Trump and John Kelly
Trump and John KellyReuters

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has tapped retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, whose last command included oversight of the Guantanamo Bay detention center, to run the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), people close to the transition team told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Kelly, who joined the Marine Corps in 1970, retired earlier this year, wrapping up a final, three-year post as head of U.S. Southern Command.

If confirmed by the Senate, Kelly would be the fifth person to lead the department, which includes agencies that protect the president, respond to disasters, enforce immigration laws, protect the nation’s coastlines and secure air travel.

Transition officials confirmed Trump’s pick of Kelly on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly before any official announcement.

In Kelly, Trump would have another four-star military officer for his administration, after he confirmed that James Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general, will serve as his defense secretary.

Immigration enforcement is a familiar issue for Kelly. Southern Command, which is based in South Florida, regularly works with DHS to identify and dismantle immigrant smuggling networks. It has partnered with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in an operation targeting human smuggling into the U.S. and helped with the rescue of children arriving alone at U.S. borders.

AP noted that as the head of Southern Command, Kelly was often blunt about his need for more resources to fight the drug trade that sweeps into the U.S. from South America.

During a 2014 hearing, he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he didn’t have the ships or surveillance assets to get more than 20 per cent of the drugs leaving Colombia for the U.S. He said he often had “very good clarity” on the drug traffickers, but much of the time “I simply sit and watch it go by.”

The most contentious issue Kelly faced was the Obama administration’s push to close the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention center, and proposals to bring detainees to a facility in the U.S. if they could not be returned to other nations.

Members of Congress stridently opposed any move to close Guantanamo, arguing that it is the ideal location for terror suspects gathered up in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

By the time Kelly left the Southern Command job, noted AP, there were fewer than 100 detainees at the center, compared with 680 at its peak in 2003, and 245 when Obama took office.

Earlier on Wednesday, it was reported that Trump had selected Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The new Trump administration continues to take shape, though he still has not yet decided on a Secretary of State.

While Trump’s aides said last week that the President-elect had settled on four finalists for the post, his top adviser Kellyanne Conway said on Sunday there was “not a finite list of candidates” for the position.