by: Jason Leopold, Truthout
David Hicks was one of the first “war on terror” detainees to be sent to Guantanamo the day the prison facility opened on January 11, 2002. He is one of the small group of detainees who challenged President George W. Bush’s November 13, 2001 executive order authorizing indefinite detention, which led to a landmark 2004 Supreme Court case, Rasul v. Bush, in which the High-Court said detainees have the right to habeas corpus. Hicks spent five-and-a-half years at Guantanamo and was tortured. Last October, he published a memoir, “Guantanamo: My Journey.” This is his first interview since his release from Guantanamo in 2007.
Truthout: Can you describe for me what you felt, emotionally, as you were writing the book and having to relive the torture you were subjected to?
David Hicks: At times I wrote as a third person, as if I was writing a chronological research report as part of my day job. At other times I had moments of vivid clarity. I would stop typing, sit back, and stare into nothing. The smells, sounds, the feeling of actually being there came flooding back as if had been transported to the camps of Guantanamo, clearly remembering what it was like to have actually been there.
TO: Solitary confinement appears to be among the worst of all the terrible experiences prisoners faced at Guantanamo. Can you explain what it does to you in a way that Americans, with no experience of such things, can understand what such isolation, especially with no knowledge of how long it will last, does to a person?
DH: Solitary and indefinite detention are two different things and are devastating when combined. Isolation has a powerful impact on the mind, especially when coupled with incommunicado detention as in GTMO. Everything outside the four walls is quickly forgotten. With no mental stimulation the mind becomes confused and dull. That state of mind is an advantage to interrogators who manipulate every aspect of your environment. They create a new world reality. Time ceases to exist. Talking becomes difficult, so when conversations do take place, you cannot form words or think. Even when hostility is not present such as during a visit with a lawyer or International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visit, coherent sentences become elusive and huge mental blanks become common, as though you are forgetting the very act of speaking. Everything you think and know is dictated by the interrogators. You become fully dependent with a childlike reliance on your captors. They pull you apart and put you back together, dismantling into smaller pieces each time, until you become something different, their creation, when eventually reassembled. Indefinite detention is draining and cruel. Only after five and a half years when I had been promised a date of release did the intense battle with insanity subside, and that I started to feel a little more normal again. I finally had some certainty and felt a glimmer of control return. I began to remember that another world existed and could once again dream about what that world used to feel like. Indefinite detention is draining because you are taken prisoner and thrown into a cage. No reason is given or any relevant information or explanation offered. There are no accusations, no court rooms or judges. Nobody informs “you will be here for X amount of time.” It’s an impossible situation to accept and every minute is spent silently asking and hoping, “this cannot last forever, I will have to be released soon‚”. But when the mind is so desperate, when you are on your last legs, you can’t let go of the thought that you could be released any moment, even if all seems lost and hopeless. In a strange way it is one of those things the mind latches onto for a source of strength, a reason to keep going: false hopes and dreams are better than nothing.
TO: What do you believe gave you the strength to survive in such terrible conditions? Have you sought medical or psychological help since returning? If so, has it helped you?
DH: I survived because I had no choice, as many of us may unfortunately experience at some time in our lives. 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. I have attended regular counseling since being released. It has helped 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. It will take longer to reverse the consequences but even so, some experiences, especially one so prolonged, can never be entirely forgotten. I shudder to think what state of mind those who are still detained in GTMO must be in, and wonder how damaged they will be upon release. If they are released. At the time of writing, the US government is seriously considering enacting indefinite detention into law. It is hard to comprehend that they will effectively sentence someone to life in prison, without ever being charged, accused of breaking a law, or not even being told why they are being held. As with medical experimentation, indefinite detention on its own is a form of torture which causes mental anguish.
TO: At what moment in your mind did you begin to realize or understand that you were being tortured?
DH: 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.
TO: What do you think makes a human being torture another human being?
DH: In 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. The guards were desensitized and detainees de-humanized. 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.
TO: Can you describe for me the facial expressions of the interrogators and /or the guards as you were being abused? How did they react to your pain?
DH: Usually the guards seemed cold and indifferent. 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 back ground 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 ships). These soldiers made a sport of it.
TO: Did any US soldier or any US official present at Guantanamo during your interrogations ever speak out about your torture or the torture of other detainees?
DH: If you mean protest during the act of torture, never. Many soldiers in private however apologized for what their government was doing to us and emphasized that not all Americans were like that or agreed with such treatment.
