World

Inside the Unfounded Claim That DeSantis Abused Guantánamo Detainees

Nearly a year ago, as Ron DeSantis’s political stock was rising, a former Guantánamo Bay detainee came forward with a stunning claim: Before he was Florida’s governor, as a young Navy lawyer, Mr. DeSantis had taken part in a forced feeding of a hunger striker at the notorious American prison, and laughed as he did so.

The detainee, Mansoor Adayfi, said he was tied to a chair, crying and screaming as tubes were shoved down his throat and cases of the dietary supplement Ensure were pumped into his stomach.

As the ordeal drew to an end, Mr. Adayfi added, he was approached by Mr. DeSantis and, “he said, ‘You should eat.’ I threw up in his face. Literally on his face.”

Mr. Adayfi told his story on a left-wing podcast, then in Harper’s Magazine and then again in mainstream media reports. He found other former detainees who also claimed to remember Mr. DeSantis and his cruelty. The accounts traveled quickly through the liberal media ecosystem, landing in Democratic opposition research and coalescing into a narrative that portrayed the Republican presidential candidate as an accessory to torture.

Yet, an examination of military records and interviews with detainees’ lawyers and service members who served at the same time as Mr. DeSantis found no evidence to back up the claims. The New York Times interviewed more than 40 people who served with Mr. DeSantis or around the same time and none recalled witnessing or even hearing of any episodes like the ones Mr. Adayfi described.

Instead, nearly all of those interviewed dismissed the story as highly improbable. Mr. DeSantis was a junior officer, who visited only for short stints and was tasked with what one fellow lawyer described as “scut work.” He would have had no reason to witness, and no power to authorize, a force feeding, according to the officer who supervised Mr. DeSantis at Guantánamo. Even senior lawyers were not allowed near force feedings, according to the commandant of the prison guards at the time.

“He was just too junior and too inexperienced and too green to have had any substantial role,” said Morris D. Davis, a retired Air Force colonel, who served as chief prosecutor of Guantánamo cases the year that Mr. DeSantis visited the prison.

Mr. Adayfi, through his lawyer, declined to comment.

When asked by reporters, Mr. DeSantis has twice denied the accusations. But the candidate, who wears his loathing for “corporate media” as a badge of honor, has declined to be interviewed about his service on the base and his campaign has refused to release records — including dates of his travel — that might directly contradict the accusation. The governor’s personnel records have been redacted to hide details.

Such secrecy is embedded at Guantánamo, where even routine information has been kept from the public for years. But Mr. Adayfi’s claims highlight how a generation of secrecy at the isolated island prison, coupled with a fiercely partisan media climate, can allow specious accusations to circulate unchecked.

A culture of secrecy at the isolated island prison, coupled with a fiercely partisan media climate, can allow specious accusations to circulate unchecked.Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Scut Work

Mr. DeSantis first arrived at the base in 2006, a turbulent time at the prison. The year began with hunger strikes to protest conditions. In June, three detainees were found dead hanging in their cells. Three months later, the Central Intelligence Agency delivered the men accused of plotting the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to a secret prison on the base.

Mr. DeSantis, who turned 28 in September that year, was a lieutenant in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, in a role akin to that of a first-year associate at a law firm. He and several other lawyers were dispatched there for one- and two-week stints, as part of a program to give them their first up-close look at a complex military operation.

The program was considered “sightseeing to get some officer experience,” and regularly involved making copies, collating binders and administrative duties, according to one Navy lawyer who was there around the same time. Another lawyer who served in the program described their role as “glorified runners.”

Mr. DeSantis is remembered by his peers for winning over senior officers with an assertive confidence that struck some as brusque and cocky. At work, he was known as “Ron Possible” — a not-always-complimentary reference to his willingness to jump on any task. Outside the office, he was a fitness buff who sometimes ran shirtless in the Caribbean heat.

“We would constantly have to remind him, ‘Hey, put a shirt on,’” said Joseph Hickman, a former soldier who served as a guard at a checkpoint to the detention center. “You would notice him coming in. He was a good-looking guy.”

The Times contacted over 20 lawyers who served during the period when Mr. DeSantis was traveling between Guantánamo and Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, Fla., where he was stationed. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity either because they continue to serve in government and are not authorized to speak to the media or because they did not want to be publicly associated with the prison.

Only Capt. Patrick McCarthy, a retired Navy officer who at the time was the top lawyer at the base, was familiar with Mr. DeSantis’s specific assignments there. Captain McCarthy said Mr. DeSantis made “several” visits. He would have interacted with detainees only for discrete tasks, he said, such as confirming that a detainee did not want to see his defense lawyer.

“Ron DeSantis was never in a position to witness the enteral feeding of detainees, or in the position to participate in an enteral feeding,” Captain McCarthy said, referring to force feeding. “Nor was he in the position to witness or participate in the mistreatment of any detainees.”

Even more senior lawyers would not, as a rule, have been present at force feedings, which were administered by medical staff. “There is no way in the world that could have occurred,” said Col. Mike Bumgarner, who is now retired from the Army and oversaw all prison guards at the time. “They would have never let a lawyer there.”

