WASHINGTON — As a young military officer at the height of the war on terror, Lt. Ron DeSantis was often seen running on the beach of Guantanamo Bay and along its ridgeline, encircling Camp America. It was a chaotic time at the U.S. military detention facility in Cuba, and as an ambitious Navy lawyer, DeSantis was positioned to witness history up close.
He arrived at Joint Task Force Guantanamo in the spring of 2006 as its leaders were grappling with multiple challenges and global scrutiny. Aggressive tactics were adopted to break a hunger strike. An armed clash erupted between detainees and a riot squad in May. Three men were found dead in their cells in the same hour of a single night in June. And the CIA would transfer some of its highest-value detainees to the camp in the fall of that year.
DeSantis had little authority to address these crises as a 27-year-old lieutenant at a notorious facility micromanaged from Washington. But it was a formative period for a career-minded officer who had enlisted hoping for a deployment to Guantanamo Bay, where he would come face-to-face with the realities of America’s least conventional war.
It is an experience in the Florida governor’s life that he rarely discusses publicly and remains largely unexplored, even as he appears poised to mount a campaign for the White House.
“This guy has the potential to run for president of the United States,” said Yvonne Bradley, who represented Guantanamo detainees as a military lawyer at that time. “I think it’s important for the story to get out.”
Interviews with over a dozen former Navy officers and personnel, defense attorneys and former detainees shed light on the access DeSantis would have had to the men held captive on the base, suspended in a legal and ethical gray zone during a turbulent phase in the camp’s history.
DeSantis’ team did not respond to requests for comment. But in sparing remarks on his service there since entering public life, he has expressed only admiration for the detention facility’s operations. DeSantis came away from his time at Guantanamo Bay advocating for the camp to remain open, convinced that its inhabitants were terrorists at a time when hundreds of detainees were being released by a Republican president after years of imprisonment and without ever facing charges.
“He would have had very, very intimate knowledge” of the conditions at the camp, Retired Colonel Michael Bumgarner, commander of the Joint Detention Group at Guantanamo during DeSantis’ service there, told McClatchy and the Miami Herald. “He would’ve had face-to-face contact with them — he would’ve known them intimately, their backgrounds and all.”
Cause to enlist
By the time DeSantis joined the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate in Guantanamo in 2006, Americans were already well aware of the nature of the facility and deeply divided over the indefinite detention of its prisoners.
President George W. Bush first opened the detention center in 2002, after the Sept. 11 attacks, to hold hundreds of “enemy combatants” that his administration said were primarily al Qaeda and Taliban operatives. In the intervening years, human rights groups protested the detention of suspected combatants without filing criminal charges, and reports emerged from released or repatriated Guantanamo inmates alleging torture at the camp, prompting widespread controversy back at home.
Get insights into Florida politics
Subscribe to our free Buzz newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
In a new book published in February titled “The Courage to be Free,” DeSantis said the prospect of a deployment to Guantanamo factored into his decision to join the military in 2004.
“One recruiter told me that the assumption was that the Iraq campaign would be over relatively quickly, and that there would be a need for military JAGs to lead prosecutions in military commissions of incarcerated terrorists at Guantanamo Bay,” DeSantis wrote, using the acronym for a judge advocate general. “That turned out not to be what happened, but it seemed plausible at the time and also seemed like a good opportunity to make an impact.”
DeSantis was in his second year at Harvard Law School when he enlisted. After graduating, he was sent to Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, Florida, as a prosecutor, before being sent to Guantanamo shortly thereafter. Hundreds of individuals were being detained at the facility at that time.
“It’s clear they liked DeSantis,” Charles Swift, a former career Navy lawyer who also came out of Jacksonville, said of DeSantis’ supervisors. Swift retired from service in 2007 after successfully defending one inmate, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, in a landmark case before the Supreme Court.
“He had been in what we call a ‘get-out’ job — a position you get when you don’t want to stay,” Swift said. “Everyone I’ve ever talked to said he was smart. But he had not joined the JAG corps for a career. What I take away as an intelligent observer is that Ron DeSantis was a politically motivated individual who saw a value to military service.”
DeSantis wrote in his new book that he was sent on “temporary-duty-travel stints” to Guantanamo Bay, and has spoken of celebrating Christmas at the camp in 2006. Military records obtained by McClatchy show he spent at least six months in Cuba — between March 2006 and January 2007 — where his primary duty was as trial counsel and he served as a “JTF-GTMO scheduler/administrative officer.”