TO: Were you ever interrogated by anyone from the CIA?
DH: Some interrogators stated which agencies they represented, some didn’t, while others lied about who they worked for. To the best of my knowledge I was seen by the CIA, FBI, US military intelligence, MI5 from the UK, ASIO and the AFP from Australia. There were other organizations working in GTMO, some I had never heard of before.
TO: In your book you write: “These beatings and other activities were systematic and ordered from above, not the result of low- ranking MPs looking for ways to have some fun.” Did anyone ever state who from above ordered the beatings?
DH: The soldiers were very open about where their orders came from and interrogators never allowed us to forget that they controlled every aspect of our lives; whether it was torturing us, allowing us a shower, clothing, or a letter from home. Then there were examples such as when General [Geoffrey] Miller took over camp procedures in early 2003. He unleashed a new wave of interrogation techniques upon us. Each new General, and wave of interrogators who were accompanied by experts from various professions, brought newly signed orders from Department of Justice employees allowing ever harsher techniques.
TO: Have you read the torture memos written by former Justice Department attorneys John Yoo and Jay Bybee? Were you ever subjected to torture techniques described in those memos?
DH: I have read them but it was some time ago and I cannot currently recollect all that they contained. Some of the techniques I was subjected to from the memos was being chained to the floor, known as “stress positions.” Sleep deprivation was an everyday occurrence during all of the years I spent in GTMO. Noise manipulation also happened often depending on what camp I was in. They used chainsaw motors and loud music in Camp Delta. They used temperature extremes on me, which meant subjecting me to the freezing cold because they knew I have a low tolerance to the cold. Sensory deprivation, prolonged isolation and other psychological manipulation techniques were also used on me (injecting me with substances, giving me cold and sometimes green food such as eggs, putting cameras up on the ceiling). They also used techniques that exploited my fears.
TO: You write that at Camp Echo that guards were placed to observe you constantly and that they wrote notes about your every behavior. Did you ever ask these guards what their instructions were, or if they knew what their superiors did with these notes? Did they ever tell you?
DH: We were observed in all camps. Guards always carried a pen and note book having been ordered to write down everything we did, including the trivial such as what we did to pass the time and what we spoke about when other detainees were around. They even recorded how we went to the bathroom, i.e. did we shield ourselves from neighboring detainees or guards and if so, how? Nothing went un-noted. This information was combined with personality traits learnt from interrogations, ranging from how we spoke to how we responded to the so called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The end result was the US government compiling files on each of us, including a micro level psychoanalysis. They knew our likes and dislikes, fears and weaknesses. These files were then used against us in interrogation and in daily camp life. It was about crushing and defeating us, to make us become so desperate that we would do and agree to anything to escape. Collecting this information and what they used it for was no secret and some guards explained this program when in private. In Camp Echo guards who sat outside our cages staring at us twenty four hours a day had to write what we were doing every fifteen minutes night and day. The interrogation rooms of Camp Delta had an entire wall as a one way observation glass. Behind these walls sat teams of so-called experts: Intelligence officers, behavioral scientists, psychologists; people who made conclusions upon which they decided what techniques were to be employed. By this I mean what programs the detainee would be subjected to in his cage such as sleep deprivation, noise or food ‚Äòmanipulation‚Äô. There was no shortage of ideas, resources, expertise, or personnel. A lot of effort went into these customized interrogations. Nothing was private. We were violated internally, psychologically, spiritually. They probed and tinkered in recesses so deep; parts of ourselves we are not conscious of or in touch with in our daily lives and may not even connect with and discover in our lifetimes.
TO: Did you ever meet separately with a psychologist or psychiatrist when at Guantanamo, for ostensibly psychological reasons, either a psychological test or assessment, or for supposed treatment of any sort?
DH: No, but they did approach me occasionally during the last year or so I spent in GTMO to see if I would talk and cooperate. Apart from their contributions in interrogations they were always lurking in the back ground, waiting to “help a detainee,” but to really act as another prong to interrogation. If a detainee even whispered for such medical intervention a “mental health expert,” would appear with a pocket of unknown medication and a long list of probing questions. They were not there to help, but to harm. We knew this and so I always refused to speak with them when they offered. If I did speak with them, such as the period when I eventually, after two years, had limited access to a lawyer for example, the questions would have been centered on how I intended to defend myself and any court actions I was considering. All they wanted was information, or to find a new way to defeat you.
