, then they took $487 billion, or we took $487 billion, so we get less, and then $500 billion. You know, we're conserving electricity at the headquarters, so.

Q: Hey, general, I wonder if you can get back to the network, and what other trends you've been seeing since you've been down there. You talked about the Pakistanis. Anything else you're seeing, you know, drugs moving from maybe different countries or in a different way? There's a lot of talk about those small submarines...


Q: ... that have been moving...

GEN. KELLY: Not so small.

Q: Well, fairly small, right -- moving into the United States or even across the Atlantic to Africa.

Just talk about what else you've seen as far as different types of weapons, more people heading in...

GEN. KELLY: Well, it really is -- I mean, the downside -- as Jim Stavridis said yesterday, the dark side of globalization is this network. And it's really a network of networks.

But it's all interconnected. They have -- there's obviously no regulation to it, there's no law to it; they just do what they do. And they've got unlimited amounts of money to make it happen.

So Colombia is an example. The network that brings cocaine up through -- across -- or over the ocean to Honduras and then it enters an incredibly complex, sophisticated, effective distribution system that runs up through Mexico and then has, we think, 1,200 to 1,500 kinds of sub-hubs in the United States for distribution of cocaine.

Almost all of the heroin used in America comes -- in our country, comes up through -- is produced now in Mexico, to a large degree, comes up through the border.

Same thing with methamphetamines. You know, it used to be these small, you know, kind of Winnebago kind of things here in the States. Awful lot of it's now made in -- in Mexico and moved up.

And the Mexicans are -- are great partners in this. And I wish Chuck Jacoby was here, because he can speak to Mexico. It's not really in my -- Chuck and I speak all the time, because we're on each other's borders -- on each other's border.

But -- so that's that network. But then Colombia used to be the number one cocaine producer in the world. It's now number three. The number two and three, or the number one and two, Bolivia and Peru. Peru works very, very closely with us. And it's all, you know, (inaudible), just like its FARC up in -- not all of it -- FARC to a large degree in Colombia.

But the network there is to produce the cocaine, move it through Brazil. Brazil is the number two consumer of cocaine. Rising middle class. That's a good news story. Extra money to spend, That's a new good news story. Some of them are spending it on the wrong thing.

So it's the number two consumer nation. But then that cocaine moves across to Africa, and then funds a lot of things criminal, to include religious extremism and terrorism in the northern part of Africa. And then it goes all the way -- well, not all of it, but much of it's making its way to -- to Europe, where it's consumed.

The submarines -- the submarines, they originally started as semi-submersibles, That -- that means they were very, very low in the water. And this I think is an indication of what we're doing to the network or how difficult we're making it, because they're going to what I would consider to be extreme measures to -- to move the cocaine.

They used to be able to do it in fishing boats. And then we were getting good at that, so then they were doing it in fast boats, you know the cigarette boats, you know, five tons, seven tons a whack, 40 miles an hour. Put pressure on that, because we understand the network and when you understand how they do it. So then they started building semi-submersibles, very hard to pick up, but still you could pick them up with radar, but they were hard to pick up.

But now, completely submersible submarines that, like the old submarines or like any diesel-powered submarines, they have to have -- they can run under water for a while, a fairly long while on batteries, but they have to snorkel, meaning they have to surface at least enough to get a snorkel up to recharge the batteries as they continue to move, and then go down slow. Very sophisticated, probably 10 tons of cocaine. And we know that they can go 6,800 miles -- 6,800 miles on a tank of gas. So that's from, say, Colombia to Nova Scotia and back. That's from Colombia to the Canary Islands and back. That's from Colombia to Vancouver or maybe. So very sophisticated.

But the key point is, going after the network and going after the traffickers, we've forced them to come up with some pretty innovative and very expensive solutions.

Q: And as far as where this is all going, I mean, looking down the road, 10, 20 years, is the greatest -- one of the great fears that terrorists will use this, quote/unquote, 'highway' to get into the United States? I mean, to go up through Africa and to Europe?

GEN. KELLY: Yes. I mean, it's a very effective...

Q: Evidence, or, yes, that's sort of the fear?

GEN. KELLY: I think the only evidence would be the -- the Iranian agent that was picked up by our guys on the way here to D.C. to kill the ambassador.

I mean, as -- as -- as the law enforcement guys will tell you, as I will tell you, it's always -- it's good to be good, but it's -- but it's really good to be lucky.

I mean, if -- if he had not -- and I don't know how much of this from the open press, but if he had not been dealing with certain people, we'd of -- he'd have probably gotten through.

It just so happens that he made a mistake.

Not to take anything away from the brilliant work done by our law enforcement guys. And I tell you that I hadn't worked with them very much before my time in SOUTHCOM, but the -- the unbelievable interagency fight that goes on in SOUTHCOM with DEA, FBI, everybody, ICE, Border Patrol. I mean, I have representatives from probably every -- every government agency, but the, you know, kind of National Endowment of Arts down in Miami, everybody. And they're all working together.

And then when you go down to the capitals, to our country teams and the embassies, the same kind of people are there.

They're tremendous heroes, these law enforcement folks. And they're doing the scout work down there every day. It's very dangerous what they do. CIA, very dangerous what they do.

But it all is a -- it comes together. I don't manage it all, but I've managed some of it.

MAJ. POOL: Your last question.

