Tue Dec 12, 6:51 PM
By Jim Bronskill
OTTAWA (CP) - The Maher Arar inquiry has unfurled blueprints for a stronger, more co-ordinated family of watchdogs to keep an eye on the RCMP and other federal security organizations.
In what might be his final report on the Arar file, Justice Dennis O'Connor suggests better scrutiny of the intelligence community could prevent the sort of miscues that marked the affair.
"Proper review can help ensure that the agency being reviewed respects its mandate and uses efficient, effective and fair procedures," O'Connor says in the 630-page volume released Tuesday.
A proposed new agency, building upon the existing Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, would possess beefed-up powers and review all of the Mounties' activities, including those related to national security.
O'Connor suggests the revamped watchdog be named the Independent Complaints and National Security Review Agency for the RCMP, or ICRA.
He says increased examination of federal efforts to fight terrorism and espionage need not hamper or restrain security activities.
"It is my hope that the recommendations proposed in this report, if implemented, will make the RCMP better and increase public confidence in the force."
O'Connor also recommends:
-The ICRA review the national security activities of the Canada Border Services Agency.
-The Security Intelligence Review Committee, the current watchdog over spy agency CSIS, be given additional authority to monitor the security activities of Citizenship and Immigration, Transport Canada, Foreign Affairs, and Fintrac, the national anti-money laundering body.
-Changes to the law to allow national security watchdogs to exchange information and conduct joint investigations.
-Creation of a co-ordinating committee that includes various security watchdog chairs to ensure smooth handling of complaints and probes.
Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day said he was generally pleased with the recommendations, but did not immediately commit to implementing them.
"There is some good guidance there," he told a news conference.
Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian, was detained in New York in September 2002 and deported soon after by U.S. authorities - winding up in a Damascus prison cell. Under torture, he gave false confessions to Syrian military intelligence officers about involvement with al-Qaida.
In his first report, issued in September, O'Connor concluded that faulty information the RCMP passed to the United States very likely led to the Ottawa engineer's year-long nightmare.
O'Connor also said the cases of three other Canadians who were imprisoned in Syria - Ottawa electronics exporter Abdullah Almalki, Toronto truck driver Ahmad El Maati and Toronto-area geologist Muayyed Nureddin - raised troubling questions about the role of Canadian officials.
Day announced Tuesday that former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci will lead a full public inquiry into their cases, with a report due by Jan. 31, 2008.
O'Connor said the proposed new ICRA should have extensive investigative powers, including the ability to subpoena documents and compel testimony.
It would both look into complaints and initiate its own reviews with respect to the RCMP's national security activities, monitoring compliance with law, policies, ministerial directives and international obligations.
Arar said Tuesday the recommended watchdog bodies are necessary to protect citizens' rights.
"What happened to me, I think, could have been prevented. And if not, at least we wouldn't have needed an inquiry to find answers," said Arar, who now lives with his family in Kamloops, B.C.
"I just want to make sure this doesn't happen again."
In a statement, the RCMP said any new review mechanism for its national security activities must be comprehensive enough to ensure public confidence is maintained without compromising the police force's ability to do its job.
"Effective and appropriate review is essential for the RCMP and the public," said Assistant Commissioner Mike McDonell of RCMP National Security Investigations.
"It reassures all of us that the RCMP is holding true to its values by respecting the rights and freedoms Canadians enjoy.
"At the same time, we would want to ensure that the RCMP is still able to fulfil its mandate."
The NDP welcomed O'Connor's report, but said it doesn't go far enough.
New Democrat MP Joe Comartin said there needs to be a parliamentary oversight committee in addition to stronger review mechanisms to provide "the best of both worlds."
He noted other jurisdictions - namely the U.S. and Britain - have both kinds of watchdog in place.
Freya Kristjanson, one of the inquiry lawyers, said O'Connor didn't touch on parliamentary oversight because that wasn't part of his mandate, but he isn't ruling it out.
She said O'Connor is confident his recommendations will mesh with "whatever form of parliamentary oversight that might be adopted."
Day indicated the government indeed plans a new parliamentary committee to oversee federal intelligence agencies. Unlike now, members would likely have access to classified materials to aid their work.
The overall result could be several new or enhanced watchdog structures.
Shirley Heafey, the now-retired head of the existing RCMP complaints commission, lamented that her office lacked the necessary powers and tools to probe the RCMP's national security activities. Heafey's successor, Paul Kennedy, has echoed her call for more authority to monitor RCMP intelligence investigations.
The Arar affair has already shaken up the Canadian security community. The resignation of RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli, announced last week, takes effect Thursday.
Arar has initiated lawsuits against Canadian and U.S. agencies.
Mediation sessions are scheduled for Thursday and Friday in the Canadian suit.
On Tuesday, Arar's American lawyers filed an appeal in his action against Washington.
Arar still has the option of testifying before the O'Connor inquiry, but said he hasn't decided whether to do so.
He and his lawyers want to see portions of the first inquiry report that the government has withheld from release on national security grounds. The issue is currently before the Federal Court of Canada.
Should Arar decide to testify, O'Connor would then issue a third and final report.
The former Liberal government announced it would set up an independent review mechanism to monitor the RCMP's intelligence branches.
The move came amid growing reservations about the behind-the-scenes role the Mounties play in the fight against terrorism.
As part of his inquiry into Arar's case, O'Connor was asked to recommend the best model for keeping closer tabs on the RCMP. The Ontario judge consulted members of the intelligence community, academics, civil libertarians and international experts.