By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Before he was governor, before he was a congressman, Ron DeSantis was a Lt. Commander and JAG lawyer in the U.S. Navy, serving at the Guantanamo Bay terrorist detention camp in Cuba and Fallujah during the Iraq War.
Not much is known about DeSantis’s duties at those locations. DeSantis has released only limited highlights of his military career – noting in a speech, for example, that he spent Christmas 2006 in Guantanamo without his family – and has declined repeatedly to be interviewed about it, most recently to Florida Bulldog. His official biography, cited by Wikipedia and other information sources, touts that he “still serves in the U.S. Navy Reserve,” but the Navy says otherwise.
A Navy data sheet about DeSantis provided to Florida Bulldog last week lists his separation date from the Navy as Feb. 14, 2019 – a month after his first inauguration. “He’s not active or reserve. He’s not a member of the Navy anymore,” said U.S. Navy spokeswoman Lt. Alyson Hands.
Forty-two pages of heavily censored U.S. Navy records released to the Florida Phoenix during DeSantis’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign say his naval duties included things like assistant urinalysis coordinator. At Guantanamo, where hundreds of people scooped up in the George W. Bush administration’s post 9/11 War on Terror were held indefinitely without trial and amid multiple allegations of torture by the International Committee of the Red Cross and others, the Phoenix reported the records showed that from March 2006 through early January 2007 “DeSantis’s primary duty was a trial counsel – meaning a prosecutor. The record also showed that DeSantis was described as a ‘JTF-GTMO [Joint Task Force Guantanamo] scheduler/administrative officer.’” No further details were released.
The Tampa Bay Times reported the same year that several retired naval officers who served at the detention camp at the same time as DeSantis, including some who worked with him, said his role with the Judge Advocate General (JAG) corps of military lawyers “was to advocate for the fair and humane treatment of the detainees to ensure the U.S. military complied with the law.”
DESANTIS’S ALLEGEDLY DARK ROLE AT GUANTANAMO
Now, however, an ex-Guantanamo detainee has come forward to allege that DeSantis actually had a much darker role at Gitmo. And his disturbing accusations about DeSantis have yet to be reported by any national or Florida-based news outlet despite the governor’s well-known presidential ambitions.
Mansoor Adayfi, formerly detainee #441 and also known as Abdul Rahman Ahmed, says JAG Officer Ron DeSantis observed, allowed and participated in illegal acts of torture to help put down a hunger strike in 2006 by dozens of detainees protesting their detention. DeSantis also covered up the torture, Adayfi says.
The Yemen-born Adayfi, held for 14 years without charges, was released in 2016 and flown to Serbia to start a new life after a review board determined he was not a threat to the U.S. He made his allegations about DeSantis in a Nov. 18 interview podcast of Eyes Left, hosted by U.S. Army veteran and anti-war activist Michael Prysner, a graduate of Florida Atlantic University.
“I saw a fucking handsome person who was coming. He said, ‘I’m here to ensure that you’re treated humanely.’ And we said, OK, this is our demand, you know. We’re not asking for much,” Adayfi said. He said DeSantis went on, “And if you have any problems, if you have any concerns, if you have…just talk to me.’ And you know we, we, we, we’re drowning in that place. I’m like, ‘Oh, this is cool.’ That person actually writing something. He will raise the concerns, but it was [a] piece of the game. What they were doing, they were, they were looking what’s [going to] hurt you more, to use against you.”
Adayfi, now 44, said DeSantis watched with amusement as he and other detainees were repeatedly force-fed Ensure, a “meal replacement” shake, through a nasal feeding tube pushed down their throats.
‘I THREW UP ON HIS FACE’
“Ron DeSantis was there and watching us. We were crying, screaming. We were tied to the feeding chair and that guy; he was watching that. He was laughing basically when they used to feed us, because…our stomach cannot hold this amount of Ensure. They used to pour Ensure, one can after another, one can after another. So, when he approached me, I said this is the way we are treated. He said, ‘You should start to eat.’ …I threw up on his face. Literally on his face.”
