Ron DeSantis was a 27-year-old Navy lawyer fresh out of Harvard Law School when he arrived in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, amid an escalating crisis at the U.S. military base.
“How do I combat this?” a commanding officer asked in 2006, as DeSantis recalled in an interview he gave years later to a local CBS television station.
“Hey, you actually can force-feed,” DeSantis said he responded in his role as a legal adviser. “Here’s what you can do. Here’s kind of the rules for that.”
Ultimately, it was the Pentagon’s decision to authorize force-feeding. Detainees were strapped into a chair and a lubricated tube was stuffed down their nose so a nurse could pour down two cans of a protein drink, according to military records. The detainees’ lawyers tried and failed to stop the painful practice, arguing that it violated international torture conventions.
Seventeen years later, as the governor of Florida and a potential 2024 presidential contender, DeSantis has largely skimmed over his experience at the base, giving it a brief mention in his new book, “The Courage to Be Free,” and rarely speaking in depth about his actions in Guantánamo — where prisoners have alleged they suffered abuse and human rights violations. Independent groups have decried their treatment, with the U.N. Commission on Human Rights concluding that force-feeding amounted to torture, and the International Committee of the Red Cross reaching a similar conclusion about overall conditions at the prison — both claims that the U.S. military has denied.
DeSantis had an up-close view of some of the most disturbing incidents at the detention camp during one of its most violent years, according to a review by The Washington Post of public records, media reports and dozens of interviews, including with DeSantis’s commanding officer, the prison warden, other base officials, former detainees and defense lawyers.
Over the course of nearly a year traveling to and from the base, DeSantis met directly with lawyers and detainees to hear their complaints as they were held without formal charges. He walked through corridors of steel mesh enclosures, “looking eyeball to eyeball with a lot of the detainees,” according to his commander, Capt. Patrick McCarthy. And he spoke regularly with McCarthy and others about pressing legal issues.
His own account of his service at the base and those of his associates also makes it clear that it was a transformational experience that hardened his views about politics, conflict and the Constitution.
He has repeatedly argued that the United States was correct in imprisoning detainees outside the legal system, and after joining Congress in 2013, he became a leading voice to keep the prison open, even though few of the detainees there were ever charged and most have been released. He has described the hunger strikes as part of a “jihad” against the United States, and characterized claims of abuse from detainees and their lawyers as attempts to work the system — foreshadowing his conservative views as a lawmaker on issues ranging from constitutional rights to military and criminal justice.
Asked about the hunger strikes, DeSantis said in the local CBS interview in 2018 that “what I learned from that … is they are using things like detainee abuse offensively against us. It was a tactic, technique and procedure.”
Former detainees, defense lawyers and other human rights advocates said in interviews that DeSantis’s actions at the base — and his continued view of what happened there as fully legitimate — present one of the most revealing and troubling chapters of his life, noting that he has never publicly expressed any concern or questioned his own role in what transpired.
J. Wells Dixon, a detainee lawyer who said he remembers meeting with DeSantis at the base, said that the experience should have convinced the governor the base should be closed.
“If DeSantis is honest with himself, having served as a naval officer and as a lawyer at Guantánamo, then he surely knows that Guantánamo is a human rights disaster and its continuing existence demeans the United States and is an affront to human rights and the rule of law,” said Dixon, who represents one remaining detainee and is a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights.
DeSantis’s office did not respond to a detailed list of questions from The Post.
DeSantis was thrust into a major crisis early in his stint as a legal adviser. On June 9, 2006, around two months after military records say DeSantis began periodically visiting Guantánamo from his home base in Jacksonville, Fla., three detainees were found dead on the same night.
With the Bush White House urging a quick resolution, DeSantis was part of a legal team tapped to help the Naval investigators who were interviewing witnesses and reviewing evidence, according to McCarthy, although he did not recall specifics of DeSantis’s role. The Navy’s final report, which does not include the names of all JAG officers who helped investigators, ruled the deaths as simultaneous, coordinated suicide by hanging — a finding that is still disputed by detainee attorneys, a former prison guard and human rights groups.
Two former detainees interviewed by The Post also said they vividly recalled interacting with DeSantis but did not know his name until he became governor of Florida. One said he personally urged DeSantis to report mistreatment of prisoners to higher-ups. Another said that DeSantis witnessed his force-feeding in person. The prisoners’ accounts could not be independently verified, but broadly match details of DeSantis’s responsibilities.
