Approximately 600 prisoners have been held at Guantanamo Bay since the war in Afghanistan -- many pulled from the camps of al Qaeda.
For two years, we've heard almost nothing about what they've revealed. But Correspondent Scott Pelley has the first television interview with an interrogator from Guantanamo who was sent to find out how al Qaeda works.
His name is Tom, and he didn't want 60 Minutes II to use his full name. He came to Cuba for the Defense Intelligence Agency to design and supervise the interrogations. One of the prisoners he learned the most from was an Australian cowboy named David Hicks.
In the months after Sept. 11, prisoners from the battlefield in Afghanistan were the most important cargo on any Air Force transport.
A few were al Qaeda and they were on their way to Cuba to meet an unassuming Army reserve sergeant from Connecticut who had some questions.
"Who's involved, who was paying them, where they're hiding. Where their supplies were coming from. Who the recruiters were. Anything and everything that you can do to tear apart the network," says Tom.
What about recent reports that the prisoners really had very little information to give?
"There are certainly some people who fit that description and there are certain people who provided wealths of information," says Tom. "Keys to the network, how it works, who was involved, how it fundraises, how it recruits, how it travels. Ongoing operations, imminent attacks on a number of occasions."
He wouldn't say more about those imminent attacks, because that information is still classified. But he did describe how the interrogations were held in plywood huts on the base. Prisoners were seated, chained down through that loop in the floor, and made to look directly at their interrogator for hours at a time.
The first thing that Tom had to do was convince some the prisoners that 9/11 really happened. "Some of them believed it was completely made up, some believed that the buildings were still there, some believed it was a Jewish conspiracy," says Tom.
To convince them, Tom showed them pictures. Their reaction? "It varied widely from outright denial to complete collapse and shame," says Tom. "Some people were just so horribly ashamed of what had happened they were doing everything they could to cooperate with us, but we saw the other end of the spectrum, too, where they just didn't say a word and could care less."
Of all the prisoners streaming in, Tom had been warned to be on the lookout for one person in particular: David Hicks.
"The first time I saw David Hicks was when he got off the airplane. He had his goggles on, like they all did. So we couldn't really see his face," says Tom. "But we knew by his stature -- who he probably was."
Even behind blindfold goggles, Tom could tell it was the 26-year-old Australian — a cowboy by training. For Tom, questioning Hicks was a priority because intelligence worried that he might have been part of a plot to infiltrate the U.S. with western, English-speaking terrorists.
Was Hicks al Qaeda? And if not, what was he doing on the battlefield in Afghanistan?
"I don't even understand why he was in Afghanistan. Neither of us understand why he was there, what the hell he was doing there," says Hicks' stepmother, Bev. She and his father, Terry, say their son is an adventurer, not a terrorist.
"We always said David was born 50 years too late," adds Terry. "If he was born, say 50 to 100 years ago, he would have fitted in beautifully for his adventurous sprit."
Hicks didn't fit in as a young man. He got into trouble doing drugs and stealing cars. But that seemed to turn around once he found religion and, to his parents' surprise, he became devoted to Islam.
"I worried in the beginning. I'd come home from work and I'd know he'd be home and I'd say, 'Hi.' And no one would answer me," recalls Bev. "At first, I couldn't understand and then I'd go down the hallway. And David would be praying."
Prayer led to pilgrimage, and Hicks set out in 1999 for Pakistan and Afghanistan. His parents never saw him again. After David was captured, Terry Hicks left Australia for the first time in his life to try to make sense of what had happened. A documentary film crew followed him to Afghanistan, looking for people who knew his son.
But it turned out the best clues were in letters David Hicks wrote home. One letter described a quick descent into militant Islam in Afghanistan. When that letter was written, Hicks was fighting on the side of the Taliban government in its civil war against the Northern Alliance.
Hicks was captured on the battlefield, and after two years, he remains imprisoned at Guantanamo without charge. His parents say their son was being detained as an illegal combatant – but they didn't know why.
Terry and Bev Hicks haven't been able to find out why he's being held – but Tom told 60 Minutes II what happened.