DeSantis’s office did not respond to several requests for comment this week. However, shortly after his election to Congress in 2012 he told PBS NewsHour his time serving in the Navy shaped him as a leader. He told PBS that senior officers are accountable for getting their job done because there are consequences if it’s not done well.
“You need to be accountable, if you need to pass the budget, you got to do it from a military perspective that there are consequences,” said DeSantis.
According to Prysner, Adayfi wouldn’t speak directly to Florida Bulldog because of a prior bad experience with a journalist. But Prysner said Adayfi recognized DeSantis after the governor rose to national prominence amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Adayfi did not previously know DeSantis’s name. DeSantis, like all the other JAG lawyers, don’t use their real names while stationed at Gitmo, according to Seton Hall University law professor Mark Denbeaux, the lead lawyer for “high value” detainee Abu Zubaydah, and Joseph Hickman, a former U.S Army team leader and Sergeant of the Guard at Gitmo.
“Nobody down there does,” said Denbeaux. “They’ll use Greek mythological characters or Indian names or make up names. They don’t want the detainees or anyone else to know who they are. That secrecy is a big problem…I’ve never seen that reported.”
DESANTIS DIDN’T USE HIS NAME IN GUANTANAMO
“DeSantis was using a number,” said Hickman, who recognized DeSantis after he became governor in 2019. “You remember him because he was good looking. He was a nice guy. A jock. I’d see him running on the base…As far as him being involved, I don’t think he was. He was way too young and green in the JAG Corps to be involved in anything.”
According to the Navy, DeSantis was commissioned as an officer on April 26, 2004, a year before he graduated from Harvard Law School. Upon graduation, DeSantis became a student at Officer Training Command in Newport, RI. In December 2005 he was assigned to the Trial Service Office, Southeast Detachment in Mayport, Fl.
DeSantis arrived in Guantanamo three months later. He was 27.
Retired Navy Captain Patrick McCarthy, a staff judge who supervised DeSantis during his time at Guantanamo, told the Tampa Bay Times in 2018, “He was one of the folks I recall vividly, a can-do guy and a young officer I could trust and rely on…He had very good judgment.”
The paper reported that DeSantis “was among the officers who traveled to and from Guantanamo on at least three short, temporary assignments, a few weeks or months in length. As part of the detention center’s legal arm, McCarthy and his team were charged with ensuring the detainees received rights afforded under Department of Defense regulations and policies as well as Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which provides rules on how to humanely treat detainees like those at Guantanamo Bay.”
That is, suspected al Qaeda members and other “enemy combatants” who were not part of any country’s standing army.
U.S. ASSESSMENT OF ADAYFI CHANGES
The Guantanamo detention camp was established by the Bush Administration four months after 9/11. The New York Times reports the camp held 780 detainees at its height but that today only 35 remain. Of those, 12 have been charged with war crimes. Two have been convicted and 10, including alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, await trial.
After Adayfi’s January 2002 capture, he was labeled a “high risk” threat and thought to be something of a prize. A 2008 Department of Defense Assessment states, “Detainee is an admitted member of al-Qaida who possessed prior knowledge of the 11 September 2001 attacks as well as other planned attacks against US interests. Detainee was identified as a commander of evacuating front line forces assessed to be Usama Bin Laden’s (UBL) 55th Arab Brigade during hostilities against US and Coalition forces, and was indirect communication with UBL.”
The Guantanamo review board’s Oct. 28, 2015 determination that Adayfi, who learned English while a prisoner, should be released “to a country other than Yemen with appropriate security assurances,” included a significantly different assessment: “In making this determination, the Board noted that the detainee was probably a low-level fighter who was aligned with al-Qaida, although it is unclear whether he actually joined that group, and that he has no known ties to extremism.”
