U.S. Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command, speaks here in March 2014 at the Pentagon. (Photo by Glenn Fawcett/ Defense Department)

The top general overseeing the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, said it is “foolishness” to assert that the United States has lost the moral high ground on human rights following the release of a Senate report detailing the brutal treatment of detainees by the CIA.

Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, the chief of U.S. Southern Command, gave a strong defense for the way the U.S. military treats its detainees during an interview in Washington at a summit organized by Human Rights First. He shook his head at news reports that militants were taunting the United States on social media and saying the country had lost its standing in the world.

“I would say that people who said to me, ‘Well, we have now lost the moral high ground,’ I think that’s foolishness,” Kelly said on Wednesday night. “Some might say that. The jihadists were saying it today. Gimme a break. [Islamic State] is telling us we lost the moral high ground? I love it.”

Kelly spoke with The Washington Post after speaking with human rights advocates at the summit. He declined to comment on aspects of the Senate report, saying he does not know enough to pass judgment. Nevertheless, he provided a blunt defense for how the United States has treated detainees in the military’s care and the country’s overall human rights record.

“Let’s say it’s all true. That there were excesses and all that kind of thing,” Kelly said. “I don’t think that changes the balance of what America’s human rights record is at all… I don’t think it changes, certainly, the way we do business in SOUTHCOM.”

The 528-page report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee this week says that the CIA adopted harsh “coercive interrogation techniques” from U.S. Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school, which teaches troops how to survive on their own in any environment and withstand harsh conditions if taken prisoner. The brutality described took place before the U.S. military took custody of 14 high-value detainees in 2006 from the CIA.

There are currently 136 detainees remaining in the detention center at Guantanamo. Kelly said they are treated well, despite human rights activists and detainees asserting otherwise. One sore spot remains the military’s use of enteral feeding, in which some detainees are force-fed a nutritional drink into their stomach through a tube inserted through the nose and down the throat. The process is uncomfortable at best and agonizing at worst, human rights advocates say.

Kelly defended the process, saying it is only done when necessary to keep detainees who choose not to eat healthy. He also asserted that some human rights advocates have quietly acknowledged the need for it.

“Human rights groups on the one hand will criticize the U.S. government for enteral feeding,” he said. “But in private, they’ll tell me ‘Thank goodness you’re doing this. These people might hurt themselves.’ I am charged by the president, we are charged by the president – the U.S. government – to maintain their health to the degree that we can. They have, frankly, better healthcare down there than probably the veterans in our country have, and they certainly have as good of health care down there as anyone in the U.S. military does.”

As SOUTHCOM commander, Kelly oversees a variety of operations in the Caribbean, Central America and South America from a headquarters in Miami. U.S. troops frequently collaborate with militaries and police forces in those countries, and have helped them improve their human rights records, Kelly said. 

American troops in the region also frequently assist migrants attempting to flee poverty in countries like Haiti, the general said. Smugglers known as “snakeheads” take money to help them leave the country on rafts, but they are frequently overcrowded and struggle to stay afloat.

“They’re economic refugees, overwhelmingly,” Kelly said. “They pay these traffickers, if you will, and in some cases they will put 100 people on a boat — and I use the term ‘boat’ lightly — on a floating thing that 20 people shouldn’t be on. And, in some cases we know they will take them to sea and push them over the side. It’s pretty dangerous, and not a lot of them end up going to the U.S.”