Ron DeSantis was only about a year out of Harvard Law when he arrived at the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
It was summer 2006 — a tumultuous time.
International scrutiny was building against President George W. Bush’s policies about “enemy combatants” who were dragged from other countries to the American facility in Cuba. Both the United Nations and the U.S. Supreme Court argued that the Pentagon’s methods for trying detainees violated their rights. In June, the military prison had its first reported deaths after three detainees reportedly killed themselves. And that fall, Pentagon officials would create the first post-9/11 interrogation standards that forbid waterboarding and other harsh tactics.
In his run for governor this year, DeSantis is spotlighting his time at Guantánamo as a key credential. Yet details about what exactly DeSantis did during this historic period are limited. DeSantis’ campaign declined to make the candidate available to discuss the experience.
So what did he do? The Herald/Times interviewed several retired Naval officers who served at the detention center during that period, including several who worked directly with DeSantis.
They said DeSantis’ role, as a member of the Judge Advocate General corps of military lawyers, or JAG, was to advocate for the fair and humane treatment of the detainees to ensure the U.S. military complied with the law.
“He was one of those folks I recall vividly, a can-do guy and a young officer I could trust and rely on,” said retired Navy Captain Patrick McCarthy, who served as staff judge advocate for Joint Task Force-GTMO at the detention facility and supervised DeSantis during his time in Guantánamo Bay. “He had very good judgment.”
DeSantis was among the officers who traveled to and from Guantánamo on at least three short, temporary assignments, a few weeks or months in length. As part of the detention center’s legal arm, McCarthy and his team were charged with ensuring the detainees received the rights afforded to them under Department of Defense regulations and policies as well as Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which provide rules on how to humanely treat detainees like those at Guantánamo Bay. The prisoners are war-on-terror detainees.
Among other things, DeSantis helped make sure that the detainees could meet and share information with their attorneys, said McCarthy in a Herald/Times interview.
“If any complaints were raised, Ron would have been among the folks I sent down to talk to the detainees,” said McCarthy, adding that DeSantis would have found out what the complaints were and “made sure they were addressed in a way that was consistent with the law.”
He would have also made sure detainees could meet with their attorneys, said McCarthy, adding that there were more than 1,300 legal-counsel visits in 2006.
While DeSantis mentions his time at Guantánamo on the campaign trail — often with the quip that he was there as “an officer, not as a detainee” — details about his service have only seeped out in small, mostly unnoticeable moments.
There were the TV ads that boasted of his service in Iraq and Cuba, complete with glossy mailers with photos of DeSantis in his Navy dress whites, as well as the image of DeSantis, clad in camouflage, holding an M4 carbine assault rifle in Iraq.
Then there was the June debate in Orlando, during which Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam teasingly welcomed DeSantis to Florida in an effort to paint him as an out-of-touch Washington swamp dweller.
DeSantis wore a small, metal bar pin on his suit lapel that night: his Bronze Star that President Donald Trump had mentioned in one of his endorsement tweets for DeSantis. That medal was awarded to DeSantis for meritorious service in Iraq.
To Putnam’s jibe, DeSantis clapped back that he served in Guantánamo on Christmas Day in 2006 — though of course he would have rather been spending more time with his family in Florida.
McCarthy recalled that Christmas well.
“He had dinner at my house,” said McCarthy of DeSantis. “He volunteered to cover for others who had to leave.”
Now living in Arlington, Virginia, McCarthy said he has been following DeSantis’ political career.
“I am not surprised to see Ron DeSantis on TV as a congressman and now running for governor,” said McCarthy. “I’m glad to see my mentorship and leadership pay off,” he added with a laugh.
Though his time on the island was short, DeSantis would later play another role in the detainee issue.
As chairman of the House Oversight Committee’s National Security Subcommittee, he chaired a May 2016 hearing on what to do with the remaining 80 detainees then still at Gitmo, which was down from a peak of nearly 700 in the summer of 2003. He argued that those remaining were “hardened and unrepentant” jihadis and transferring them to other countries would only “risk harming America’s national security” in case they returned to terrorism.
J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich, a GOP strategist and a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War, said DeSantis’ military experience plays well with Republican voters — though he cautioned against voters putting veterans on too high a pedestal.
“Having been in the service … it is a broadening experience, it is an indication of your patriotism. I do not think it is in any way a fundamental qualification for public office,” he said.
He added that the limited information about DeSantis’ service likely won’t turn off a Republican base that has become almost “cultish” in its appreciation for the military, he said.
“I don’t think Republican voters need to know anything more and I don’t think there was anything he could’ve done in Guantánamo Bay that would hurt him unless he helped somebody escape,” Stipanovich joked. “Once you check the ‘I wore a uniform in a war zone’ box, you’re home free in a Republican primary.”
McClatchy Washington Bureau reporter Carol Rosenberg contributed to this report.