Adayfi’s account: He wasn’t captured on the battlefield. He’d traveled to Afghanistan as a teacher’s research assistant and was kidnapped by warlords and held for ransom. After 9/11, at age 23, he was sold to the CIA in exchange for a cash bounty.
A ‘LANDMARK’ MEMOIR
Since his release, Adayfi has kept a high profile. He tweets regularly and in August 2021 published a memoir: Don’t Forget Us Here: Lost and Found at Guantanamo. Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer Ron Chernow has called it a “landmark work.”
“Mansoor Adayfi gives us a guided tour through the nightmarish landscape of Guantánamo. He tells a tale of both casual cruelty and organized sadism that should make every American politician redden with shame,” Chernow wrote.
The book makes no mention of DeSantis. According to Prysner, that’s because it was written before Adayfi made the connection between the “handsome man” he’d vomited on while being force-fed in Guantanamo and the Republican Party’s now rising star.
Prysner said Adayfi is currently writing another book about his experiences that will include DeSantis.
In the Eyes Left podcast, Adayfi went on for several minutes about his recollections of DeSantis.
“The feeding chair was like, you know, like 8 point. They tied our heads, our shoulders, our, our wrists, our thighs and our legs and they came and they would really speak to you…And they kept doing this over and over again. And they put some kind of laxative in the feeding liquid. We’re like shitting ourselves all the time. Then we would be moved to a solitary confinement, really cold cells. If we throw up then, we used to get to like five times a day. This wasn’t feeding it was just, it was torture.”
‘EAT, EAT, EAT’
Guards brought in Ensure by the case, Adayfi said.
“So we couldn’t handle it for five days…They just kept pouring the Ensure and in one week they break all the hunger strikers. In one week, totally. It was a mission and he was there. All of them were/was watching, the colonel, officers, you know, doctors, nurses. And not just that, they used to also beat us and if we scream or pain, bleeding came out from our nose and mouth. They’re like eat. The only word they told you, eat, eat, eat. You know, we were beaten all day long, all day. There’s a team. Whatever you do they just beat you, pepper spray, beating, sleep deprivation. That continued for three months. And he [DeSantis] was there because at the beginning he told us that he was there to ensure we are treated humanely.”
“Ron DeSantis was there all the time because his job [was] to walk around and talk to prisoners in the camp,” Adayfi said. “I’m telling Americans if this guy, if this is humanity. This guy is (a) torturer, is a criminal.”
“They were asking us to eat because they took our hunger strike as if it was a challenge and they want to break it because when he was there, they were looking at us and laughing because also we were shitting on ourselves. And he was laughing because when I was like screaming and yelling because when, when, when your stomach is full of Ensure you couldn’t breathe and you throw up at the same time.”
Adayfi said DeSantis was likewise amused when the Guantanamo team began later to insert thicker plastic tubes with metal ends into his nostril to deliver the Ensure, also causing his nose to bleed. “It hurt like hell and I was screaming,” he said. “I look at him and he was actually smiling like as someone who [was] enjoying it. When he come close, I just throw up in his face because I was throwing up all the way. And I get punished. They took my clothes…This is the memory of this person.’’
Adayfi said that when he showed DeSantis’s photo to other former Guantanamo detainees on a shared social media site, they “started cursing him. He’s one of the worst people.”
“One of the things that hurt us. When someone can tell you that I’m here to help you. I’m here to ensure that you’re treated humanely. And when he turn against us, not against, when he turn his face, his true face, it was a shock to us all. Because he used to talk to the prisoners. He had like a notebook and would ask the prisoners, Do you have any problems? How can I help you? How the guards treating you? And I like, wow, thanks. And everything we told him was turned against us.”
Adayfi cited several examples.
After detainees complained to DeSantis about how the guards had used noisy vacuums, generators and fans to keep them awake at night, he said, “they increased the noise.” When detainees told DeSantis they don’t eat meat, “they used to mix all the food with meat so that you cannot eat.”
And then, he said, there was desecration of the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an. “When I talked to him about it, he said he was looking at the impact on you. What hurts you more.”