The details of Mr. Adayfi’s account sometimes vary. In one version, he vomited on both Mr. DeSantis and a cultural adviser. Zak Ghuneim, the prison’s cultural adviser at the time, called the story a complete fiction.

“If someone vomited on me, I would remember it now and until the day I died,” he said.

Mr. DeSantis has rarely talked at length about his role at the base — he speaks more frequently about his next posting as a legal adviser for a SEAL team in Iraq. But he has at least once suggested he had a bigger role than now described by his superiors and peers.

In a 2018 interview, while running for governor, he called himself a “legal adviser.” When asked what the job involved, he said that hunger strikes were among the ways detainees “would wage jihad” from prison.

Mr. DeSantis was among the most junior members of the legal staff in a program designed to give them their first up-close look at a complex military operation.Credit…U.S. Navy

He then shifted to the third person: “The commander wants to know how do I combat this. So one of the jobs of the legal adviser would be like, ‘Hey, you actually can force feed.’”

Allegations Surface

After being released and resettled in Serbia in 2016, Mr. Adayfi emerged as a prolific activist and chronicler of life at the prison. He wrote about a friendship he had at Guantánamo with “a beautiful young lady, an iguana,” for the “Modern Love” column in The New York Times. On social media, he posted selfies wearing T-shirts and baseball caps in jumpsuit orange.

In his memoir, “Don’t Forget Us Here,” he wrote at length about the hunger strikes.

The military responded to the strikes with forced feeding — strapping detainees to chairs and snaking feeding tubes up their noses and down their throats. Military officials argue the practice was used to save detainees’ lives. United Nations human rights investigators have criticized the way the U.S. military treated hunger strikers, finding that forced feeding “can amount to torture” if it involves violence or psychological coercion.

In his 2021 memoir, Mr. Adayfi, a Yemeni national brought to the prison in 2002, appears to place his forced feeding at the end of 2005, before Mr. DeSantis arrived at Guantánamo. He makes no mention of the governor or anyone who might resemble him. However, he acknowledges that details became murky during his years in prison.

In the fall of 2022, Mike Prysner, a former soldier and left-wing activist who hosts an antiwar podcast, “Eyes Left,” decided to look into the military record of the governor, who he viewed as “kind of an evil guy,” he said.

He soon came across a since-deleted tweet in which Mr. Adayfi raised his accusations after recognizing Mr. DeSantis from news coverage, Mr. Prysner said.

When Mr. Adayfi told his story on the podcast, said Mr. DeSantis first came to the prisoners asking if they had been treated humanely and then laughed as they were force-fed and beaten.

“He was one of the people that supervised the torture, the abuses, the beatings. All the time at Guantánamo,” Mr. Adayfi said. “I’m telling Americans: this guy is a torturer. He is a criminal.”

Mansoor Adayfi, a former Guantánamo Bay detainee, has emerged as a prolific activist and chronicler of life at the prison.Credit…Salwan Georges/The Washington Post, via Getty Images

Mr. Adayfi also looked to find other detainees who could place Mr. DeSantis at Guantánamo. He posted a picture of the governor to a WhatsApp group chat with other detainees.

“Everyone was responding like, ‘I hate this guy,’” said Mr. Prysner, who viewed images of the messages. “That’s how they realized DeSantis was a big figure in this.”

Excerpts from the podcast were reprinted in the March issue of Harper’s. Weeks later, Mr. Adayfi’s accusations were featured in articles first in The Miami Herald and then The Washington Post. Both reports noted that the claims were not verified.

They also included the account of a second detainee, Abdul Ahmed Aziz, who had seen the governor’s picture in the WhatsApp group, according to Mr. Prysner.

Mr. Aziz did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In his accounts, Mr. Aziz did not connect Mr. DeSantis to forced feeding. He claimed the young lieutenant was one of the investigators who showed up at the prison the night three detainees died in June 2006. The timing spawned theories about Mr. DeSantis’s involvement in a report on the deaths, which some believe the military has not properly explained.

Mr. DeSantis’s redacted military records do not indicate whether he was there that night. But one military lawyer who was traveling between Florida and the base at the time said he was certain Mr. DeSantis was not. Captain McCarthy concurred, though he said Mr. DeSantis “likely participated in activities related to the follow-up investigation, which lasted for months.”

One thing the records did reveal: Mr. DeSantis’s time at the detention center was so limited he was not awarded a medal given to service members who spent 30 consecutive days there or more than two months over multiple visits in a single year.

In May, Mr. Adayfi gave Mr. Prysner recordings of a third detainee, an anonymous man who claimed Mr. DeSantis supervised force feedings and “torture.”

That same month a Vice News documentary featuring the claims from Mr. Adayfi and other former detainees was shelved by Paramount, which was supposed to have run it on its Showtime network. Paramount declined to comment on the decision.

As these stories swirled, Mr. DeSantis shot down the accusation with brief denials.

In an interview with Piers Morgan on Fox Nation in March, he said: “I was a junior officer. I didn’t have authority to authorize anything.”

The following month, Mr. DeSantis was asked about Mr. Adayfi’s specific allegations during a news conference and similarly dismissed them, this time blasting the news media for amplifying where he called “B.S.”

“Focus on the facts and stop worrying about narrative,” he said.

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