DeSantis 'is not a good guy,' says former Guantánamo detainee

In 2006, DeSantis, a young Navy lawyer, arrived at the U.S. prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, in the midst of a hunger strike by detainees.

Ron DeSantis during his Navy years. (DeSantis campaign, Facebook)
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In his interview with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last month, Piers Morgan asked the likely Republican presidential candidate about the time he spent more than a decade ago as a Navy legal adviser at the U.S. detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where hundreds of suspected terrorists were being held.

Morgan wanted to know if DeSantis had ever authorized the force-feeding of detainees on hunger strike, a practice deemed to be torture by the United Nations.

“I was a junior officer,” DeSantis replied. “I didn’t have authority to authorize anything.”

One of the several thousand people who watched the hourlong interview online was Mansoor Adayfi, a 40-year-old Yemeni national now living in Serbia.

“I need to face this guy, face-to-face,” Adayfi wrote on Twitter.

According to Adayfi, he and the future governor had been face-to-face in the past, on the rocky Cuban coast where one of the most controversial chapters of the War on Terror continues to play out, and where the fate of the promising young Navy attorney and the alleged Islamic fundamentalist collided in ways that could reverberate as DeSantis prepares to launch a presidential candidacy.

“I don’t think he is a person suitable to be the president of the United States,” Adayfi told Yahoo News in a series of interviews. “He’s not a good guy.”

Mansoor Adayfi, former Guantanamo Bay detainee, sits on the floor.
Mansoor Adayfi, former Guantánamo Bay detainee, in 2021. (Salwan Georges/Washington Post via Getty Images)

Adayfi does not allege that DeSantis authorized or participated in the force-feedings, though a recently uncovered television interview with DeSantis conducted while he was running for governor in 2018 suggests that he may, in fact, have had more authority than he now claims.

Instead, the former detainee accuses DeSantis of betrayal, of abnegating his responsibility in order to please his superiors. (The governor’s press office did not answer a Yahoo News request to address questions about the time DeSantis spent at Guantánamo Bay.)

Although Adayfi’s accusations have recently found traction in publications such as The Washington Post, the claims may prove of little consequence for a DeSantis campaign funded by hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions and powered by a Republican establishment eager to pick a nominee capable of defeating President Biden.

In 2021, Biden withdrew American forces from Afghanistan, ending a conflict that began while the World Trade Center site in Manhattan was still smoldering after 9/11. Yet neither Biden nor his immediate Democratic predecessor and onetime boss, Barack Obama, managed to close Guantánamo Bay, which remains a forgotten and incoherent place where fast food restaurants operate down the road from cells holding alleged terrorists.

Guantánamo, Adayfi argues, is a stain on the nation’s record, and on the record of anyone who served there without objection. “The problem,” he says, “is that DeSantis does not respect American values.”

The gray zone

A U.S. Naval officer stands at the entrance of the prison at Guantánamo Bay.
A U.S. naval officer stands at the entrance of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Opened in early 2002 to hold supposed extremists captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere, Guantánamo quickly became a problem for the Bush administration.

The nearly 800 men sent to Cuba had not fought for a foreign nation’s army, so they could not be classified as prisoners of war. But they also could not be afforded the same due process available to suspects charged under U.S. law, if for no other reason than that there had been no charges filed against them.

Attorneys like DeSantis were sent to Guantánamo Bay to offer reassurance that whatever was happening there had legal justification. Their presence became especially critical as detainees launched a hunger strike in 2005 to protest the conditions in which they were held.

Adayfi emerged as an informal cell block spokesman during the hunger strike. “I wasn't a leader,” he writes in his 2021 book “Don’t Forget Us Here.” “I wasn't an instigator. I was young and, like most men my age, I was still learning; I was clever, but not wise yet. I was just a simple tribal man who couldn't sit by and watch other men and boys get abused and mistreated.”

He had been picked up by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2001. Now, he claims that he was there to conduct field research in tribal areas. But in a declassified transcript of a legal hearing that took place in November 2006, Adayfi painted an entirely different picture of himself. “I’m a Muslim jihadist and I’m defending my religion and my family,” he said.

