Did Ron DeSantis Observe Guantanamo Force-Feeding as Navy JAG?

Asking for clarity on DeSantis' involvement in force-feeding is an eminently fair question.

Published May 1, 2023

Updated May 2, 2023
 (CHANTAL VALERY/AFP via Getty Images)
Image Via CHANTAL VALERY/AFP via Getty Images

On Nov. 18, 2022, former Guantanamo Bay prisoner Mansoor Adayfi, also known as Mansur Ahmad Saad al-Dayfi (or Detainee #441), claimed in an interview that current Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had been present during the force-feeding of prisoners on hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay.

Several investigations by local and national news outlets have documented DeSantis' involvement in the affairs of Guantanamo detainees as a Navy judge advocate general (JAG) assigned to the prison from March 2006 to January 2007. The future governor was dispatched as a legal adviser as part of an effort to stop hunger strikes that had been plaguing the controversial prison. Guantanamo is a U.S. military prison in Cuba established to house alleged combatants in the War on Terror.

The claim re-emerged thanks in part to a clip from DeSantis reacting to a reporter's question on the topic after a speech he gave at the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, Israel. The presumptive 2024 presidential candidate issued a strong non-denial denial, casting doubt on the plausibility of the claim rather than directly refuting it: 

That's all BS … Do you honestly think that they would have remembered me from Adam? Of course not … They're just trying to get into the news because they know people like you will consume it, because it fits your preordained narrative that you're trying to spin.

The question may well be impossible to verify without the disclosure of classified information. As such, it largely comes down to a question of the word of DeSantis versus the word of Adayfi. Adayfi published a memoir, "Don't Forget Us Here: Lost and Found at Guantanamo," in August 2021. At the time of his memoir, he did not know the name of the officer he has now identified as DeSantis. He stated that he recognized his face during a television broadcast. 

DeSantis' animated dismissal of the question as an impossibility and an example of media excesses could mislead a viewer into thinking the claim is patently absurd. This is fundamentally not the case. DeSantis' own words and statements make clear that the allegation, at the very least, is plausible and not a fringe claim meriting immediate rejection. 

The Allegation

In several interviews, Adayfi has alleged that he interacted with DeSantis on two occasions at Guantanamo Bay. First, when DeSantis initially arrived and conducted an interview with him about conditions in the prison, and a second time, when Desantis observed the force-feeding of Adayfi.

In an April 2023 interview with Democracy Now, Adayfi described that first meeting in the context of increasing tension at the prison over hunger strikes: 

By 2005, we managed to organize a mass hunger strike that embarrassed the U.S. government. The Camp Combat Administration at that time tried to negotiate with us to stop the hunger strikes so they could improve the living conditions in the camp. We agreed, but … they were [just] buying time. 

By the beginning of 2006, a new medical team and campus staff arrived. One of them was a young handsome officer who came to talk to us and told us he was there to insure that we were being treated humanely. [...]

He was talking to us and assured us that everything will change and he will make sure that we will be treated humanely. [...] Even less [than] two months later, we were dragged to [...] solitary confinement [...] and [a] new medical team arrived and they started forc[e] feed[ing] us. [...]

Adayfi later stated that he didn't know who that officer was but recognized him from television reports. He stated, in the same interview, that he saw DeSantis a second time observing him as he was force-fed in a restraint chair in 2006. 

During the feeding, a group of officers arrived with the interpreters, [...] interrogators, camp staff, [and] medical staff. They were behind the fence. And I saw one of them was Ron DeSantis in a military uniform. [...]

I was screaming, yelling, because I couldn't breathe … and I was bleeding because they inserted a thick tube through my nose. I was calling them asking, and [DeSantis] was actually laughing, looking at the other officers and smiling. 

Another former detainee, Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz, has also alleged that DeSantis was present during such feedings. Adayfi described the practice — now considered torture by the UN Human Rights Commission — in his memoir:

Guards pushed me into the chair. They tightened the chest harness so that I couldn't move, then strapped my wrists and legs to the chair. Every point of my body was tightly restrained – I couldn't move at all. One of the male nurses stood in front of me holding a long, thick rubber tube with a metal tip. 

Another nurse grabbed my head and held it tightly while the male nurse forces 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. I screamed and tried to fight but I couldn't move. My nose bled and bled, but the nurse wouldn't stop.

When they were done feeding me, the nurse pulled hard on the tube and ripped it out of my body. It felt like a knife coming through my nose and it bled badly. Blood ran everywhere. I couldn't breathe and my stomach was so full I thought I would explode.

Lt. Ron DeSantis Goes To Guantanamo Bay

After graduating from Harvard University and getting a J.D. at Yale University, DeSantis enlisted in the United States Navy and trained to become a judge advocate general — a non-civilian position that provides legal services for the Navy and represents enlisted personnel in court martials and other proceedings. DeSantis stated in his February 2023 book "The Courage To Be Free" that service at Guantanamo was a factor in his enlisting in the Navy:

"One recruiter told me that the assumption was that the Iraq campaign would be over relatively quickly, and that there would be a need for military JAGs to lead prosecutions in military commissions of incarcerated terrorists at Guantánamo Bay,  … That turned out not to be what happened, but it seemed plausible at the time and also seemed like a good opportunity to make an impact."

