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Navy appoints next commander of Guantanamo prison camps

By Carol Rosenberg, McClatchy Newspapers –

MIAMI — The Navy has chosen a Key West, Fla.-based admiral, a helicopter pilot who ran Hurricane Katrina air relief operations, to take over as the next commander of the detention center at Guantánamo.

Navy Rear Adm. John W. Smith Jr., 54, said in an interview Friday that he has visited the base once, on a routine tour with other one-star officers last year. It was before he learned Guantanamo was the next assignment of his 30-year Navy career.

Still, the detention center’s motto slipped easily off his tongue as he pledged to ensure “the safe, humane, legal and transparent care of those detainees.”

Smith becomes the 12th commander of Joint Task Force-Guantanamo, as the Pentagon calls its decade-old prison camps complex of 171 captives and a staff of 1,850 troops and civilian contractors. It’s an interrogation and detention operation. Smith has intelligence-gathering experience but no background in detention.

A native of Queens, N.Y., who grew up in Brooklyn, Smith said he and his wife will probably move to Guantanamo this summer.

They won’t have far to go.

He’s currently working at Truman Annex in Key West, the U.S. city closest to Cuba, as deputy director of the U.S. military’s Joint InterAgency Task Force-South — the monitoring and analysis enterprise that tries to track and intercept smugglers bound for the United States by ship and aircraft.

It’s a collaborative operation of forces from the military, intelligence and defense contracting agencies, like the Guantanamo post. But far from the spotlight.

The prison camps stirred criticism this week by unveiling a $744,000 recreation yard — featuring a soccer field ringed with fences, guard towers and barbed wire. Pentagon prosecutors are now preparing the death penalty trial of confessed al-Qaida mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators accused of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the attacks that struck the Pentagon and toppled the World Trade Center in his native New York, which Smith said would have no influence on how he manages the mission.

“The job performance has nothing to do with where I was born and what happened in the city,” the admiral said. “Whether it happened in New York or Texas, I was put in that leadership position. So that’s my job.”

Smith succeeds Rear Adm. David B. Woods, who has been assigned to a post in San Diego, for the second time in their careers. In September 2008, Smith followed Woods in Baghdad as commander of a military unit that worked on jamming enemy roadside bombs.

As Smith’s Navy resume suggests, he has navigated delicate missions throughout his career.

He was in charge of military air operations after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And he also has flown Sea King helicopters off the aircraft carriers USS Saratoga, Kitty Hawk and Carl Vinson, although he has been mostly in command in recent years.

“I fly a desk,” he said dryly.

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