The US Army bars re-enlistment for whistle-blowing Guantanamo guard David Hicks credits with having saved his life. More shocking revelations from Truthout’s Jason Leopold.
The US Army has told a reservist who has spent half his life in the military that he is barred from re-enlisting, asserting he "leaked" classified information to this reporter during an interview in which he spoke candidly about his experiences working as a guard at Guantanamo Bay eight years ago.
"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 counselling 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."
It's unknown whether Holt's recommendation to bar Melise from re-enlisting was approved by the Department of the Army. Melise said he still has not received a copy of his administrative file despite being honourably discharged on June 27. An Army Reserve spokesman, who declined to confirm or deny whether the re-enlistment bar was accepted, told Truthout to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in order to obtain additional information about Melise's status.
Truthout conducted a series of interviews with Melise beginning last November, after being told by former detainee David Hicks, who had just published a memoir about the five-and-a-half years he spent at the prison facility and gave his first interview to Truthout, that Melise was one of the guards to whom he owed his life.
Melise, 40, a former Massachusetts Housing Authority officer who has been an Army reservist for nearly 19 years and was attached to the 623 Transportation Company in West Palm Beach, Florida, had never spoken publicly before about the ten months he spent at Guantanamo where his first job was to escort detainees held in Camp Delta to interrogation rooms and "chain them down" to the floor.
In describing his duties as a detainee escort, Melise, who had secret security clearance, said he was also ordered to adjust the temperature in the interrogation rooms to low levels, turn the volume on the music up to excruciatingly loud levels and flick on the strobe lights, which were part of the Defense Department's standard operating procedure designed to "break" detainees.
While at Camp Delta, Melise said he was aware that "fake" detainees were planted in cells to try and gather intelligence from the "real detainees." He said he knew some detainees 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, Melise said, "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.
Melise 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. There was also a camp where CIA interrogators worked out of called Secret Squirrel.
Maj. John Adams, a spokesman for the 143rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) based in Orlando, Florida, which oversees more than 10,000 reservists throughout the country, told Truthout it appeared that Melise's comments violated the terms of a "Classified Information Nondisclosure Agreement" he signed when he left Guantanamo in 2004.
Exactly what information Melise disclosed that the Army Reserves considers classified is unknown and Major Adams would not discuss it. He did, however, provide Truthout with a blank copy of the nondisclosure form (also referred to as SF 312) Guantanamo guards are required to sign.
Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School, reviewed the nondisclosure agreement as well as Melise's counselling forms. He said the agreement is designed "to deter people from disclosing classified information to the media or anyone else and to prevent them from benefiting financially if they do so".
But Fidell adds that "uncertainty about just what is classified means that these agreements are likely to have a broader chilling effect, discouraging people from disclosing information that is not classified simply out of an abundance of caution".
"There is inevitably a grey area," Fidell said, and "that's a problem". Without having access to the relevant official "classification guide" and a security expert to interpret and apply it, Fidell warns that a soldier who has signed such an agreement "may be traversing a legal minefield".
The nondisclosure agreement has been cited by more than two dozen former Guantanamo guards and officers with whom Truthout has spoken over the past two years as the primary reason they will not discuss anything publicly about the time they spent working at the prison facility.
Former Guantanamo guard Brandon Neely, who, along with Melise, was also featured in Truthout's story on Hicks, said he is not surprised
"Since I have spoken publicly about my time at Guantanamo I have spoken with roughly 20 to 25 former Guantanamo guards and one psychologist who all have stories about the abuse and mistreatment of detainees," said Neely, one of the first active duty Army soldiers sent to Guantanamo when the facility first opened in January 2002. "But they won't speak publicly because they are in fear of being prosecuted due to the nondisclosure agreement they signed."
"Two days before I left Guantanamo in 2002, I was told I had to sign this form or I would not be able to return home," Neely added. "I was also told I could never speak with the media, write a book, or make a movie or I could face prosecution. 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."
Inside the Wire
Melise said he was torn up about the job he was forced to perform at Camp Delta and began to drink heavily – two bottles of Bacardi 151 per night – to deal with his own pain and suffering.
"When you see people broken down so much, you tend to drink a little to cope with what you're seeing," Melise said during the interview. "I couldn't deal with what they were putting me through."
He was eventually transferred to Camp Echo, which is where he met Hicks. To "redeem" himself, Melise gave Hicks and some of the other Camp Echo detainees, extra food. He also sneaked a handheld DVD player into their cells and screened movies for them to make them feel more comfortable. Additionally, Melise told Hicks he would mail a letter Hicks had written to his father that revealed details of the Australian's abusive treatment and the pressure he was under to plead guilty to crimes he said he did not commit. Melise took the letter with him when he left Guantanamo but he never mailed it, fearing he "would have been arrested" if he had.
Major Adams told Truthout that giving detainees "extra food" was considered a violation of the 2003 Standard Operating Procedure (SOP). To do so, Major Adams said, would be considered a violation of Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) — failure to obey order or regulation.
