Outgoing Commander Reflects on Guantanamo Mission
By Sgt. Sara Wood, USA
American Forces Press Service
NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, March 31, 2006 Joint Task Force Guantanamo operations have continued to improve over the last two years, and the task force still plays a vital role in the war on terrorism, the unit's outgoing commander said in an American Forces Press Service interview here yesterday.
"What's important about what we're doing is, we're helping protect America," said Army Maj. Gen. Jay Hood, who today relinquishes command of Joint Task Force Guantanamo to Navy Rear Adm. Harry Harris. "We provide for safe custody of some men who would be very dangerous if they were free."
Hood took command of JTF Guantanamo in March 2004, and since then he and his leadership team have made many improvements, with the goal of accomplishing the mission to the highest standards, he said.
The mission of JTF Guantanamo is to provide safe and humane custody of detainees and to gather intelligence that could be valuable to the global war on terrorism, Hood said. The past few years have been a very challenging time in custody operations worldwide, he acknowledged, but the focus of Guantanamo leadership has always been on the everyday mission.
"Members of the Joint Task Force have worked very hard to improve both the detention and the intelligence-gathering operations from the outset," Hood said.
The task force's infrastructure and ability to provide safe, humane custody of detainees is now much better than it was two years ago and is continually improving, Hood said. The training program for military guards has been expanded to help troops understand the Middle Eastern culture and the Islamic faith. And the International Committee of the Red Cross visits Guantanamo three or four times a year to deliver messages to the detainees, ask them about their living conditions, and review U.S. detention procedures.
While detainee treatment always has been consistent with the Geneva Conventions, improvements have been made recently to encourage detainees to cooperate with guards, Hood said. For example, recreation areas have been expanded and dietary plans have been changed with detainees' preferences in mind.
The task force's intelligence-gathering efforts also are much more focused, Hood said, as leaders have a better idea which detainees have valuable information and which do not, he said.
The military continues to learn from the detainees, Hood said, and the information is relevant to the war on terror. "Very clearly, there's significant information which we have yet to learn from some of the men we're holding that will help us better understand terrorist organizations -- how they recruit, train, finance, communicate and issue orders," he said.
The biggest misconception Hood and his leadership team have faced about Guantanamo Bay is that detainees in U.S. custody are being tortured. Such claims are outrageous, he said, and are not substantiated by the hundreds of media and government officials who have visited the detention facilities. "It's just simply not accurate to imagine, in any way, that the U.S. would not treat the men they're holding in a humane manner," he said.
Troops serving at Guantanamo are aware of the abuse allegations, but they don't let it affect their job performance, Hood said. "Frankly, they are a very proud and professional and dedicated group who, when hearing things like that in the media, almost use it as a motivation to prove that we are doing things right, that nothing could be any further from the truth," he said.
Key to success for the future of JTF Guantanamo is to keep the two primary elements of the mission foremost, Hood said. Hood, who is going on to be a special assistant to the commander of U.S. Forces Command at Fort Meade, Md., said he is confident JTF Guantanamo will be in good hands both because of the new leadership team and the quality troops that he leaves behind.
"I am extraordinarily proud of the performance of the young men and women from all services who have been here serving with me at Guantanamo Bay," he said. "They are a very dedicated, professional group, who represent the values that have made our country great."