I've been struggling these past few weeks.
I read a book written by a former Guantanamo detainee named David Hicks titled "Guantanamo: My Journey." It's a powerful and heartbreaking memoir and it made a profound impact on me emotionally.
I interviewed Hicks after I read his book. We spoke about a half-dozen times over the past two months. This is the first interview he's granted since he was released from the "least worst place" in 2007. [Click here to read the full Q&A.]
Hicks is the Australian drifter who converted to Islam, changed his name to Muhammed Dawood and ended up at training camps in Afghanistan the US government said was linked to al-Qaeda, one of which was apparently visited by Osama bin Laden several times. Hicks was picked up at a taxi stand by the Northern Alliance in November 2001 and sold to US forces for about $1,500. Hicks was detainee 002, the second person processed into Guantanamo on January 11, 2002, the day the facility opened.
Hicks was brutally tortured. Psychologically and physically for four years, maybe longer. He was injected in the back of his neck with unknown drugs. He was sodomized with a foreign object. He spent nearly a year in solitary confinement. He was beaten once for ten hours. He was threatened with death. He was placed in painful stress positions. He was subjected to sleep deprivation. He was exposed to extremely cold temperatures, loud music and strobe lights designed to disorient his senses. He was interrogated on a near daily basis.
I've been obsessed with the torture and rendition program since details of it first surfaced nearly a decade ago. I'm not exactly sure why I'm so fascinated and outraged by every tiny detail, every new document dump or why I chase every new lead as if I were paparazzi trying to get a shot of Lindsay Lohan. What I do know is that there's something about the crimes committed by the Bush administration in our name that haunts me.
I have never spoken to a former detainee before I phoned Hicks at his home in Sydney, Australia, a few days before the New Year. There was something surreal about listening to Hicks' voice as he described his suffering in painstaking detail. Maybe it was the fact that there was a real person on the other end of the receiver and not just a name on a charge sheet. I found it incredibly difficult to separate the reporter from the human being once Hicks stopped speaking. Before I hung up the phone after our first conversation, I told Hicks I was sorry.
"I'm sorry my government tortured you, David," I said.
"Thanks, mate," Hicks said, his voice cracking.
What I've been grappling with was how to tell Hicks' story. I've truly been at a loss for words. I had to dig deep to figure out why I felt it was too painful to sit in front of a blank computer screen to think about what I wanted to write. Here's what I discovered: I empathized with Hicks and, perhaps more than anyone, I understood how the then-26-year-old ended up in Afghanistan associating with jihadists a decade ago.
Five years ago, I published my memoir, "News Junkie," and, like Hicks, I too was brutally honest about my own feelings of alienation, my battle with drug and alcohol addiction, a desire for attention, a desperate need to belong and a terrible choice I made in my early 20s to ingratiate myself with a couple of made members of a New York City crime family.
Admitting that I share some things in common with Hicks scares me. It's another reason I believe I felt paralyzed.
I wanted to approach this as a straight news story and simply report that Hicks was tortured, that he was abandoned by his country, used as a political pawn by Australia's former Prime Minister John Howard in his bid for reelection and forced to plead guilty to a charge of providing material support for terrorism in order to finally be freed from Guantanamo. But I've written so many of those reports and all of them end with a shrug here, some outrage there and no one being held accountable.
So, I've made the decision that I would expose my own vulnerability and tell you how my interview with the man dubbed the "Australian Taliban" has weighed heavily on my mind. I still cannot comprehend what could drive a human being to torture another human being. Hicks said he knew the answer. At Guantanamo, "torture was driven by anger and frustration."
"It seemed like a mad fruitless quest to pin crimes on detainees, to extract false confessions and produce so-called intelligence of value," Hicks told me. "The guards were desensitized and detainees dehumanized. Soldiers were not allowed to engage us in conversation. They were told to address us by number only and not by name. They were constantly drilled with propaganda about how much we supposedly hated them and wanted them dead and how much they needed to hate us. On occasion, when some groups of soldiers jogged around the camp perimeters I heard them sing lyrics such as, 'you hate us and we hate you.' One time in the privacy of Camp Echo a male soldier broke down when we were alone repeating, 'what have I become' after having arrived from an interrogation of a detainee in another camp."