"If a service member admits to doing something against UCMJ and even admits to that later on actions can be taken against that service member," Major Adams said. "Based on [Melise's] quotes [in the Truthout report on Hicks] that is grounds for discharge."
Truthout reminded Major Adams that Melise's developmental counselling form specifically stated that Lieutenant Colonel Holt initiated a bar to re-enlist for Melise due to the fact that he "leaked classified information" and violated his security clearance, not for any alleged UCMJ violation.
Upon reviewing Melise's counselling form, which Major Adams requested Truthout send him a copy of, he said, "as far as I can tell, the only accusation was that the Soldier gave an unauthorized press interview where he leaked classified information. He in fact 'Agreed' to that characterization of his actions in the counselling form. The Soldier waived his right to make a rebuttal to the [re-enlistment] Bar (it's in the form) on April 2, 2011."
But Melise said he was "under duress" when he signed the form and after consulting with his attorneys he had filed a rebuttal and submitted a statement via email opposing the charges within the seven-day deadline. Major Adams did not respond to additional questions about whether Army Reserve officials reviewed Melise's statement.
Haunted By The Past
Melise was previously a sergeant in the reserves for two-and-a-half-years. But in January 2009, he showed up "to one drill with all my gear and just handed it in and left and never came back," meaning he was AWOL.
He said he did not return to his unit because he was battling what sounds like post-traumatic stress disorder and was overwhelmed by a laundry list of personal problems, fuelled by his father's deteriorating health (he died last year). Melise said he had recurring nightmares about the ten months he spent at Guantanamo and the incidents he witnessed and participated in there. Again, he turned to alcohol to numb out. Melise broke down and sobbed as he recounted that point of his life during an interview this week.
In December 2010, Melise was asked by a recruiter to return to the Army reserves. He accepted, however, he was penalized for leaving his unit in 2009 and busted down to a Pfc.
Although Truthout originally offered Melise anonymity, he said it was important to him to have his name attached to his comments. He hoped that doing so would encourage other military personnel to step forward and speak up about their own experiences.
Melise said during the course of his interviews with Truthout last November that, after eight years of recurring nightmares that continue to this day, he felt relieved about "getting this stuff off my chest."
Moreover, he said he did not believe he was doing anything wrong by speaking out about his tenure at Guantanamo and took issue with Lieutenant Colonel Holt's claim that all or part of his comments were considered classified.
But the Army Reserves disagreed.
Two months after the story on Hicks was published, Melise reported to his reserve unit for duty in Florida and was told by Sgt Eric Wright, who is in charge of operations for the 623 Transportation Company, that he was being "flagged" for counselling.
The issue was serious enough that it resulted in Lieutenant Colonel Holt, who is based in another state, making a personal trip to Florida to discuss the charges against Melise. Melise told Truthout that Lieutenant Colonel Holt spoke to him for about 20 minutes, informing him that he was being barred from re-enlisting in the Army reserves and would not be eligible for any promotions while he continued to serve with his reserve unit because he "spoke to the press" about his service at Guantanamo.
At the time, Melise had two months left as a reservist and intended to re-enlist for at least another year, which would have made him eligible for a full pension.
Lieutenant Colonel Holt then handed Melise a copy of the five-page counselling form and urged him to sign it.
"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."
Truthout's interview with Melise, however, took place in November 2010, a month before he re-enlisted with the Army Reserves. February 16 was the date Truthout's report on Hicks was published.
The counselling form went on to state that if Melise continued to speak with the media he could face a dishonourable 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 was advised, according to the counselling form, that he should
"not give any more interviews to the press about your duties at GITMO or what you might think have occurred there."
Attached to the counselling form was a "Bar to Reenlistment Certificate," recommending
"the soldier named below be barred from reenlistment for continuing service as a member of the U.S. Army Reserve in any status or category".
Major Adams said he confirmed with a Staff Judge Advocate (SJA) that an investigation into Melise was conducted following the publication of Truthout's report on Hicks. Major Adams would not disclose what the findings of that investigation were or whether any aspect of that probe included a determination that his comments were deemed classified.
Melise said details of the investigation were never shared with him.
Shocked at the assertions levelled against him and frightened that he would be prosecuted, Melise said he signed the bar to re-enlist without reviewing it, which meant he essentially agreed with the charges against him and declined to submit a statement in his own defence.
"I was tired," Melise said. "By the time they called me in I had just worked 16 hours straight between my civilian job as a security guard and the 8 hours I spent with my unit. I didn't read that I was barred from re-enlistment until the very next day. Once I did read that I was furious, I was mad. I honestly didn't realize what the hell I did."
He sought out legal advice and with the help of an attorney, drafted a response that he sent to Judge Advocate Generals (JAGs), Sgt Wright and other military officers in his reserve unit, stating he was "ill advised to check the box which waived my right to make a statement within 7 days" and that he now wished "to make a statement".
His letter cited "significant defects in the forms that I was given which should lead to the denial of the recommendation to bar my re-enlistment".