“At the time, he was extremely green in the JAG corps — he had just become a lawyer,” said Joseph Hickman, who told McClatchy that he frequently saw DeSantis while serving as a staff sergeant at the camp. “He was very inexperienced, very young, and from what I’ve seen those guys didn’t have a lot of responsibility.”
But his superiors saw promise in the new officer. Retired Navy Captain Patrick McCarthy, who served as the staff judge advocate at Guantanamo in 2006, told McClatchy that DeSantis was among the officers he would send “to speak with detainees when there were any complaints to ensure they were lawfully addressed.”
“DeSantis served honorably and professionally in a very complex mission,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy’s office frequently butted heads with defense attorneys, including Bradley, an Air Force JAG who successfully defended Binyam Mohamed during his prominent military trial. Bradley said she had repeated conversations with McCarthy’s team in 2006 over allegations of improper contact between JAGs and her clients. She does not remember interacting with DeSantis specifically, but unlike most in the military, servicemen and women at Guantanamo do not wear name tags and do not identify themselves.
Bryan Broyles, former chief defense counsel for military trials at Guantanamo, described the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate where DeSantis worked as a “tiny little office” with six cubicles, and McCarthy’s office off to the side.
“We would only see them when they were directly dealing with our cases,” explained Broyles, who said he would not have been able to pick DeSantis out of a line-up had he not become governor.
“That JAG office would have been in much more regular contact with the detainees than the rest of us,” Broyles said. “They intimately would have known the best of their treatment, and the worst of it.”
DeSantis’ interactions with detainees would have exposed him to complaints about conditions at the detention center, including accusations of torture and abuse, at a time when tensions at the camp were reaching an inflection point.
The deaths of three detainees and clashes with guards roiled the facility. And restraint chairs had been introduced at the facility in early 2006, during the height of a massive hunger strike, facilitating the forced feeding of prisoners.
Guards would strap detainees into the chairs while medical personnel would conduct the feedings, using tubes they would pass through the nose. Some inmates took the feedings willingly. But others decried the procedure as an act of torture.
Ahmed Abdel Aziz, a former detainee who was released after 13 years without being charged with a crime, told McClatchy in a phone call from Mauritania that he recognized DeSantis after being shown a photo of the Florida governor.
“I remember his face very well,” Abdel Aziz said. “He was coming regularly on the blocks, and sometimes he talked, sometimes he didn’t.”
Abdel Aziz recalls first seeing DeSantis on what he described as a tour of the facility for the new officer. DeSantis’ visits on the block became routine, Abdel Aziz said, noting that he paid particularly close attention to the JAGs because their positions as attorneys made them especially valuable to the detainees.
DeSantis witnessed and received complaints about forced feeding sessions, Abdel Aziz said.
“He didn’t start as a very bad guy, but the course of events, I think, led him to have no choice,” Abdel Aziz said. “Many of the very big leadership, if they want to be harsh, it’s hard from the lower people to take a different turn. He aligned with the bad people in the end.”
Mansoor Adayfi, a Yemeni national who was sent to Guantanamo Bay in 2002 and also held without being charged for 14 years, told McClatchy that he realized after seeing Florida’s governor on the news that DeSantis was present at one point as he was force-fed in Camp Delta. Adayfi said he remembers DeSantis being there alongside Zak Ghuneim, the camp’s longtime cultural adviser, and that he vomited on both of them, an account that Ghuneim denied in a phone interview.
McClatchy was unable to verify claims that DeSantis witnessed forced feeding sessions. Multiple former officers and attorneys who worked around the camp in various capacities said it was possible, but not likely, that DeSantis personally observed them. While he would have had access to areas of the camp where they were conducted, it would not have been in his job description to witness them.
Adayfi keeps up with other former inmates on Whatsapp from his home in Serbia. Adayfi shared text messages with McClatchy that he said were between himself and three additional former inmates, all of whom identified DeSantis from their detention there.
Alongside many other former detainees, Abdel Aziz and Adayfi believe the forced feeding of Ensure meal replacements were acts of torture. No U.S. court ever made that determination, and even President Barack Obama, who sought to shut down the facility, defended the practice. But the U.N. Human Rights Commission at the time did describe forced feeding techniques at Guantanamo as a form of torture, and the World Medical Association also condemned the procedure as unethical.