"Revenge For 9/11"
Brandon Neely, a former Guantanamo Military Policeman (MP), who escorted Hicks off the bus at Camp X-Ray the day Guantanamo opened, said some soldiers tortured detainees because they wanted revenge for 9/11. He said that's the message that was passed down from above.
"We were told (by superior officers) all of the detainees, including Hicks, were the ones who planned 9/11 or had something to do with it," Neely said in an interview. "We were told over and over and over that all these guys were caught fighting Americans on the front lines and at any given time if we turned our back on them they would kill us in a heartbeat. We were told that everyday before we went to work inside the camps. After a while, the attitude was 'who cares how we treated the detainees.'"
A day before he left Fort Hood, Texas, for Guantanamo, Neely said his unit was told "by the company commander, the colonel and platoon sergeant that these people were not Prisoners of War. They were detainees and the Geneva Conventions would not be in effect."
George W. Bush did not formally rescind Geneva Conventions protections for "war on terror" detainees until February 7, 2002.
Neely told me a remarkable story about the hours before Hicks arrived at Camp X-Ray that underscores how impressionable he and his fellow soldiers were and how the US government conditioned its military personnel to view detainees as animals.
"When Hicks' bus got to Camp X-Ray we were told this guy was a mercenary, he was fighting Americans and we had to be real careful around him, Neely said. "We were actually told Hicks tried to chew through the hydraulic cables on the C-141 en route to Guantanamo. So everyone was on edge."
Neely was 21 when he was sent to Guantanamo. On June 2, 2002, his 22nd birthday, Neely received an "achievement medal" for "exceptional meritorious service while serving as a Military Policeman (MP) in support of Operation 'Enduring Freedom', Guantanamo Bay, Cuba."
Nearly seven years later, Neely went public and revealed details about the abuses he witnessed and one that he participated in while he was at Guantanamo. Like Hicks, who Neely said reminded him "of a guy I would have just gone out and have a beer with," he has been suffering all of these years. It was as if he was being tortured every time he saw or heard about a detainee being beaten or worse during the six months he worked at the prison facility. I can feel his pain.
Neely's a cop in Houston now. He's got a wife and three kids. He told me, "there has not been a day that goes by that I have not re-lived what I did or saw in Guantanamo." Hicks reached out to Neely last year after he saw him on a BBC special. Neely had flown to London to meet a couple of former British detainees he used to guard and to apologize for the way they were treated. He and Hicks are pretty close now.
I asked Hicks if he could describe the facial expressions of his tormentors while he was being tortured and if he recalled how they reacted to his pain.
"Usually the guards seemed cold and indifferent," Hicks said. "They deployed a just doing my job attitude, such as when they chained me to the floor in stress positions or made me sleep directly on a metal or concrete floor in a very cold air-conditioned room in only a pair of shorts. However some soldiers displayed discomfort and embarrassment. Usually guards were only used to restrain detainees, move them about, or help in the background with equipment. It was the interrogators who did the dirty work, expressing, hatred and frustration. At times soldiers did participate directly in beatings however, such the beatings I received before I arrived in GTMO (in Afghanistan, in transit, or when I was rendered to the two naval ships before being sent to Guantanamo). These soldiers made a sport of it.
"I was beaten by US forces the first time I saw them and realized straight away that torture was going to be a reality. It was very scary. As I say in my book, I could not help thinking of the saying, 'like trying to get blood from a stone and I was afraid of becoming that stone.'"
There's a harrowing section in Hicks' book where he describes how he had given up all hope after years of detention and abuse and planned to commit suicide.
"I was desperate; there was no other way out," Hicks wrote.
Those words. I've uttered them before. I've written them. I know what that kind of desperation feels like. I ask Hicks if we could talk about it, but there's silence on the other end of the receiver.