A former Judge Advocate General (JAG) officer with more than a decade of military justice experience reviewed Melise's "developmental counselling form" and said it appears Melise was under pressure to "settle" his case by signing the bar to re-enlist form.
"The counselling form informs [Melise] he could get dishonourably discharged," said the former JAG officer, who has represented hundreds of service members on these types of cases and was also tasked with disciplining military personnel. "The only way to get this type of punitive discharge, the worst the military has to 'award,' is via a court-martial. The worst administrative (non-court-martial) discharge he could receive is an Other Than Honourable.
"By informing [Melise] that they were notifying the security manager, that indicates they were threatening an investigation into matters involving classified information," the former JAG officer said. "It sounds like they were pressuring him to 'settle' this matter by signing the counselling forms and not rebutting the bar to re-enlistment, with a guaranteed honourable discharge, and if he didn't then they'd initiate a full-fledged investigation and prosecution."
The former JAG officer added that the Army Reserve's own records indicate Melise has a "clean disciplinary record”, "so why deny this almost 19-year veteran re-enlistment?"
"Clearly the disclosures [to Truthout] irked" Army Reserve officials.
None of the reserve officials Melise contacted after he submitted his statement responded to his emails or numerous phone calls between April and June, in which he sought help in hopes of remedying his situation, he said.
On June 6, Melise said he received a phone call from a sergeant who told Melise he needed to immediately report to his unit to sign documents and he needed to do it that day because it was the last shot at receiving an honourable discharge. Melise said the paperwork he was given was already filled out and included false statements indicating that he personally requested to be discharged from the Army Reserves and that it was due to "personal reasons".
"I didn't write that," Melise said. "I didn't write anything they said came from me in those papers. I told them I did not want to leave the reserves. I wanted to stay in and was ready to do anything to do so."
Melise said he was told by the sergeant and another officer that he was "barred" and would not be eligible to re-enlist.
"They told me, 'this meeting was to let you know you only have this time to get an ‘honourable discharge’ and if I didn't sign the papers I would face further trouble," he said.
Still, Melise signed the discharge papers.
"I felt like I had no choice," he said. "I did not want to go through whatever it was they had planned for me if I decided to continue fighting."
The documents included another "developmental counselling form" that stated,
"soldier is flagged due to security violation; resulting in soldier being [sic] disqualified for reenlistment".
"No action is deemed necessary as soldier is requesting to be released from the US Army Reserves.”
Melise declined to check the box indicating he was in agreement with the security violation charge and instead wrote, "there was no security violation on my behalf. I would like some type of trial to prove my innocence."
Army Reserve officials never responded to Melise's request, Maj. Adams said, because Melise signed the discharge papers that stated he did not wish to re-enlist and requested to be discharged.
"The soldier has no need to clear his name of anything," Maj. Adams said, declining to respond to allegations by Melise that statements attributed to him in the separation agreement were written by reserve officers. "Our records regarding the soldier are confidential. Again, he was discharged with an Honourable Discharge" on June 27.
The former JAG officer, however, said the papers Melise signed shows the Army Reserves "initiated Administrative Separation on June 7th, but it doesn't indicate why".
"It appears they were going to 'ad sep' him for whatever reason and he decided to submit his voluntary separation papers to avoid the risk of getting a less than honourable discharge via the administrative separation process they had initiated," the former JAG officer said.
Melise sank into a deep depression. He isolated himself in his apartment, shut out his friends, family and the attorney who was advising him and he began to drink heavily again. In July, he was hospitalized for acute pancreatitis.
In a follow-up telephone interview two days prior to the publication of this story, Major Adams, the Army Reserve spokesman, dramatically shifted his position about the circumstances behind any re-enlistment bar Melise may have. Major Adams, who spoke to Truthout in the presence of an SJA, said if Melise is barred from re-enlistment it is likely due to Melise's weight, stating that Melise was 5 feet, 2 inches tall and weighed 220 pounds.
"I'm speculating," Major Adams said about the possible reason Melise is barred from re-enlisting. "But it's those dimensions that are probably the factor."
Melise's military identification card and Florida driver's license state, however, that he is 5 feet, 6 inches tall — not 5 feet, 2 inches. Moreover, Melise said he lost 30 pounds during the month of May in preparation for an Army physical fitness test.
Major Adams failed to respond to questions about the contradictions with his statement about Melise's weight possibly playing a role in his bar to re-enlist and Melise's June 6 separation agreement that said he was being "flagged for security violations" and was "disqualified" from re-enlistment.
The former JAG officer said, based on what he read in Melise's "developmental counselling form”, "it certainly looks like they barred [Melise] from re-enlisting solely because of the 'leak.'"
Despite all of the turmoil, Melise said his decision to speak publicly was cathartic and he doesn't have any regrets.
"I told the truth and I was punished for it," Melise said. "I gave half my life to a service that is now turning its back on me. I don't feel I did anything wrong and I stand by that."
(This story was originally published in Truthout on Thursday 25 August 2011 and has been republished with permission.)