Others still stand by the conduct of the U.S. military in Guantánamo Bay, including Adm. Harry Harris Jr., who oversaw the sprawling facility while DeSantis served there. Harris said in an interview he had “no regrets” about anything that occurred there and was “very proud” of those who served with him.
McCarthy also said DeSantis should not be faulted for following orders. “He would have been working directly under my direction,” McCarthy said. “So what I would hate to see is somehow they get shaped into, ‘It’s DeSantis’s fault, these allegations, they are all falling on DeSantis.’ He was a lieutenant. I’m the captain.”
A journey to Guantánamo
One day at Yale University, according to a classmate, DeSantis joined with some friends reciting the closing scene of “A Few Good Men,” in which Tom Cruise plays a Navy military lawyer who defends Marines accused of murder at the Guantánamo base.
“I want the truth,” Cruise says. The commander, played by Jack Nicholson, famously responds, “You can’t handle the truth!”
DeSantis knew the sequence well. When the classmate later heard that DeSantis signed up at Harvard Law to serve in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, he was surprised that DeSantis would pass up a potentially lucrative private law career. Then he recalled his friend’s interest in the movie and “it made sense,” the classmate said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect his relationship with the Florida governor.
DeSantis has attributed his decision to join the military to growing up in blue-collar surroundings in Dunedin, Fla. — where his baseball skills led him to the Little League World Series and a spot on Yale’s team — and a desire to serve in the Navy instead of a white-shoe law firm.
“I volunteered to serve in Gitmo,” he told the Florida CBS station, using the shorthand for Guantánamo. In “The Courage to Be Free,” DeSantis said he was attracted to the job because he was told “there would be a need for military JAGs to lead prosecutions in military commissions of incarcerated terrorists.” DeSantis began traveling between Florida and the Cuban outpost around March 2006, according to his military records. The records do not specify how long his visits lasted; generally, JAG officers stayed on base for weeks at a time.
His responsibilities included “provision of prosecution, command advice, and court-reporting services” in seven southeastern states and Guantánamo Bay, the records say.
But DeSantis quickly realized that prosecuting terrorists was not in the cards. “That turned out not to be what happened,” he wrote in his book, “but it seemed plausible at the time and also seemed like a good opportunity to make an impact.” He also didn’t act as a defense attorney on base.
His military records specify his responsibilities at Guantánamo such as “scheduler/administrative officer” — but those who served with him said that understates the broad swath of DeSantis’s work after McCarthy came to trust him as a top aide.
He was “someone that I could rely on to do a high-visibility mission,” McCarthy said in an interview with The Post. “And if anything went wrong, Guantánamo was in the papers before the folks even got back over to their place. So it a was very high-visibility mission. It was a no-fail mission.”
McCarthy’s job included ensuring that legal procedures were followed in interrogation and detention, at a time when complaints from defense lawyers about mistreatment of their clients was at a peak. He made DeSantis part of his team that responded to the issue.
In practice, that meant that DeSantis spent much of his time talking with detainee lawyers. “There were hundreds of attorneys who were coming and going to Guantánamo,” McCarthy said. “He and the people who did the job he had had to deal with all of them.”
Abu Sarrah Ahmed Abdel Aziz, a detainee who said he conveyed complaints of numerous detainees because he spoke fluent English, said that he is “100 percent” certain he spoke a number of times with DeSantis. Abdel Aziz said that he sought out DeSantis — whose name he didn’t know at the time, as military personnel in Guantánamo did not wear names on their uniforms as a security measure — because he knew that JAG officers offered him an opportunity to air mistreatment claims.
“These people are the only gate we have to hear our voices, to hear our complaint,” Abdel Aziz said of DeSantis. “We cannot forget these people.”
Abdel Aziz and others had significant concerns to convey to DeSantis and his colleagues. A majority of the detainees were never found to have committed any hostile acts against the United States. They were held thousands of miles from family without a clear legal process to determine their guilt or innocence and potential release. Abdel Aziz said he told DeSantis words to this effect: “You need to understand what is happening. You need to report to your higher-ups that we don’t know what is our status, no legal trial or anything.”
Abdel Aziz said that DeSantis repeatedly promised to make sure his senior officers heard those complaints. But conditions only got worse, he said.
‘It violated our principles’
As the hunger strikes stretched into 2006, the Pentagon authorized widespread force-feeding despite international outcry. Retired Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis, the former head of the Southeast Army Medical Command, who at the time was affiliated with Physicians for Human Rights, said he advised detainee lawyers about challenging the practice.