As the hunger strike persisted, American officials became more aggressive in their efforts to end the protest. Detainees would be held down with restraints and fed with liquid supplements through nasal tubes. “It is clear that the government has ended the hunger strike through the use of force and through the most brutal and inhumane types of treatment," one American attorney told the New York Times after visiting clients at the detention camp.

‘I wanted to serve’

DeSantis arrived in Cuba in early 2006 as tensions over the hunger strikes were at their highest pitch. He was a blue-collar Floridian who had played baseball at Yale, then studied at Harvard Law School, graduating with stellar grades from both.

In his final year in Cambridge, he decided to enlist in the Navy. “I could have earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in law or finance,” he wrote in his new campaign-style memoir. “But I decided to pass on that money because I wanted to serve.”

Adayfi vividly describes a 2006 force-feeding at which he said DeSantis was present and during which he laughed. “I felt that I was nothing to him,” he said. After the force-feeding, Adayfi said, DeSantis and other officials approached him. As they did so, Adayfi vomited in their direction.

From the viewpoint of his superiors, DeSantis did exactly what he was supposed to, making sure that nothing that took place could lead to legal jeopardy for guards or interrogators. "DeSantis served honorably and professionally in a very complex mission," his then-supervisor Navy Capt. Patrick McCarthy, told the Miami Herald in March.

After Guantánamo, DeSantis deployed to Iraq, where he advised a special forces unit during the battle of Fallujah.

A political star is born

Ron DeSantis laughs during a dinner in Hillsdale, Mich.
DeSantis laughs during a dinner in Hillsdale, Mich., last week. (Chris duMond/Getty Images)

After he returned to Florida, DeSantis ran for Congress, winning a House seat in 2012 representing a stretch of coastline south of Jacksonville. He joined the Freedom Caucus but remained relatively unknown, making few friends on Capitol Hill.

President Obama had promised to close Guantánamo, which was proving to be a budgetary drain and international embarrassment. As his second term in the White House neared its end, he proposed sending the camp’s remaining detainees to a supermax prison in Colorado.

Republicans strenuously objected.

DeSantis was now chairman of the national security subcommittee of the powerful House Oversight Committee. In May 2016, he used a hearing to assail the Obama administration for what he called an “ideological” commitment to closing the detention center.

He also discounted the notions that detainees were treated unfairly or that they deserved due process. “These guys should not be treated like they are committing civilian crimes,” DeSantis said as the hearing came to a close, adding that it would be a mistake to go in “the other direction, where you somehow need to give them a quasi-civilian trial with basic constitutional rights.”

Two years later, DeSantis managed to parlay a series of Fox New appearances into an endorsement by Donald Trump in the Republican primary in Florida’s gubernatorial race. A presidential tweet boosted him in the primary over a GOP establishment candidate, and won narrowly in the general elections.

By this time, Adayfi was gone from Cuba. In 2016, he was sent to Serbia, a country willing to accept him. Like many other freed detainees, he now found himself in a foreign land with which he had no connection, and where the authorities treated him with suspicion.

Mansoor Adayfi during a Zoom interview in Belgrade, Serbia.
Mansoor Adayfi during a Zoom interview in Belgrade, Serbia. (Salwan Georges/Washington Post via Getty Images)

For most of the freed detainees, life after Guantánamo was just the latest stage in a strange journey. “I feel like a shell, empty within,” he told the BBC in 2022. Writing about his time at Guantánamo has given Adayfi a purpose, but it has also kept him bound to the 14 years he spent at the camp. He has described his life in Serbia as “Guantánamo 2.0.”

In 2019, Adayfi was in his apartment in Serbia when he saw DeSantis on the television. He recognized him and reacted with a tweet, which he has since deleted, outlining the accusations about what DeSantis did — and failed to do — at Guantánamo. (His reasons for deleting the original tweet are unclear.)