TO: Were psychologists and/or medical professionals present at all interrogations? Were the interrogations ever stopped to check your heart rate and/or pulse?
DH: The major physical beatings I endured occurred in Afghanistan, during transportation and en-route to GTMO. During those sessions, one was around 10 hours, my vital signs were checked often. In GTMO medical personnel were not in the same room as me during actual interrogations but from my understanding they were monitoring my interrogations from behind the one way glass in Camp Delta. For other detainees, such as those being shocked or water boarded, medical personnel were present, or if drugs were being administrated during interrogation as I describe in my book when they extracted false confessions from one of the UK detainees. They were present when I was injected in the spine, but that experience is one that I don‚Äôt like to talk about.
TO: Have your attorneys tried to get a copy of your medical records?
DH: Yes, but with no luck. We gave up thinking me might be allowed to see them long ago. Even upon return to Australian where I was forced to spend the first seven months in isolated detention as part of the agreement to get out of GTMO. My family requested an independent blood test be taken on my return to Australia. They were refused without an excuse. It was nearly eight months since GTMO and about a year since being given medication before I was allowed to have my first blood test. I was informed that too much time had passed to see what I had been given.
TO: During your interrogations, did the interrogators ever ask you questions about Iraq ?
DH: No, the policy of incommunicado was strictly enforced, for years we knew absolutely nothing about the outside world. We weren’t even meant to know the time of day, let alone our location, especially any news. The first time I learnt about the war in Iraq was the end of 2003. A guard was kind enough to allow me to read his copy of FHM magazine and it contained an article about the US invasion, otherwise I would not have known. Rumors of a war in Iraq did not begin to circulate amongst the detainees until 2004 and was viewed with skepticism by most. The military did not inform us officially of the Iraq invasion until late 2006 by placing large posters of Saddam hanging from a noose around the camps with slogans splashed across the front like, “this could be you.” It was only then that detainees believed that the war had taken place.
TO: You have written eloquently of your terrible experience with what you say was medical experimentation, calling it the worst and darkest of your experiences there. Have you talked with any other detainees about whether they had similar experiences? How do you think about it now?
DH: When I was injected in the back of the neck I was being held in isolation, so I was unable to discuss what had happened with other detainees. A year passed before I was eventually able to see and communicate with fellow detainees, and I am unable to remember today if I discussed that particular personal experience with them. We did discuss medical experimentation in general however. A detainee with UK citizenship described being injected daily, resulting in one of his testicles becoming swollen and racked with pain. Along with these daily injections he was subjected to mind games by interrogators, medical personnel, and guards whom worked as a team. Under these conditions they were able to extract written false confessions from him. How I experienced the injection at the base of my neck is described in detail in my book. In a nutshell, I felt my soul had been violated. That is just one experience I had with medication. There were many pills and injections, plus constant blood tests over the years. Everybody regardless of their citizenship should acknowledge that medical experimentation, whether on human beings or animals, is unacceptable. As with animals, we were held as prisoners when these procedures were forced upon us against our will. And as with animals, we were voiceless.
TO: Did any interrogator or other official working for the US government ever use the word “torture” or “experiment” as you were being interrogated?
DH: I don’t remember the word torture being used but there were many ways to imply it. After a torture session for example an interrogator would just say, “the treatment you have recently endured can always be repeated,” and threats were often made referring to past treatment or what was happening to other detainees. Guards often alluded to GTMO as being a big laboratory where we were subjected to their government’s well-honed techniques. I remember in the early days while being held aboard a US ship when a soldier said, “be strong man no matter what they do to you, just keep your head in God man,”. It didn’t leave me with much confidence.
TO: Did you ever sign any document stating that you consented to the medications/injections you received? Did anyone ever ask you to sign such a document?
DH: I had two surgeries while in GTMO. One was for a double hernia, while the other was to remove painful golf ball size lumps on my chest. The cause of the lumps or what they were was never explained to me but research since my release indicates that it was either the mediations I was forced to take or the extreme stress levels may have been responsible. On the two occasions I was operated on I was asked to sign a consent form, which I did. However my permission was not sought nor had I any choice when it came to being forced fed tablets, or the numerous injections that we were all given. Many blood tests were also taken consistently over the years I was detained.
TO: How typical was it, do you think, that interrogators attempted to get prisoners to become agents for their government?
