Months after President Donald J. Trump opted not to shutter the detainee center at Joint Task Force-Guantanamo, the commander in Cuba — Rear Adm. John C. Ring — was forced to scramble, according to an internal U.S. Southern Command probe obtained by Navy Times.
Trump’s early 2018 order triggered questions about how the military would continue to care for an aging population of terror suspects, including funding needed to improve existing facilities, the report revealed.
Trump’s earlier decision didn’t cause Ring’s firing on April 29 as the task force’s commander, about a year after he took the helm, but it made his job more difficult.
“Given the change of administration, there was new guidance which stated they would be open for 25 years,” investigators wrote in a summary of an April 6 interview with Ring.
“(Ring) described that he looked at the facilities and the condition of the facilities, and determined he had significant work to do to get the budget for new facilities for his workforce and the detainee population.”
Ring also “emphasized he cared about people and the detainees having hope and believed the detainees’ lack of hope can be dangerous to the guard force,” the investigating officer wrote.
The task force’s deputy commander, Brig. Gen. John Hussey, echoed Ring, telling investigators, “We need funding.”
Navy Times received a heavily redacted copy of the investigation report on Friday, a day after SOUTHCOM preemptively released a statement attributing Ring’s relief to mishandling classified information, making inaccurate reports and creating a poor command climate.
Now serving as a special assistant to the commander of Naval Air Forces, Ring did not return calls this week seeking comment.
The big blocks of redactions in the released report make it difficult to decipher what really happened during his watch, especially the allegations about mishandling classified information or making inaccurate reports.
Drafted by then-Rear Adm. Sean Buck, the report chides Ring for placing mission accomplishment above all else.
“His focus on ‘getting to yes’ created a command environment where those who advised caution” in some areas “were viewed negatively,” it states.
Both Ring and his deputy, Hussey, described staff processes at the command as “dysfunctional,” the report states.
Information flow was poor between staffers, and different groups didn’t work well together, the leaders told investigators.
Ring also reportedly told subordinates not to contact SOUTHCOM directly “for any reason before first going through him for approval,” according to the report.
In his April 6 interview, Ring conceded his first assignment as a flag officer was tough.
“He stated it was his first-time commanding subordinate commanders and his first flag job,” chief investigator Buck wrote in an interview summary.
“He found it difficult to determine ‘left and right limits’ and is accustomed to making command decision without having to ask permission.”
Ring was fired 23 days later.
Thursday’s preemptive announcement by SOUTHCOM insisted that Ring wasn’t relieved for “statements he made to the media during his tenure.”
Ring was fired the same day the New York Times published a story raising his concerns about the detention center.
"A lot of my guys are prediabetic,” Ring was quoted as saying. “Am I going to need dialysis down here? I don’t know. Someone’s got to tell me that. Are we going to do complex cancer care down here? I don’t know. Someone’s got to tell me that.”
Portions of the internal probe that weren’t redacted dealt with Ring discussing his command’s “messaging posture” with Congress, the media and the American people.
“I’m not passive and I wanted to get ahead of new detainees and message for resources,” he told Buck, now the commander of the U.S. Naval Academy.
“I want to change the public perception and the troopers to be proud of their assignment at JTF-GTMO.”
Ring said he “had been very open with the press and wanted to build a positive relationship” and wanted to reverse a negative trend in press engagements.
“He described that his thinking had evolved based on (White House) and (Pentagon) priorities evolving,” the report states. “He wanted to counter ‘Fake News,” tell the ‘Real Story’ of JTF-GTMO and be transparent.”
While the report redacts much of what was going on at the task force under Ring, the admiral said the previous Joint Detention Group commander, Army Col. Stephen E. Gabavics, “became lax” with standard operating procedures but it began to get back on track when Gabavics’ successor, Army Col. Steven Yamashita, took over the JDG leadership in mid-2018.
At the change of command ceremony, a SOUTHCOM press release quoted Gabavics acknowledging the difficulties U.S. troops face when guarding detainees.
“What these great Americans put up with every day is amazing, ranging from insults, to verbal attacks, non-compliance and even physical altercations,” Gabavics said.
“In spite of this, these Soldiers and Sailors are so professional, they never retaliate.”
Ring told investigators he pressured himself to improve everything at the command.
“I knew I had a limited window to get our needs into the budget based on my Pentagon experience," he said. "The pressure was all internal; I wanted to make it better than I found it.”
Brig. Gen. Hussey, told investigators he had never been a deputy commander before and was selected based on his background in detention operations.
He described the task force’s “messaging posture” with the media and Congress as, “serving with honor…no good news ever gets published in the press so they want to change the message to talk about the troops to ensure they are taken care of and get better facilities.”
Hussey said reservists formed the bulk of the workforce and they didn’t always receive enough pre-deployment training, according to the report.
Although the heavily redacted report makes it difficult to pinpoint what sparked the investigation into Ring, it appears that some staffers complained about reprisals after communicating directly with SOUTHCOM after Ring and others told them not to do that.
All of Buck’s recommendations and most of his opinions are redacted in the report provided to Navy Times.
In an Aug. 1 letter, SOUTHCOM commander, Adm. Craig Faller quibbled with some of Buck’s redacted recommendations before adding an opinion not listed by the investigator.
“Although RADM Ring’s actions do not meet the legal definitions of restriction and reprisal, his actions and words clearly evidenced a capricious disregard for the law and policies I expect him to uphold,” Faller wrote.
“Rather than ensuring that personnel under his command were free and unafraid to communicate perceived violations of law or regulation up through the chain of command, RADML Ring expressed a clear intent to take unfavorable action against a subordinate for making a protected communication.”
While Faller conceded that Ring never acted on that “clear intent,” his plan to act “constitutes an unacceptable abuse of authority and a callous disregard for DoD military whistleblower protection policy.”
“His actions created a hostile command climate where subordinates believed they could not make legally required reports to higher headquarters,” Faller wrote.
“These are not the qualities or the actions of a Navy leader and are antithetical to the core leadership values I expect in a subordinate commander.”
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.