Ex-Guantanamo guard opens up about detainee treatment
Pfc. Albert Melise
by Jason Leopold
August 23, 2011
Editor's Note: This story was excerpted from an exclusive report published in February about former Guantanamo detainee David Hicks. Two months after the publication of our story on Hicks, Albert Melise, a former Guantanamo guard, was accused by the US Army of leaking classified information to Truthout for speaking candidly about his service at the prison facility and has been barred from reenlistment. He was honorably discharged in June.
The Pentagon and the Australian government deny former Guantanamo detainee David Hicks was subjected to torture during the five-and-a-half years he spent at the prison facility, but Albert Melise said he was.
"David Hicks was tortured, no doubt," said 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 Massachusetts Housing Authority officer 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."
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