In the hurly-burly world of political journalism, with its weighty arguments about great principles of civil liberties and human rights, and its campaigns waged over the few recognizable victims of the State, it is easy to forget that day in and day out numerous individuals, common folk with no particular political ax to grind, put their decency on the line only to be hammered down by government bureaucrats.
They are lucky if their fate is ever known, and if known, luckier still if their names stick around longer than a normal news cycle, before they sink back into the bleak anonymity of their social insignificance, to return to broken lives, ruined relationships, destroyed careers, left to nurse their bitterness with the knowledge they did the right thing, wondering, perhaps, whether that’s enough, and how will they pay their bills.
One of these decent people is Pfc. Albert Melise, who had enlisted in the Army Reserve almost nineteen years ago, who found himself ordered to Guantanamo in 2003, and ended up chaining detainees to the floor in Camp Delta interrogation rooms and being suborned into their torture. My friend and occasional collaborator Jason Leopold interviewed Albert last November.
Melise had been one of the very few guards who were willing to speak about what he had experienced at Guantanamo. Moreover, he had frequent contact with former detainee David Hicks, while Hicks was incarcerated in isolation at Guantanamo’s feared Camp Echo. Leopold was writing an article on Hicks, based on an interview he had secured with the former Australian detainee.
Leopold told Melise’s story in an article August 25 at Truthout. He explained that the military approached Melise last April, told him he had leaked “classified information” when he spoke to Truthout, and was barring his re-enlistment in the Army Reserve.
“In accordance with your security clearance agreement during 2003-2004, you are not authorized to freely talk to the press about your duties at GITMO or what you might think have occurred there to the press,” states an April 2  “developmental counseling form” presented to Pfc. Albert Melise that was signed by Alphonso Holt, a lieutenant colonel in the US Army reserves and the battalion commander of Melise’s reserve unit. “I have reported your actions to the security manager and I am initiating a bar to re-enlist”….
“On 16 Feb 2011, you conducted a SKYPE interview with a news source and leaked classified information,” the form signed by Lieutenant Colonel Holt charged, without identifying the substance of the classified information. “During the interview, you claimed detainees were tortured even though you never witnesses [sic] torture. Your hearsay has negatively impacted the United States Army and violated the conditions of your security clearance”….
The counseling form went on to state that if Melise continued to speak with the media he could face a dishonorable discharge and lose all of the benefits he had earned during his nearly two decades of service, including the GI Bill funding he depends upon to pay for nursing school.
Melise later said he felt under duress when he signed the form agreeing with what the government said, and waived his right to appeal. Subsequent attempts to challenge the government’s action have been unsuccessful. The action was clearly punitive, and Melise was threatened that there could be more serious steps taken if he didn’t sign the form.
Tortured by Torture
What did Melise tell Truthout that got the military so incensed? According to Leopold’s interview with Melise, while at Guantanamo he had witnessed detainees tortured in their interrogation rooms, where he often stood observing prisoners kept in stress positions. The prisoners were slapped, made to endure strobe lights, excessive cold, and “excruciatingly loud” music. He saw prisoners bribed with prostitutes, and spoke about “fake detainees” who were sent into the camp to gather intelligence.
He also knew that prisoners were locked away in total isolation. One of the prisoners was David Hicks. Moved by the plight of Hicks and other prisoners, and so tormented by the torture he’d witnessed that he turned to serious alcohol abuse, Melise told Leopold why he tried to help Hicks and the others.
“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.”
What did Melise get for his troubles? Nightmares, a drinking problem, and what appears to have been a case of PTSD. He went AWOL in January 2009, unable to take his problems anymore. The recruiters wanted him back, and over a year later he returned, busted from Sargent to private for his AWOL status, almost the only disciplinary mark in his many years of military service.
When he got the chance, he spoke to the press, glad to get the torments he witnessed and the pains he suffered off his chest. Melise was one of only a small handful of former guards to have spoken out about what they saw at Guantanamo. According to another guard who’s spoken out, Brandon Neely, other guards he knows “won’t speak publicly because they are in fear of being prosecuted due to the nondisclosure agreement they signed.” He added that he when he left Guantanamo he was told he had to sign the nondisclosure agreement or he wouldn’t be allowed to return home.
“I was also told I could never speak with the media, write a book, or make a movie or I could face prosecution,” Neely said. “I am seriously considering legal action against the United States government. The truth has the right to be told and should not be suppressed because of this document.”
“We wait for light, but behold obscurity”
I’m embarrassed, but also angered, to say that while the story of the government’s actions against Melise was published at Truthout, not one human rights or civil liberties group or notable individual has come forward to offer him support. Not one human rights or progressive blogger has even mentioned his case (except Kevin Gostzola here at the Dissenter, who noted Leopold’s story when it first came out), despite the fact he was punished for speaking to the press about Guantanamo.
I’m very much at a loss. Melise is a regular guy, not one of the activists, not a hacker celebrity, not a military officer, but a reservist, a man trying to make a mid-life career change and become a nurse to help people, a man whose bravery was expressed as kindness. He came forward to say what he saw in the hell to which he was assigned, and the government shot him down, made an example out of him.
But the issue was torture. The place was Guantanamo, which America has pretty much decided to forget, thanks to Barack Obama’s policy of indefinite detention and a Congress overly beholden to a national security state apparatus, and the campaign financing dollars from the companies that feed that apparatus, who have decided Guantanamo should stay there forever, a monument to America’s colossal stupidity and mind-numbing cruelty.
Presumably the blogging world and the press had better things to write about. (We do need another article about Michelle Bachman, don’t we? Or how bad the GOP really is?) Maybe his punishment wasn’t dramatic enough (though possibly enough to scare off any other military whistleblowers). There just wasn’t room for Albert’s story. But if you ask me, it’s shameful.
So Albert Melise sinks back into obscurity, and something good, something noble in our society is switched off.
Peter B. Collins interviewed both Melise and former Guantanamo guard Brandon Neely last February. Click here to hear the podcast.
More about the David Hicks case can be found at The Justice Campaign website.
Disclosure statement: While I have co-authored a number of stories with Jason Leopold, I was not involved in any of the interviews with either Albert Melise or David Hicks, or the writing of the stories based on those interviews.