by Sean Wild
As he rises onto the national stage, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis continues to be a polarizing political figure. With the likely possibility that DeSantis will be entering the 2024 presidential race, reports have recently surfaced concerning his time spent as a young naval lawyer stationed at the controversial Guantanamo Bay Detention Center in Cuba.
The nature of DeSantis’s duties during his time in the Navy have not always been clear. In 2018, a report was obtained by the Florida Phoenix that revealed the main aspect of his active duty period from 2004 to 2010 was service as a Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps Officer. The responsibilities of a JAG officer include a spectrum of legal work within a specific branch of the military. Records also confirm that DeSantis was stationed at Guantanamo Bay from March 2006 to January 2007.
DeSantis has been open about the fact that he was stationed at the detention camp, even stating in his latest book, The Courage to Be Free, that the possibility of being deployed to Guantanamo played a role in his decision to join the military in 2004. However, not much has been known up until recently about the nature of the work he took part in while stationed there.
When DeSantis arrived at Guantanamo Bay in 2006, he was a new, 27-year-old lawyer. As such, he would have had little say in the overall activity and procedures at Guantanamo.
Amhed Abdel Aziz, who was detained at the camp for 13 years and released without ever being charged with a crime, said he remembers the young DeSantis from this period: “He didn’t start as a very bad guy, but the course of events, I think, led him to have no choice. 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.”
Aside from legal paperwork and clerical work, DeSantis’s main duty as a JAG officer was to ensure that those being detained were treated within the limits of laws and regulations. Retired Navy Captain Patrick McCarthy, who served at Guantanamo in 2006 as the staff judge advocate, said DeSantis was one of the officers who would “speak with detainees when there were any complaints to ensure they were lawfully addressed.” Former chief defense counsel for military trials, Bryan Broyles, stated that JAG officers at Guantanamo “would have been in much more regular contact with the detainees than the rest of us…They intimately would have known the best of their treatment, and the worst of it.”
In 2005, a short time before DeSantis’s arrival, many detainees at Guantanamo went on a hunger strike to protest the harsh conditions at the camp. Tensions were high during this time period in a place already fraught with turbulence and distress. The strike was still going on when DeSantis began his post there. With his position as a JAG officer who had regular contact with detainees, DeSantis would have been aware of the situation, both from the military’s point of view as well as from those taking part in the strike.
Mansoor Adayfi, who was detained at Guantanamo at the time and participating in the hunger strike, recalled a visit he had with DeSantis, who told him, “I’m here to ensure you are treated humanely.” This turned out not to be the case as the hunger strike would soon be forcefully broken.
To break the strike, those participating would be restrained and force-fed Ensure nutritional shakes through nasal tubes multiple times a day. A team of United Nations human rights experts have declared that the “forced-feeding of detainees on hunger strike must be assessed as amounting to torture.” The World Medical Association, in their Declaration of Malta on Hunger Strikes, stated: “Hunger strikers should be protected from coercion,” and “where a prisoner refuses nourishment and is considered by the physician as capable of forming an unimpaired and rational judgment concerning the consequences of such a decision, he or she shall not be fed artificially.” As a JAG officer with regular contact with those detained, it is highly probable DeSantis would have been well aware of the extreme measures being taken to break the hunger strike. According to Adayfi, "Ron DeSantis was there watching us. We were crying, screaming. We were tied to the feeding chair. And he was watching. He was laughing."
While DeSantis acknowledges his time stationed at Guantanamo, he has not spoken in much detail about his experiences there. One thing, however, that he has been forthright about is his full support of the camp. In 2016, he said, “It is a very professionally run facility,” despite the evidence, witness accounts, and claims of torturous conditions that had become widespread by that time. As a congressman, he sponsored an amendment to defund a Pentagon office responsible for trying to close Guantanamo.
As the potential for Governor DeSantis’s own bid for the presidential office appears more likely each day, the day may come where he has to publicly reckon with what happened during his time at Guantanamo Bay.