DH: Interrogators attempted to bribe detainees with food, bed sheets, toilet paper and other “luxuries‚” to become spies and to give information about other detainees. On occasion some detainees in GTMO became so drained and broken that they would succumb to the temptation. Interrogators tried everything to make detainees “confess,” including being asked to lie via imagination or simply to agree to an interrogator’s theories. Interrogators became desperate with the passing of time to find and pin actual crimes on detainees, and paper trails have shown they were willing to manipulate evidence in their favor. There was one time in 2003 when we were all asked if we would work for the US government performing secret operations off the island, somewhere abroad. Nearly every detainee laughed at this question and word quickly spread so we knew we weren’t alone. Apparently the proposition was a part of their profiling system. Interrogators worked around the clock to break us. Once broken, detainees were asked to agree to anything by interrogators, to repeat after them, to sign confessions, to be false witnesses, or to sow discord amongst detainees.
TO: When did you become aware that journalists were writing about torture at Guantanamo and at prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan?
DH: Not until the photos from Abu Ghraib in Iraq had become public. I found the public debate interesting. At first it was, “are they being tortured or not.” Then once torture was confirmed, the debate evolved to, “is it acceptable, is it justified, is it legal?” I am surprised by how many people still try to justify torture and support it as government policy, as an extra “necessary” tool to tackle terrorism.
TO: Do you know if any prisoners ever died at Guantanamo while you were there?
DH: Four died during my time in Guantanamo.
TO: Have you heard about the three prisoners who allegedly committed suicide in June 2006? Do you know anything about them? Do you believe they committed suicide?
DH: Suicide is possible in that situation, but evidence has emerged in various forms and from various sources suggesting foul play. Some witnesses are soldiers and have said that they believe that the detainees were “accidentally‚” killed during an interrogation at a secret camp on the island called “Camp No‚” as in no, it doesn’t exist. It seems they pushed their dangerous techniques too far. The fact that the organs were removed from the bodies so that an independent autopsy could not be carried out raises more questions than answers. This topic is covered in detail in my book with researched references pointing to foul play.
TO: Did you ever interact with Shaker Aamer, the last British resident still held at Guantanamo?
DH: I saw him on the odd occasion over the years and exchanged greetings, otherwise I never had the chance to talk or interact with him. The military has often kept him separated from other detainees and I believe subjected him to horrific treatment. When I left GTMO in early 2007 I knew that he was being held in isolation in Camp Echo because that is where I was. Whenever I saw him he always looked so skinny, weak, and tired. I cannot understand why they continue to hold him and the nearly two hundred men still detained there.
TO: Were dogs ever used to invoke fear in you? You describe the use of chainsaws in your book. What was the purpose of this?
DH: Not personally, dogs were mainly used against detainees known to have a fear of them. Our individual fears and weaknesses were used against us as customized interrogations. The chainsaw engines kept at full revs were used as part of their noise manipulation program. It prevented detainees from communicating with each other, prevented sleep, and basically drove us mad.
TO: Can you tell me whether you have any flashbacks and if so what triggers it? When that happens, what do you start to feel?
DH: Day time flashbacks consist of those moments of vivid clarity as I described previously, but it is the dreams that are the worst. 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. 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.
TO: Do you remember former Guantanamo guards Brandon Neely and Albert Melise?
DH: Unfortunately, I don’t remember Neely from Camp X-ray, it was a very confusing time for me. We established contact last year, but I became aware of Neely some time ago when he flew to the UK and publicly met some of the former UK detainees. He apologized for what he and his government had done. He is a brave man and I admire his courage and moral values so it was an honor to speak with him. I remember the polite and respectful soldiers, and the bad, but especially the good men and women I spent time with privately, such as in Camp Echo. One of those good men is Albert Melise who made contact with me to apologize, to offer help, and to see if I was alright. 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. He is another brave man that I respect and admire, to add his voice to the growing number of witnesses that are coming forward to publicly share the truth and expose that shameful time in our history. Melise did a lot to help me in those dark times, and it was a joy to hear his voice that first time as a free man. I hope to gather enough funds so I can fly these two men to Australia to thank them personally and show my gratitude for their friendship and trust. I’d like to show them my hospitality and my country, and to show them how much I appreciate their past kindness and current bravery. Neely and Melise were not alone in covertly showing humanity to myself and other detainees whenever they had the opportunity. A handshake, an apology (though that responsibility shouldn’t have to have been shouldered by them), even a simple hello and a smile goes a long way in an environment drowning in hostility and hatred. There were other soldiers who helped me in their own way and apologized for what was happening when no one else was around. As bad as that place was, and some of the people who worked there, they were all human and there is good in all of us. A good percentage of the soldiers were very young and most were only reservists who had never expected to be deployed. It was always interesting to watch the shock on their faces when they first entered the camps, a scene they had often seen only in old war movies and the realization that their government “did torture.” Some of these poor souls suffered greatly as they experienced the “other” America and struggled to carry out questionable orders. It is not just the tortured who suffer.