Lingering questions

In 2022, a military veteran named Mike Prysner, who runs a “a socialist, antiwar military podcast” called Eyes Left, came upon the tweet while doing research on an episode about DeSantis.

Prysner told Yahoo News that he was motivated to look into the governor’s record because of his own family background.

“I’m from Florida; my parents and younger sister live there. But more so I am deeply concerned and increasingly alarmed with the growing threat to Trans people, women, Black America, left-wing activists, etc,” he told Yahoo News in a text message.

For Prysner, the lack of media reporting on the time DeSantis spent in the Navy seemed especially curious. “I read everything that had been reported about his military service and found nobody questioned in any way at all what he did in Gitmo,” he said, using a common military moniker for the naval base and prison.

Prysner’s interview with Adayfi, titled “Ron DeSantis's Military Secrets: Torture & War Crimes,” aired on Nov. 18, 2022. A short time later, it caught the attention of Joe Kloc, an editor at Harper’s magazine. In the March issue of the magazine, Kloc ran an especially vivid excerpt of the interview that included the following exchange:

Prysner: You told me there was a resistance tactic there, of splashing administrators? Splashing them with your own feces? But you didn’t use this tactic often?

Adayfi: Only the worst of the worst got splashed.

Prysner: DeSantis?

Adayfi: Yes.

U.S. Army military police escort a detainee to his cell in Camp X-Ray at Guantánamo Bay.
U.S. Army military police escort a detainee to his cell in Camp X-Ray at Guantánamo Bay. (Shane McCoy/WireImage via Getty Images)

In early March, an extensive investigation of DeSantis’s time at the prison was published by the Miami Herald, a newspaper that had long considered Guantánamo Bay — only a short flight from South Florida — part of its journalistic domain.

The article included an interview with Ahmed Abdel Aziz, another former Guantánamo detainee, who now lives in the African nation of Mauritania.

“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 for the lower people to take a different turn. He aligned with the bad people in the end,” Abdel Aziz told the Herald.

An accompanying editorial demanded that the governor acknowledge the accusations. “What did DeSantis do at Guantánamo?” the Herald’s headline read. “If he wants to be president, voters need to know.”

Among the unanswered questions about DeSantis’s time at Guantánamo Bay is whether he had any role in the handling of the three detainee suicides that took place in June of 2006. Recent reporting by the Washington Post suggests that he was involved in the ensuing investigation, but his exact role remains unknown.

Joe Hickman, an officer in the Army then working as a Guantánamo guard, wrote a book suggesting that the three detainees were murdered and that their true cause of death was covered up by camp authorities. Hickman (who later wrote a book on toxic burn pits that caught Joe Biden’s attention) does not implicate DeSantis.

Will his time at Gitmo hurt DeSantis?

DeSantis prepares to speak at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., on Friday.
DeSantis prepares to speak at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., on Friday. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

In his 2022 reelection bid, DeSantis crushed his Democratic opponent, former Gov. Charlie Crist, by 19 points in what was, not long ago, considered a swing state, coasting to reelection and cementing his status as his party’s brightest rising star.

If he announces a 2024 presidential run and manages to defeat Trump and the rest of the GOP field to win the Republican nomination, he will become the first major-party nominee since the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona to have served in the U.S. military, though unlike McCain, he had no combat role.

DeSantis almost never grants press interviews outside a narrowly circumscribed conservative ecosystem, and he has said nothing in response to the growing number of reports about his Cuba days.

The presidential campaign of Donald Trump, which regards DeSantis as something of a nemesis (albeit one the former president helped create), is watching closely how the Guantánamo narrative plays out.

“I don’t think President Trump will bring it up,” an adviser working on the Trump campaign told Yahoo News, speaking on condition of anonymity. But, he added, “It chips away at the general election pitch of Ron,” since allegations related to torture—even if ultimately unverified—could prove toxic to moderate voters.

As for Guantánamo Bay, it remains open, now home to 31 detainees whose futures are unclear. U.S. taxpayers pay an estimated $13 million annually per detainee to keep them there.