“It violated our medical ethics, it violated our principles,” Xenakis said in an interview, adding that he concluded it was torture. “I would have challenged it,” Xenakis said in an interview, referring to DeSantis’s advice about force-feeding.
Many of those who endured the procedure also say it was torture — and one detainee said he recalls DeSantis witnessing it firsthand.
Mansoor Adayfi, a Yemeni who was 19 when he arrived at Guantánamo, described the force-feeding process in his memoir, “Don’t Forget Us Here,” writing that “a male nurse forced that huge tube into my nose. No numbing spray. No lubricant. Raw rubber and metal sliced the inside of my nose and throat. Pain shot through my sinuses and I thought my head would explode.”
One day, Adayfi said in an interview with The Post, DeSantis watched from outside a fence as he was tied to a chair and force-fed. He recalled that DeSantis stood among several people who were “smiling” at him, which he said made him angry, so he spit out food at them, with some hitting DeSantis. “I did it intentionally,” he said. The Post could not independently verify the claim, and DeSantis’s office did not respond to a question about it.
“When DeSantis started interacting with us, he [said], ‘We are here to listen to you and like, make sure we are treating you humanely,’” Adayfi said. But by the time Adayfi said DeSantis witnessed his force-feeding, “it was really harsh, it was inhumane.”
Adayfi did not note his claims about DeSantis in his memoir; he appears to have first cited it in an interview last November to the podcast Eyes Left. He said he did not know DeSantis’s name until recognizing him in a photo more than a decade after leaving the prison.
DeSantis did come in close contact with detainees in their cells, according to his commander. McCarthy said he advised DeSantis not to worry about what the media said about conditions at the base and focus instead on being “proud of your mission.”
Another JAG officer, Cmdr. Daniel Jones, who was in Guantánamo Bay around the same time as DeSantis, confirmed in a Navy publication that lawyers in the office interacted “with detainees on a daily basis” and advised on legal issues surrounding hunger strikes and forced feeding. Jones could not be reached for comment.
In his interview with the Florida TV station, DeSantis recalled that “guards would have feces thrown at them and other stuff.”
Investigating three deaths
Tensions were already simmering in Guantánamo by early June 2006. Riots broke out in one cell block. Guards rushed inside and were attacked. A senior guard later said he ordered that shots be fired at the inmates. One media report said it was the “most violent uprising yet.”
Then on June 9, 2006, Col. Michael Bumgarner, the prison commander, said in an interview that he was called to the medical clinic, where he learned that three detainees had been found unresponsive in their cells. All three were soon declared dead: Mani Shaman Turki al-Habardi Al-Utaybi, 30; Ali Abdullah Ahmed, 26, and Yasser al-Zahrani, 21.
Harris, the top base official, promptly told reporters that the deaths were the result of suicides, calling them “an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us.”
But with international outrage spiking, it was clear a deeper investigation was needed. McCarthy soon arrived at the scene, and later asked DeSantis to help gather information for a follow-up probe by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, he said.
“I cannot tell you specifically what [DeSantis] did,” McCarthy said, but it was likely that DeSantis was “involved in facilitating access to information, trying to make sure that privileged information did not get swept up. He would have been one of the folks that I dispatched to help facilitate the investigative effort.”
According to an NCIS report, a team from the Regional Legal Service at Naval Air Station Mayport in Florida, including four JAG officers, was activated on Oct. 23, 2006. The NCIS said at the time that it had collected 34 boxes and one bag of material, weighing a total of 1,065 pounds, all of which had to be reviewed by the JAG officers and others.
The public version of the report doesn’t provide the names of those officers, and the NCIS has declined to release a version without redactions. The timing of the team’s work coincides with DeSantis’s service and fits the framework of McCarthy’s recollection.
The team’s findings remain the subject of significant controversy. Investigators determined that the three men simultaneously died by suicide by hanging themselves.
Some family members did not accept that the deaths were suicides; their lawsuits against the federal government have been unsuccessful. Joseph Hickman, an Army officer who led a group of guards beyond the cell block perimeter, later contested the official version of the events in his memoir, “Murder at Camp Delta: A Staff Sergeant’s Pursuit of the Truth About Guantánamo Bay.” He alleged that the three were killed after an interrogation went too far.