"He right away cooperated with us and gave us a really good insight onto the path that one would take to get into the al Qaeda terrorist training camps," says Tom, who adds that Hicks explained he was recruited from the battlefield to be trained in several of al Qaeda's specialty camps.
"There were several camps that had very detailed specialties. They were mountain warfare camps. There were sniper camps," says Tom. "There was bomb making schools, how to run a terrorist cell. There was all manner of terrorist training."
According to Tom, Hicks was moving up through the al Qaeda camps, but then came a turning point. Hicks was asked to take the ultimate step in al Qaeda, and apparently, he wouldn't do it.
"He only backed it off at a point where he was asked to be a suicide bomber. Where he was presented with training that would involve with running a terrorist cell, and sort of being prepared to strap on a bomb, or to drive a car bomb, or to crash a plane, something along those lines," says Tom. "And he resisted. And so it caused a big problem between him and the other al Qaeda guys."
Did Hicks pose a threat or ever engage in attacks against U.S. forces? "As far as we knew, he never engaged in conventional combat against the United States," says Tom.
Still, President Bush has selected Hicks to be among the first at Guantanamo to stand trial. He's expected to be charged soon, and even though he's been interrogated for more than two years, he only got to a see a lawyer recently.
He's defended by civilian attorney Josh Dratel and Marine Corps Maj. Michael Mori, assigned by the Pentagon.
Dratel say Hicks' statements may be unreliable because they were coerced: "If you thought that you might be in that situation forever, without recourse, without contact with the outside world, and you thought that by cooperating and by speaking to your interrogators and telling them whatever they wanted to hear, you could get better conditions, it's a very powerful motivation to say anything."
"We lead them to believe that we are in control of a lot more than we are," says Tom. "And in some regard to the long-term goal, we are. ... Any detainee who provides information would have it checked. And it's put through an analysis process, first of all for logic and then time. We do the best that we can to make sure they're telling us the truth."
There's no way to verify what Tom is telling us, since most of the Guantanamo operation is still secret. But Dratel says that even if Hicks fought in the Afghan civil war, it doesn't mean he's an enemy of the United States.
"I don't even think the U.S. government is prosecuting every member of the Taliban or stating that every member of the Taliban is al Qaeda or is guilty of a war crime," says Dratel. "Not even all the Nazi Party were prosecuted at Nuremberg. It's only those who committed war crimes."
But is he a threat? "David Hicks is a wildcard. It's difficult to say whether he would be an immediate threat," says Tom. "He'd led us to believe that if released, he would simply go back to his Australian home and find work on a farm someplace. My personal opinion, and my opinion alone, is that David Hicks would be a continuing threat."
Hicks' parents, however, think their son should be excused for being little more than an Australian wanderer on the wrong side of history.
"We suffered with American people the same. No one wants a dreadful thing like that to happen," says Bev Hicks. "We watched that on our TVs. And that's what's dreadful. And I in my own heart, don't believe -- David had nothing to do with that. David had nothing to do with that."
Hicks was apparently among the most cooperative at Guantanamo. Tom says Hicks realized he was in a lot of trouble, but the same was not true for other prisoners.
"There were often detainees who just would not cooperate. They wouldn't even answer what their name was or where they were from," says Tom.
Were these prisoners tortured? "Any and all allegation of torture at Guantanamo Bay is absolute absurdity," says Tom. "The temptations are certainly there, but the discipline of a professional, trained interrogator in the United States military is that you have to show restraint."
Of all the prisoners who have been locked up in Guantanamo, only six have been selected for trial so far, and 134 have been released. Tom says that of the 600 who remain, most are held just to keep them off the battlefield, while a few are being kept as a kind of al Qaeda database to be mined indefinitely by the interrogators.
"It wouldn't be prudent to let any of them go if we thought they had any information of value," says Tom.
Next week, the Supreme Court will hear arguments challenging the indefinite imprisonment of David Hicks and others at Guantanamo. A documentary on Hicks, "The President Versus David Hicks," will be shown later this year on the Sundance Channel.
Produced by Michael Bronner and Janet Klein
Copyright 2004 CBS. All rights reserved.