“Guantanamo is horrible not only because of the torture and the isolation — they couldn’t see anyone, couldn’t do anything — but because they had no control,” said Thomas Wilner, who represented Kuwaiti detainees at the forefront of the hunger strike in 2006 and visited the facility over a dozen times that year. “The hunger strike, in a way, gave them sort of psychological control over something.”
The inmates “considered the force feeding torture, but it was complicated,” Wilner added. “Their families didn’t want them to starve, of course.”
At first, enteral feedings — or tube feedings — were conducted in designated, private settings. But they ultimately were performed in open areas of the cell blocks around central tables surrounded by detainee cells, and on some occasions outside in the block yards, where DeSantis could theoretically have observed them, Bumgarner said.
“Was he involved directly? Was he giving orders? I didn’t see him giving orders. I didn’t see him involved directly doing this himself, honestly,” Adayfi said of DeSantis. “And I’m not here to try to make him look good or bad.”
“But what makes me talk about it is when he said in 2016 that those in Guantanamo are terrorists, and he was against closing the camp,” Adayfi continued. “I was honestly shocked, because as a lawyer — as someone who worked at Guantanamo, who watched everything — as a lawyer he should know better than anyone that Guantanamo shouldn’t exist in the first place. It’s not about prisoners. It’s about us as humans. It’s about the American Constitution, American law.”
“Islamists are on the march”
DeSantis went straight into politics after his military service in Cuba and Iraq and, from his new perch as a U.S. congressman, repeatedly advocated to keep the Guantanamo Bay facility open.
In February of 2016, DeSantis wrote on Facebook that, based on his experience there, “I know you do NOT want these terrorists released.” And in May of that year, he presided over a congressional hearing on the remaining detainees at Guantanamo Bay as chairman of the House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security.
“To me, the Islamists are on the march,” DeSantis told the panel. “If we close Guantanamo tomorrow and remove the detainees, either release them to other countries or in the United States, is there anybody here that thinks that that would cause a drop in terrorist activity around the world?”
In the years before and after DeSantis’ remarks, presidents of both parties released hundreds of detainees from Guantanamo Bay, a number of whom had been found to be wrongfully detained.
The CIA transferred 14 “high value” detainees to the camp from black sites around the world in the fall of 2006, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the chief architect behind the September 11 attacks. But out of roughly 780 individuals that have gone through the detention facility since it opened, only 32 remain indefinitely detained today, according to the Pentagon. Just 11 of those have been charged with a crime.
“They weren’t treated like prisoners of war,” said Zachary Katznelson, an attorney who represented over 50 people imprisoned at Guantanamo. “They weren’t getting charged in civilian court, they weren’t getting tried in military court — it was a completely made-up legal category where people were treated horrifically, with basically no rights, and the vast majority were ultimately found not to pose a threat to the United States.”
After the Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that detainees had a right to an impartial trial, the U.S. government formed “combatant status review tribunals” to establish whether individuals held at the camp qualified as enemy combatants.
Work from the tribunals uncovered that, at the time of DeSantis’ service, a majority of the detainees were not accused of taking action against the United States, according to a 2006 study published by Seton Hall School of Law, whose work on the subject was submitted into the records of the House, Senate, and European Parliament.
“In the absence of even an accusation, there’s just no basis to say that someone is a terrorist,” said Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, who represented Guantanamo detainees pro bono and has at least one client who recognizes DeSantis from his time in detention.
Today, with just a fraction of its detainees left, the facility still costs taxpayers $540 million a year to stay open and running.
“Plenty of people have left Guantanamo and said like me, ‘Hey, let’s shut it down,’” Hickman said. “But you’re always going to have two sides. It’s a controversial issue. I could serve with a guy down there who would have the opposite opinion of me. It’s a weird place, man.”
Recalling his time in Cuba, DeSantis told the House subcommittee hearing in 2016 that the camp was “a very professionally run facility” that is “a very stressful environment for our uniformed personnel who are there.”
“These guys should not be treated like they are committing civilian crimes. They should be treated like they are violating the laws of war,” DeSantis said. “And when they are being captured in accordance with that, that should be the prism by which we see this.”
“I know this will be an issue that will continue to rear its head,” DeSantis added.
Miami Herald staffer Monika Leal, Times/Herald Tallahassee reporter Ana Ceballos, Tampa Bay Times reporter Emily L. Mahoney, and Charlotte Observer reporter Michael Gordon contributed to this article.