DeSantis has never publicly discussed his role in the investigation. In his Florida TV interview, he appeared to incorrectly describe the findings of the probe, saying that there were “three detainees that committed suicide with hunger strikes.”
The three men, who had never been charged, were all slated to be released, said Bumgarner, who remains convinced the deaths were suicides. Harris, in an interview, also stood by that assessment. Bumgarner said he inadvertently helped facilitate the deaths by providing sheets, turning off bright lights at night, and taking other measures designed to be more closely aligned with the Geneva Convention — all in response to the hunger strikes.
“I failed,” Bumgarner said. “There are two overarching missions that any prison commander has, one, nobody escapes, and two, nobody dies.”
DeSantis’s service at Guantánamo Bay ended on Jan. 31, 2007, according to military records. He later served with the JAG Corps in Iraq before being elected to Congress in 2012.
The conservative views DeSantis brought to his political career gestated during his Guantánamo service, according to former base officials — and were particularly driven by his direct path from the cloistered world of Yale and Harvard Law to a remote prison full of alleged terrorists.
“It would have been shocking,” Bumgarner said. “You’ve seen the really bad side of human beings, of human nature. You know what bad can be and you dealt with it. And so I’m sure it hardened him.”
As a House member, DeSantis became one of the leading proponents of keeping the prison open, insisting it was unsafe to transfer detainees to the country’s most secure prison.
In a Fox News interview on Oct. 11, 2014, host Greta Van Susteren pressed DeSantis on why the detainees needed to be kept there at what she said was an annual cost of $2.7 million each compared with $78,000 at a highest maximum-security federal prison in Colorado known as the supermax.
Calling the detainees “terrorists,” DeSantis blamed Guantánamo’s high costs in part on religious accommodations. “They get three special halal meals a day,” DeSantis said. “They get round-the-clock medical care, they get the Qurans when they want it. So they’re treated far better than they would be treated almost anywhere else. And that’s costly.”
A spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons responded to questions about DeSantis’s comparison by providing documentation that says federal prisoners — including in supermax facilities — are entitled to a “religious diet,” “religious books,” “ministering to you at the level of your need,” and medical care.
DeSantis in the interview also maintained that detainees can’t be sent to the supermax because “they’re unlawful combat terrorists. They’re not common criminals. Supermax has common criminals.”
Robert Hood, warden of the Colorado prison from 2002 to 2005, said in an interview that supermax was designed to hold the most dangerous inmates. Hood noted that current prisoners include Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, one of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers, and “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski.
DeSantis, in a subsequent Fox News appearance, on Sept. 7, 2015, also argued against closing Guantánamo because detainees would be given an opportunity in U.S. court to dispute their cases. “There will be judges who are going to issue a writ of habeas corpus, and you either got to take them to trial or you got to release them at that time,” DeSantis said.
In May 2016, DeSantis chaired a House national security subcommittee that examined what do with the 80 detainees who remained at the base. He said that he continued to oppose closing the base or transferring detainees to other countries out of concern that they would commit acts of terrorism. Nor did he support giving detainees normal rights that would be accorded to a typical defendant.
“I fear that going in the other direction where you somehow need to give them a quasi-civilian trial with basic constitutional rights almost, at the end of the day in the normal battle you are not going to be able to do that without really diverting the mission,” DeSantis said at the hearing. “And I don’t want to be doing that.”
Two years later, as DeSantis ran for governor, he made his service a major campaign theme, running an ad that showed him in his Navy uniform as a narrator said he “dealt with terrorists in Guantánamo Bay.”
DeSantis’s commanding officer made clear he dealt with numerous detainees whom the administration deemed terrorists. DeSantis did not deal with the highest-level group of 14 top suspects, including Sept. 11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. While they were transferred to Guantánamo in 2006, access to those high-level detainees was restricted to senior officers, and McCarthy said DeSantis was “not granted access.”
Of the 779 individuals once held at Guantánamo — about 400 of whom were there in 2006 during DeSantis’s main time of service — most have been released to their home countries or elsewhere, including Abdel Aziz and Adayfi, the two who say they remember encountering DeSantis.
Today, a military spokesman said, 34 detainees remain at the Guantánamo facility, which requires about 1,000 personnel to run. President Biden promised in February 2021 to close the base by the end of his term, but it is not clear if he will succeed, because of opposition from Congress, complications with military trial procedures and other issues.
With no definitive plan in place to close the prison, its fate could fall instead to whoever wins the 2024 presidential election.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.