"Hello? You still there, David?" I said.
I didn't press him. Maybe he was having a flashback. Perhaps he didn't want to talk about it. I decided to end our conversation.
"Let's catch up later in the week. We covered a lot of ground."
"Cheers, mate," David said and hung up.
My Tortured Journey
I had a knot in my stomach. I had a hard time sleeping for the next few nights. I could not focus on anything but the images in my mind of a helpless Hicks being tormented. It made me realize that one can never comprehend the extent of someone's pain and suffering until we hear about it first hand. I would get out of bed during those sleepless nights and walk into my son's room and just stare at him sleeping in his crib. There was something about that image of pure innocence that was soothing to me.
One afternoon, a couple of hours after another session on the phone with Hicks, I took my son to school. As I stood in the background and watched him interact with about 30 other two-year-old boys and girls, tears began streaming down my cheeks. I had not expected to be overcome with so much emotion. I'm embarrassed admitting that I was. Unsure of what was happening at first, I touched my eyes thinking that perhaps something else was coming out of the tear ducts. I didn't spend much time thinking about what I was feeling at that moment. But, in hindsight, I believe I was coming to terms with how we all eventually lose our innocence. Something about that seems tragic to me. It reminds me of a passage in another memoir, "The Ticking Is the Bomb," by Nick Flynn, who wrote about his own obsession with the Bush administration's torture program.
"Here's a secret: Everyone, if they live long enough, will lose their way at some point. You will lose your way, you will wake up one morning and find yourself lost. This is a hard, simple truth."
"How Quickly Can You Charge David Hicks"
Not surprisingly, the Pentagon has vehemently denied Hicks' torture claims. In 2007, as a condition of his guilty plea and release from Guantanamo, the US government forced him to sign a document stating that he had "never been treated illegally." Hicks, who was the first detainee sentenced under the Military Commissions Act of 2006, said he is also "not allowed to challenge or collaterally attack my conviction, seek compensation or other remedies, or sue anyone for my illegal imprisonment and treatment."
What makes Hicks' story all the more tragic is how badly he's been vilified by Australian media since his book was published. Reporters doubt he's being truthful and they have questioned the veracity of his claims about being tortured. But those same outfits treat Howard's characterization of Hicks as gospel and refuse to acknowledge that their former prime minister actually urged the Bush administration to charge Hicks with a war crime, despite a lack of evidence, because Hicks "had unexpectedly become a political threat," according to Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman,
Gellman, author of a book on Dick Cheney titled "Angler," wrote that Howard, "under pressure from home," met with Cheney during the vice president's trip to Sydney in February 2007, where the two discussed Iraq, and told Cheney, "there must be a trial 'with no further delay' for David Hicks who was beginning his sixth year at the U.S. naval prison at Guantanamo Bay."
"Five days later, Hicks was indicted as a war criminal," Gellman wrote. "On March 26 , he pleaded guilty to providing 'material support' for terrorism. Shortly after Cheney returned from Australia, the Hicks case died with a whimper. The U.S. government abruptly shifted its stance in plea negotiations, dropping the sentence it offered from 20 years in prison to nine months if Hicks would say that he was guilty."
"Only the dramatic shift to lenience, said Joshua Dratel, one of three defense lawyers, resolved the case in time to return Hicks to Australia before Howard" faced re-election in 2007, Gellman reported.
Hicks' plea deal prohibited him from speaking to the media for a year. That's how Howard dealt with this "political threat." But justice was poetic when Howard lost his bid for another term in office.
Hicks' plea deal, "negotiated without the knowledge of the chief prosecutor, Air Force Col. Morris Davis, was supervised by Susan J. Crawford, the convening authority over military commissions. Crawford received her three previous government jobs from then-Defense Secretary Cheney - she was appointed as his special adviser, Pentagon inspector general and then judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces."