Between March 2006 and January 2007, DeSantis served in the JTF-GTMO Staff Judge Advocate (SJA) Office, according to his military records. That office's mission was "to conduct safe and humane care and custody of detained enemy combatants …in support of the Global War on Terrorism." 

In a 2018 interview with CBS Miami investigative journalist Jim DeFede, DeSantis said that a large part of his work at Guantanamo explicitly involved concerns over the legality of force-feeding:

I was a legal advisor. [For the prisoners,] the jihad was still ongoing, right? And they would wage jihad any way they can. Now they're in a facility, so it's limited, but some of the things they would do, they would do hunger strikes, and you actually had three detainees that committed suicide with hunger strikes.[...] 

So the commander wants to know, 'Well, how do I combat this?' So one of the jobs of the legal advisor would be like, 'Hey, you actually can force-feed'. Here's what you can do. Here's … the rules of that. 

Reporting from just prior to DeSantis' deployment, in February 2006, described the legal and medical environment a Navy JAG would have entered at Guantanamo Bay:

After dozens of detainees began joining a hunger strike last June, military doctors at Guantánamo asked Pentagon officials to review their policy for such feeding. Around that time, officials said, the Defense Department also began working out procedures to deal with the eventual suicide of one or more detainees, including how and where to bury them if their native countries refused to accept their remains.

A few weeks later, the Pentagon for the first time recognized that force-feeding had been used to end hunger strikes. In March 2006, days after that became public, DeSantis began his service at Guantanamo Bay. 

What, Exactly, Is DeSantis Denying?

As shown above, DeSantis himself has stated that he served at Guantanamo Bay as a legal adviser, and that a primary task concerned the legal questions surrounding the administration of force-feeding. His words have already confirmed his involvement in force-feeding — not necessarily its administration or observation — via his role as a legal adviser telling prison nurses how to legally perform the task. 

DeSantis' first denial of Adayfi's claims rebutted a different argument — that he "authorized" the feeding. Adayfi has repeatedly stated that DeSantis did not administer the feeding or authorize it, but that DeSantis observed it from the other side of a wire fence and was aware, generally, of the practice, as reported by The Independent in March 2023:

"I was a junior officer. I didn't have authority to authorise anything," Mr DeSantis told Piers Morgan, in an interview …. "There may have been a commander that would have done feeding if someone was going to die, but that was not something that I would have even had authority to do." [...]

Investigations by The Independent, The Washington Post and other outlets did not report that Mr DeSantis authorised the force-feeding – rather, that he observed and was aware of the practice. [...]

Several military officials that would have worked with or above DeSantis during his time at Guantanamo have stated that DeSantis' job regularly involved meeting with inmates to discuss conditions and complaints. 

Retired Navy Capt. Patrick McCarthy, the former staff judge advocate at Guantanamo in 2006, told the Tampa Bay Times that "DeSantis was among the officers he would send 'to speak with detainees when there were any complaints to ensure they were lawfully addressed.'"

Col. Michael Bumgarner, who ran the guard apparatus at the Guantanamo Bay prison complex when DeSantis served, told the Times that Desantis "would have had very, very intimate knowledge" of the conditions at the camp, adding that "he would've had face-to-face contact with them — he would've known them intimately, their backgrounds and all."

A defense lawyer interviewed by the Times also agreed with this assessment. Bryan Broyles, former chief defense counsel for military trials at Guantanamo, told the paper that the "JAG office would have been in much more regular contact with the detainees than the rest of us," adding that the JAGs "intimately would have known the best of their treatment, and the worst of it."

DeSantis did not respond to the Times' repeated requests for a clarification of his role as a Navy JAG at Guantanamo, and he has generally declined to comment on any claim that he witnessed force feeding.

Via email, Snopes asked DeSantis' office if he was denying that he witnessed any force-feeding incident, or specifically that he never witnessed Adayfi's force-feeding. If it is the latter, we asked, how is DeSantis so sure of his own claim? In response, DeSantis Deputy Press Secretary Jeremy Redfern wrote, "I think the governor's comment speaks for itself."

The Bottom Line

The specific claim of Adayfi may be unverifiable, but the blanket denials issued by DeSantis regarding his involvement in force-feeding as a Navy JAG assigned to Guantanamo Bay in 2006 lack credibility. DeSantis, according to his old boss, regularly discussed conditions and hunger strikes with detainees. Further, DeSantis has already stated that a major part of his role was to advise medical officers on the legal issues surrounding force-feeding. 

It is perhaps possible he accomplished this task without witnessing the very process he was advising others on, just as it is possible that Adayfi's memory is not as good as he claims. Regardless, Adayfi's assertion — based on DeSantis' own words — is plausible. Asking for more specific information on DeSantis' involvement in force-feeding, something he has yet to answer with clarity, is a fair question. 

Adayfi was released without charge in 2016. 


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Update [5/2/23]: Added comment from DeSantis spokesman Jeremy Redfern.

Alex Kasprak is an investigative journalist and science writer reporting on scientific misinformation, online fraud, and financial crime.