Free Expression Report Card: John Kelly
Position within the Trump Administration: Secretary of Homeland Security nominee
Previous Experience: Commander of U.S. Southern Command (2012-2016); Senior Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (2011-2012); Commanding General, Marine Forces Reserve and Marine Forces North (2009-2011); Commanding General, I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) (2008-2009)
Kelly as Superior Officer of Guantanamo Bay
Within his role as commander of US Southern Command, Kelly has stood as a superior officer over all military activities in Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, which includes the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. In this context he has had the responsibility of making major decisions affecting media access to a tightly controlled military area and one of the most controversial spaces under US control.
- During a 2015 event where Kelly presided over the installation of a new military commander of Guantanamo, he made remarks to troops at the base. Independent media was not invited to the event and reporters instead listened to an audio recording on a Pentagon website. In these remarks, Kelly described the negative media coverage of the prison facility as “unfair”, before describing that the media coverage “breaks my heart because I know the reporting is wrong, and I believe the media representatives that report what goes on here know it’s wrong but they go on their merry way highlight the negative aspects of what might go on at Gitmo, never giving [US military personnel] credit for what you do here.”
- In 2013, Kelly ordered a new policy in which prison staff at Guantanamo were to stop disclosing hunger strike and tube feeding data to journalists. According to a spokesman, Kelly thought the prison staff had been refusing to disclose the data and was unaware the prison was giving out data to a Miami Herald tracker. Kelly will go on to express he believed the data “serves to manipulate public opinion but it tells me nothing” because he believes prisoners were eating enough to qualify as a hunger striker but their health was not in danger.
- As commander of U.S. Southern Command, Kelly in 2015 announced new rules that placed restriction on media access to the Guantanamo military prison through an interview with the Associated Press. The restrictions include:
- limiting journalists to four “media day” trips a year during which they will visit as a large group.
- the “media day” trips will last only one day, and they will be prohibited from visiting two detention camps where a majority of the prisoners were held.
- While journalists will continue to be allowed to interview officials, they will not be allowed to interview guards or low level staff members.
- In his interview, Kelly explained his reasoning for the new rules, including increased volume of visitors from members of Congress and foreign delegations placing strains on the prison’s operational capacity. Kelly also stated his ‘increasing frustration’ with journalists asking Guantanamo staff about efforts to close the detention center, an issue which staff were not authorized to discuss.
- In response, David Wilson, a senior editor at the Miami Herald, articulated many of the reasons why he expected that such restrictions would undermine journalistic reporting on the prison. Wilson explained that repeated visits are necessary to observe changes over time and the new media policy has prohibited close observation and obtaining interviews with the staff. With these changes in place, journalists are unable to report on conditions inside the prison for months between each scheduled visit.
Media Access During the Iraq War
- While serving as the Marine commander in Iraq during 2008, Kelly sought to have a freelance photographer, Zoriah Miller, in Iraq barred from all U.S. military facilities after Miller took images of Marines killed in an attack and posted them on his website. Miller decried this effort as “absolutely censorship . . . deciding what I can and cannot document, I don’t see a clearer definition of censorship.” The Marine Corps, however, denied that it was attempting to place limits on news media, instead describing the issue as one of security. Military officers also argued that Miller’s posting of the pictures was disrespectful to the fallen soldiers and their families, while some news organizations indicated their belief that the incident was an example of the growing restrictions on coverage of the war.
- On July 3, 2008, Miller was given a letter signed by Kelly claiming that Miller had violated Sections 14 (h) and (o) of the embed rules, which state that no information can be published without military approval. Joel Campagna of the Committee of Public Journalists has argued that such sections provide “a catch-all phrase which could be applied to just about anything a journalist does.”