Political interference in Hicks' case, however, began even earlier. Davis, who resigned as chief prosecutor from military commissions at Guantanamo over the government's handling of terrorism cases, revealed that a day after US officials met with the Australian ambassador to the United States in early January 2007, Defense Department General Counsel William Haynes called him up and asked, 'how quickly can you charge David Hicks?' even though at the time he had no regulations for trial by military commissions."
Davis would later say that Hicks should not have been charged. Stephen Kenny, one of Hicks' former attorneys, said that "it has always been my position that [Hicks] never committed any crime."
"We looked at Australian law, international law and Afghani law and we were unable to identify any breach of those laws, Kenny said. The law that he eventually pleaded guilty to [material support for terrorism] was not actually an international war crime at all. In fact it was a crime that didn't exist."
Recently, the Australian government entered into a secret financial settlement with Mahmoud Habib, another Australian citizen abandoned by the Howard administration. Habib was arrested in Pakistan in 2001 and rendered to Egypt where he said he was brutally tortured for seven months before being he ended up at Guantanamo. Habib was released in 2005 and was never charged with a crime, but he sued the Australian government after he got out, claiming it was complicit in his torture.
Hicks said if he were offered a similar financial settlement he wouldn't turn it down. But what he really wants is the Australian government "to formally recognize that the 2006 Military Commissions Act was unfair" and designed simply to obtain guilty pleas.
"The Australian government has acknowledged that I have never hurt anyone or committed a crime under Australian law, so the least they can do is formally recognize my conviction as null and void," Hicks said.
Former Guantanamo Guard Traumatized
Although the Pentagon and the Australian government continue to deny Hicks was tortured, one former Guantanamo military guard said he was.
"David Hicks was tortured, no doubt," said Albert Melise, who has never spoken publicly before, in several video chats we had via Skype. "Solitary confinement is torture and I think what it did to David's mind is torture. Would you want to be in a windowless room 23 hours a day?"
But Melise said he didn't witness any of Hicks' physical torture or his interrogations. He only knows what Hicks told him. But, "being a cop and having experience separating what's true and false," he believes Hicks was being truthful.
"His [physcial] torture did not happen when I reached his camp," Melise said. "He cut deals so [the torture] would stop. David is one of those people who was easily manipulated [into making false confessions]. He was an easy target for the interrogators. They knew they could break him mentally and physically and they did."
Melise, 40, was a housing officer in the city of Boston when his Army reserve unit was activated and he was shipped off to Guantanamo to work as an MP.
Melise's job duties called for him to escort detainees held in Camp Delta to their interrogations where he would "chain them down" to the floor or chair "knowing what [the detainees were] going to go through."
The detainees sat there for hours in stressful positions while Melise stood behind a one-way mirror and watched their interrogations and waited for it to come to an end. He was present when detainees were slapped, when the temperature in the interrogation room was turned down real low and the volume on the music was turned up to excruciatingly loud levels and when the strobe lights were flicked on, part of the standard operating procedure designed to break the detainees and make them feel as uncomfortable as possible.
"That's torture," Melise said.
But I wanted Melise to tell me what happened in those rooms after the interrogators started questioning the detainees.
"Please don't ask me about those things," Melise said. "I saw a lot and I still have nightmares over it. I've seen these guys cry."
I wondered if Melise bore witness to any of the horrific pictures my mind created during that split-second gap in our conversation.
"O.K. I understand," I told Melise "I won't go there. I'm so sorry."
"I'm a good soul and I was put in a horrible place," Albert said.
"I know you are," I told him. "Well, how about this. Can you tell me what you saw in the detainees' eyes?
"Sadness," Melise said. "Like they could not believe the Americans are putting them through that. It was an emotional look. I'll never forget it."
Melise hated his job. He started drinking.
"Baccardi 151," he said. "Two bottles a night."
He said, "when you see people broken down so much you tend to drink a little to cope with what you're seeing. I couldn't deal with what they were putting me through."
Melise said "fake" detainees were planted at Camp Delta to try and gather intelligence from the "real" detainees. He said he knew they were "fake" because they were "placed in cells for two or three months and then they would pretend to be going to another camp for interrogations." But, "I would see them shopping, dancing or ordering a sandwich or hanging out at McDonald's during that time." Then the "fake" detainees would return to their cells.