TO: What do you think should happen, if anything, to the individuals who tortured you and the government officials who sanctioned it?
DH: As for the soldiers I don’t think “following orders” is an excuse. Interrogators should be disciplined and charged if found to have acted illegally. All medical personnel who participated in interrogations, whether doctors, nurses, corpsman, psychologists and psychiatrists should be investigated and banned from practicing, even if they only gave advice or kept silent if aware of what was happening. I also think that the highest ranking military officials, politicians, and lawyers who created and supported the system need to go in front of an international court.
But these are not the only issues. GTMO should be closed, torture abolished, military commissions scrapped, renditions ceased, indefinite detention should be a thing of the past, and people (including children) should no longer be made to “disappear” into unknown black site prisons.
Justice is coming slowly however. Former Guantanamo soldiers, translators, FBI and other US employees, even prosecutors, have gone public to expose the truth of GTMO and many documents have made it into the public realm. Spain and Germany had begun the process of prosecuting former president Bush and members of his regime but after being pressured by the US they dropped the proceedings. The latest country said to be exploring the possibility of prosecuting US officials is Poland for the US using its soil in its rendition program. Last year Italy convicted 26 CIA agents in absentia for their involvement in kidnapping an Italian citizen and then dumping him in the woods near his home in the middle of the night a year later. The former UK detainees were recently paid just over a million pounds each in compensation and the Australian government has just paid compensation to the other Australian who was held in GTMO after being tortured in Egypt. In both instances these men were required to drop their court cases against the state. Wikileaks has been another vehicle shedding light on what took place at GTMO and beyond, exposing those responsible for illegal acts. Sometime this year about thirteen hundred diplomatic cables are to be released concerning Australia. I have been told to look out for information concerning my case. Especially cables that talk about the treatment I was receiving, and who was involved with the political interference and creation of the plea deal that I was forced to sign if I was ever to come home. I will be watching with great interest once all that information comes to light.
TO: Is there anything the US government or the Australian government told you that you can never speak about?
There was a one year gag order upon my release and I had to sign a plea agreement that said I had never been mistreated by US officials or their employees while in US detention. I am also not allowed to challenge or “collaterally attack‚” my conviction, seek compensation or other remedies, or sue anyone for my illegal imprisonment and treatment. I have been advised that no court would uphold the plea agreement.
TO: There aren’t many Caucasians at Guantanamo? How were you treated by the other detainees? And now that you’ve been released, how have you been treated by the public?
DH: There weren’t many Caucasians at GTMO but I wasn’t the only one. Before the release of detainees began there must have been close to forty European citizens spread between eight or nine western European countries. Usually most detainees treated each other the same regardless of their geo-political or cultural background. The Australian public has been wonderful; very welcoming, glad to see me home and very helpful. I often have people approach me to say hello.
TO: How did you and your wife Aloysia meet?
DH: Aloysia has been involved in human rights activism for years and in her efforts for social justice became involved in the Australian campaign to see me released from Guantanamo bay. Over the years she came to know my dad quite well, and he played a part in our relationship.
TO: You have a long life ahead of you. What would you like to accomplish? What are your hopes and dreams?
DH: When I was released I wondered if refugees newly arrived in a country felt similar. I had to begin a new life from the beginning, from collecting a set of identification papers to such privileges as a vehicle license and obtaining a Medicare card. Despite long term plans such as owning a home I have been taking a day at a time, receiving treatment for physical and mental injuries, finding employment and working, and when I get the chance or in the mood fishing or socializing. Writing my book for two years took up a lot of my time, as does keeping abreast of all the continuous developments regarding GTMO, the so-called war on terror and its related policies, and those whose lives (detained or not) they continue to effect, including my own. Life is very busy for me. Finding the love of my life has been my biggest accomplishment, of course! And then writing my book. Otherwise there is a lot of work left to do and in the years to come I will continue to rebuild my life, seek normality, and to live in peace with the hardships of the past far behind me.