Q: So (inaudible), the direction of traffic. So, last year, the representatives from Puerto Rico in Congress were complaining that because of all the attention put on Mexican border control that this is a return to the '80s and the mention of cigarette boats, that it's all coming back through Puerto Rico, the island again.

And they felt they were under resourced, that there weren't enough national security cutters, Coast Guard, naval vessels.

Do you feel like you have the right, you know, enough assets for that shift...

GEN. KELLY: Not at all. No, not at all.

When I left -- when I left my last tour was in Iraq and whatnot, the -- it was so impressive how we understood the al Qaeda terrorist network in Iraq, well, throughout the Middle East.

And then we watched it kind of move through -- with al Shabaab through Somalia. And then, long ago, we started picking up the fact that they were kind of moving up through -- that it very much metastasized is the point. And they were up through northern Africa and all that.

The point is, we understood it to a very, very high degree. And it was very, very impressive.

When I first took this job, and had begun to get into the job, I was -- I had thought to myself, gee, wouldn't it be great if we understood this network as well as we understood that network.

And the reality is, we actually do. I mean -- and I did nothing about this. It is just very, very hardworking people. You've all heard of JIATF-South down in -- down in Key West. And if you haven't been down there, you ought to get down there. It is a great -- be a great experience.

Again, an interagency -- to include DOD -- understanding of the network. And they work it every day. They work it through national technical means, they work it through human intelligence, they work it through open press media. I mean, it's -- it is phenomenal.

So we really understand the network, and we understand to a large degree how this stuff moves.

So, to your point, it's not moving very much in that direction. It's moving slightly more, and I don't mean to take anything away from the Puerto Rican officials or whatever, because, again this -- this is such a lucrative market and it's so -- there's so many profits that come from it, a little bit generates huge money that then goes into crime.

So there's not much moving out that way. I'd see it if it was. It was moving in the '80s, almost all -- almost all of it going that way. We squeezed it. Now it's Central America.

The difference today is we can see it if it starts to move, and not be surprised by it. Do I have enough assets? I don't. The Coast Guard is going full-bore, but they don't have assets. We've worked very collaboratively together, to say the least.

And with sequestration, even with -- with -- in the normal period before sequestration had only a fraction of what I could effectively use. And we've still got between 150 tons and 200 tons off. And, again, this is an interagency effort, not just -- not just the military. We still got 150 tons to 200 tons after it left -- it left Colombia, but before it got to Honduras, with a minimal number of surface ships and the airborne ISR.

Every ship I lose, you can add 20 tons to 25 tons that will get through. So if you go to no ships or cutters or one or -- you see the point. Go to -- go to -- go to no ships, 200 tons get through. Go to one ship, 175 tons gets through. You know, it's almost a scientific thing.

So, with that, I think -- sure.

Q: It's the Iraq 10-year anniversary. Can we get your feelings this week on...

GEN. KELLY: Yeah. I don't who's there right now. I think I was just pulling into Nasiriya this time 10 years ago. I'd just been promoted to one-star. I was driving by some vehicles in Nasiriya. I remember seeing these bodies burned beyond recognition. I -- I thought they were Iraqis. Come to find out, they were Jessica Lynch's unit there. And -- and I -- I think, you know, we'll let -- let the historians and the -- and the rest of them make the decisions. I just think that -- that we fought -- we went there for the right reason, we fought the war honorably, a couple of million young Americans that went there did their duty to their country, left 4,000 or 5,000 of them behind.

So I think, you know, their legacy is just a -- you know, we don't start them, we just fight them. And I think those boys and girls did a real good job fighting that war. And who knows how it'll turn out. It's -- so long as it's Iraqi good enough, it'd still be better than what they had under Saddam.

So we'll leave it at that.

Thanks a lot.

Q: Sir, we understood that U.S. even when Mexico (inaudible) Northern Command works with Southern Command in operations to train people in Central America.

I think there is a partnership Colombia-U.S.-Mexico.

Do you think this is going to be affected because the sequestration?

GEN. KELLY: It will. We'll make it effective. If I have two nickels -- three pennies to rub together, I will put two of them on my northern tier, which is just south of Mexico. And I know with the great cooperation we get from -- from the Mexican government, and the collaboration between SOUTHCOM and NORTHCOM, I know that -- that, that's a -- that's a critical point.

As I say, once it gets ashore, it's very, very hard to stop. But you still strip a little bit away as it comes through -- as it crosses into Mexico. But we're gonna -- we'll make that work so long as we have two pennies to rub together.

So, thanks a lot everyone. Great seeing you all.

Q: (Inaudible)

GEN. KELLY: Let me answer than one and tell you that I would love to as along as Buenos Aires invites us and wants us to do that. It is up to the Argentine people and the government there.

We would love to, of course, it is up to my State Department would have to -- and my White House -- would have to let me know how to handle that, but we used to have -- in fact we still have great relationships with the military in Argentina.

So we are just kind of waiting for the next warming period. We would love to get more involved in this terrible fight against drugs, and it doesn't matter how close or far apart countries are, I think almost every country on earth feels the same way about it is just something that is it just contaminates a society. If you don't watch out, if you don't fight it you may just find out that you're in a narco state not a democracy. I think that is the lesson in Honduras and Guatemala. These people understand what the drugs and the profits can do to them and it takes away their society.

So you had another question?

Q: (Inaudible)

GEN. KELLY: I think that is between (inaudible) Argentina and Iran. I would just say again the Iranians are very, very, very good at what they do. And you have to be very careful when you deal with them. So I will end it there. It was great seeing you all.

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