He said detainees were also bribed with prostitutes as incentive to get them to work as agents for the US government. He said there was a camp at Guantanamo that just housed children, some of who were as "young as 12 and over 8" years old, called Camp Iguana.
"One of my buddies worked there," Melise said. "Sick."
There was also a camp where CIA interrogators worked out of called Secret Squirrel.
Eventually, Melise asked for a transfer.
"I begged them to get me out of there," Melise said. "I just couldn't take it anymore."
"Albert, do you know what would make a human being torture another human being?" I asked him.
"I don't have the answer," he said, shaking his head. "It takes a really disturbed individual to torture someone. That's not me. I didn't sign up for that. I couldn't live with myself and I couldn't drink it away."
So, Melise was transferred to Camp 4 for a few weeks and in December 2003 landed at Camp Echo. That's where he met Hicks, who was being held in complete isolation, and detainees from the UK who have since been released like Mozaam Begg or "Mo," which is how Melise referred to him.
"Mo once cried in front of me and said he should become Christian," said Melise, who has frequent Skype chats with Begg now and said the ex-detainee taught him how to play chess. "I told him to tighten up and stay with your heart. Fuck what's happening now. You'll pull through. I said 'don't question your faith. Don't think you need to change.' He once told me I was not like the other soldiers, something shined in me that he could not explain."
At Camp Echo, Melise said he "redeemed" himself.
"I let [the detainees] out of their cells and just let them talk and hang out," he said. "I knew it would help them mentally. I knew it would help them cope with many things they had gone through. I also gave up what I had. I gave them normal food from my lunch to eat, cigarettes, protein bars, whatever was mine was theirs. I could have gone to prison myself for doing that, believe me. But I know I did the right thing."
"Why did you do that?" I asked.
"For sympathetic reasons," he said. "Because I sat in on interrogations. I wanted to give them a sense of humanity. Nobody deserves to be treated like that. They were not the 'worst of the worst,'" a description placed upon the detainees by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. "I'm an ex-cop and I can tell whose a criminal and who isn't and a lot of these detainees I met were not terrorists."
Melise told me he "likes getting this stuff off my chest" and I wanted to tell him that listening to him gave me a sense of hope and made me feel like maybe the dearth of compassion is not as widespread as I originally thought. But I held back.
Melise wanted Hicks to feel like he was back home in Australia, so he would sneak his handheld DVD player into Hicks' cell, lock the door, and watch movies with him, such as "Mad Max," which starred Mel Gibson. For Begg and the other British detainees Melise played "Snatch" and "Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels," directed by British filmmaker Guy Ritchie.
"I figured if [Hicks] heard Mel Gibson's accent he would feel like he was back in Australia," Melise said. "And if Mo heard a British accent he would feel like he was home too."
Melise kept that up for six months. Until June 2004.
I sent an email to Hicks asking him if he remembered Melise.
"I remember him well because he did what he could in that controlled high security environment to help slow the deterioration of my sanity for the few months I spent with him," Hicks said. "I hope to gather enough funds so I can fly [Melise and Neely] to Australia to thank them personally and show my gratitude for their friendship and trust. I would like to show them my hospitality and my country and to show them how much I appreciate their past kindness and current bravery."
Melise, who is married with a wife and son, is now studying to be a nurse "so I can really help people in the future." He recently re-enlisted in the Army reserves for another three years.
I was about to end my interview with Melise, but I had one last question.
"Do you think David is a terrorist?"
"No," Melise said. "I don't think he's a terrorist. I plan on visiting him one day. Why would I do that if I thought he was a terrorist?"
Melise got up from his chair and walked out of sight. He shouted, "Sit tight!" He said he wanted to show me something. It was a letter. He held it up to the video camera on his computer so I could read it.
"I took this with me when I left Guantanamo in '04," Melise said. "It's a letter David wrote that he asked me to send to his father."
