By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
In his new book, Gov. Ron DeSantis had the opportunity to discuss his record as a U.S. Navy JAG officer in Guantanamo, where a former detainee has accused him of involvement in illegal acts of torture amid a crackdown on hunger strikers in 2006.
Yet he chose to remain largely silent. DeSantis recounts nothing of his personal experiences during the 11 months he spent there. The word Guantanamo appears just twice in “The Courage to be Free,” DeSantis’s 254-page memoir/political tract released last week.
Florida’s Republican governor, with transparent presidential ambitions, also has turned aside repeated requests for interviews about his Navy duty, including from Florida Bulldog. Our first request was in January before we published the disturbing accusations of Yemeni-born former Gitmo detainee Mansoor Adayfi. Adayfi says that in 2006 DeSantis observed, allowed and participated in brutal forced feedings to put down a hunger strike by dozens of detainees protesting their captivity.
DeSantis’s remarks in the book about Guantanamo are confined to a single sentence: “l prosecuted court-martials for ships, squadrons, and the Southeast Region of the Navy, and even got sent on temporary-duty-travel stints to the Guantanamo terrorist detention camp in Cuba.”
Seton Hall University law professor Mark Denbeaux, a longtime counsel for Guantanamo detainees, finds DeSantis’s decision not to include any recollections from his time at Gitmo remarkable.
“2006 was an intense year. There was the hunger strike, the hangings of three detainees in their cells, and it’s when Camp 7, the secret camp the CIA ran, was opened up. But he chooses not to be there,” said Denbeaux. “The interesting thing is, for a guy of this type, you’d think he’d be making talk about what a tough guy he was, that he was even there when they brought in Abu Zubaydah.”
[Zubaydah, an alleged al Qaeda bigshot captured in Pakistan in 2002 and relentlessly tortured for four years while in CIA custody – including being waterboarded 83 times – was transferred to Guantanamo in September 2006.]
FOIA REQUEST YIELDS NEW DESANTIS DOCUMENTS
Using the Freedom of Information Act, Florida Bulldog obtained 73 pages of DeSantis’ Navy records, 31 pages more than had been previously made public. They include 11 heavily redacted “Fitness Report & Counseling Record” documents regarding DeSantis’s active-duty performance. The records are posted in the Navy’s FOIA reading room here.
In his book, DeSantis speaks more about his experiences in Iraq, where the records show he was transferred around August 2007 during the surge in U.S. combat forces. He was attached to the Marine’s Seal Team One in the city of Falluja. DeSantis wrote he volunteered for the post.
His fitness report for the period August 7 to April 8, 2008, lists his primary duty as a Staff JAG Advocate and a secondary duty as “Detention Operations.”
But that doesn’t appear to square with this much more action-oriented description of Desantis’s “Command employment and command achievements”: “Conducts Special Operations including Direct Action, Special Reconnaissance, Intelligence, and foreign Internal Defense operations in support of Commander, Multinational Corps – Iraq and Commander, Joint Special Operations Task Force – Arabian Peninsula.”
In his book, DeSantis writes, “one of my roles was to provide counsel to our commander, as well as to subordinate commanders and even individual operators, about the rules governing the battlefield. I rejected the posture some judge advocates in the military take by simply trying to shoot down any proposed operations or reading the ROE (Rules of Engagement) so broadly that it paralyzes individual operators.” He describes his role as “a facilitator, not an inhibitor.”
He acknowledges only one such duty: “During my deployment, I helped to facilitate prosecutions of detainees in Iraqi courts.”
DESANTIS AS DETAINEE ‘FACILITATOR’
DeSantis says, “one of the most sensitive matters was detainee operations. The cloud from the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal [in 2003] was still hanging over everything pertaining to the detainees.”
The U.S. had two major detention centers in Iraq, one in Baghdad and the other in Basra, near Kuwait, DeSantis explained. Individual units could hold detainees “for a short time” and each region had a “facility” where they could be held “a little bit longer. The general policy was to get detainees into the large centers as soon as possible, in part to minimize the risks of further detainee complications,” DeSantis’s book says.
Yet once a detainee was shipped off to Baghdad or Basra, DeSantis says, the U.S.’s ability “to mine the detainee for additional intelligence was essentially over. It was thus important for us, in some circumstances, to justify holding certain detainees for much longer than the theater-wide rules allowed.”
That, apparently, is another way DeSantis served as a “facilitator.” Still, he doesn’t say it explicitly or explain why detainee transfers to prisons would shut down interrogations – though it is certainly likely that such questioning would be held under less harsh conditions than those used at Abu Ghraib.
“From listening to corporate media outlets at the time, one would have thought that the U.S. detainee system, whether in Iraq or at the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, resembled a Soviet gulag. In reality, detainees much preferred to be in U.S. custody than in the custody of Iraqi authorities in places like Fallujah,” says DeSantis.
DESANTIS’S NAVY RECORDS
According to his Navy records, DeSantis was commissioned a Naval officer on April 26, 2004, while still attending Harvard Law School. He began active duty with the Navy’s Judge Advocate General Corps at Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville on Sept. 22, 2005. His rank: Lt. junior grade.
Six months later, on March 1, 2006, DeSantis was sent to Guantanamo, where he’d remain, apparently off and on, until March 8, 2007. He was promoted to full lieutenant on June 1, 2006.
His primary duty was as a trial counsel. His fitness report for that period says his collateral duties included command services attorney, PT coordinator, Recruiting Officer, JTF-GTMO [Joint Task Force – Guantanamo] scheduler/administrative officer and emergency management officer.
DeSantis’s contemporaneous performance review, including comments by a senior officer and his rankings on such things as professional expertise, military bearing and character, teamwork, mission accomplishment and leadership, were all withheld by the Navy citing FOIA’s (b)(6) exemption – information about “personnel and medical and similar files the disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
Every other fitness report about DeSantis during his four years, five months and 16 days of active duty, was similarly censored.
DeSantis resigned his Navy commission on March 9, 2009, before he finished the job he’d signed up for.
According to a memo Oct. 15, 2009, DeSantis was informed his resignation had been accepted “upon required acceptance of appointment in the U.S. Naval Reserve on the date of detachment…On date of separation you will not have completed your commissioned service obligation, therefore acceptance of appointment in the U.S. Naval Reserve is required on the date of detachment.” DeSantis accepted.
DeSantis’s active service ended on Feb. 28, 2010. He remained in the reserves until Feb. 14, 2019, though he was placed on “Standby-Reserve-Active” as a “Key Federal Employee with the Naval Reserve” in January 2013 following his election to Congress.