Melise never sent it. It was too risky, he said.
"I was worried that if someone found out I mailed it I would have been arrested," Melise said.
Melise faxed a copy of the letter to me. Letters to and from detainees were reviewed by military personnel and were often redacted to remove, for example, emotional phrases such as a "I love you" and any other information the military deemed "sensitive."
But this six-page letter, written in April 2004 as Hicks' legal team was challenging the legality of the military commissions, is clean. It clearly shows the psychological torture Hicks had endured and how he was being coerced into pleading guilty to crimes the US government knew he did not commit. The letter is addressed to Hicks' father, Terry Hicks, who waged a campaign in Australia and the US to raise awareness about his son's plight.
Hicks wrote that he owed his life to Melise. He said the letter he sent to his father "is very important because it's the first and probably only time I will be able to tell you the truth of my situation."
"Before I start I want you to know that the negative things I am going to say has nothing to do with the MP's that are watching me," Hicks wrote. "Some of them are marvelous people who have taken risks to help improve my day to day living. It's because of such people that I have kept my sanity and still have some strength left. In the early days before I made it to Cuba I received some harsh treatment in transportation including mild beatings (about 4). One lasted for 10 hours. I have always cooperated with interrogators. For two years they had control of my life in the camps. If you talk and just agree with what their saying they give you real food, books and other special privileges. If not they can make your life hell. I'm angry these days at myself for being so weak during these last two years. But I've always been so desperate to get out and to try to live the best I can while I'm here ..."
Hicks wrote that he was being pressured into pleading guilty to a wide-range of war crimes charges and he feared that if he didn't comply he would be sent to "camp 5," a "very bad place with complete isolation."
"They know that this is my worst nightmare," Hicks wrote about the threat of being transferred to camp 5. "If I end up in there I will probably lose my sanity or crack" and plead guilty. "That's what they want ... Being in my current situation the deal is tempting but only in the last week I've decided I'm going to call their bluff and say that I'm gonna fight them. Only know [sic] do I feel like being strong and standing up for myself ... I'm sick of writing you letters saying how good it is here. I've always done that because I'm afraid of what the authority's [sic] may do to me. If I told you the reality they wouldn't give you the information. I want to be able to make as much noise as possible. To let people know of what's really happening here."
Hicks then predicted his own future.
"Know that if I make a deal it will be against my will," he wrote. "I just couldn't handle it any longer. I'm disappointed in our government. I'm an Australian citizen. If I've committed a crime I can be man enough to accept the consequences but I shouldn't have to admit to things I haven't done or listen to people falsely accuse me. We can't let them get away with it."
I sent Hicks the letter. He said he doesn't recall what he wrote. But he intends on giving it to his father.
"How were you able to survive?" I asked Hicks.
"I survived because I had no choice, as many of us may unfortunately experience at some time in our lives," he said. "It was a psychological battle, a serious and dangerous one. It was a constant struggle not to lose my sanity and go mad. It would have been so easy just to let go: it offered the only escape."
Like Melise, however, Hicks said he, too, still suffers from nightmares.
"I see myself having to begin the long process of imprisonment again accompanied with vivid feelings of hopelessness and no knowledge of the future or how long it will last," Hicks said, describing his dreams. "The other dreams consist of gruesome medical experimentations too horrible to describe. Losing my personality, my identity, memories and self is much more frightening to me than any physical harm. It is these dreams that are the most common and terrifying."
Hicks isn't a practicing Muslim anymore. A couple of years ago, he got married - to a human rights activist named Aloysia. He also has a job working as a landscaper.
He said counseling has helped him, "but the passing of time has been just as helpful."
"Being exposed to such a consuming environment for five and a half years leaves a stain that cannot be removed overnight," Hicks said. "It will take longer to reverse the consequences but even so, some experiences, especially one so prolonged, can never be entirely forgotten."
Editor's Note: Hicks' book is not available for sale in the US. However, it can be ordered from online bookshops in Australia.