Thu Aug 9, 6:26 PM
By Jim Brown
OTTAWA (CP) - Canada's spy agency suspected, within two days of Maher Arar's deportation from the United States, that the CIA had shipped him somewhere to face possible torture, newly released documents show.
But there's no indication, in the paper trail made public Thursday, that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service alerted its political masters at the time - an oversight that critics say smacks of tacit collusion in the ordeal Arar ultimately faced in Syria.
The documentary evidence, compiled by a public inquiry into the affair, shows a Washington-based liaison officer for CSIS wrote to his superiors in Ottawa in early October 2002 about so-called "rendering" of terrorist suspects to third countries by the Americans.
The CSIS officer suggested Arar's detention and subsequent removal from the U.S. fit an emerging trend in which American authorities would sometimes send terrorism suspects abroad for questioning "in a firm manner" if they couldn't legally hold them or lay charges at home.
The deputy director of CSIS, Jack Hooper, later stated in a memorandum dated Oct. 10, 2002: "I think the U.S. would like to get Arar to Jordan where they can have their way with him."
In fact, two days before Hooper wrote that memo, U.S. officials had already taken Arar from a holding cell in New York at 3 a.m. and put him on a Gulfstream executive jet to Jordan. From there he was quickly transferred to Syria, where he was tortured into false confessions of links to al-Qaida.
At the time Hooper offered his observations, CSIS knew only that the Ottawa telecommunications engineer had been removed from New York. It didn't know any other details and was desperately trying to find out from both the CIA and FBI what had happened to him.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, on a trip to the Arctic, noted that he's already raised the Arar case with Washington but dodged the question of whether he would renew that effort, or consult CSIS, in light of the latest findings.
Harper also attempted to shift the blame for what happened to Arar to the previous government, saying his aim is to "ensure that the events that occurred under the Liberals are not replicated for other Canadian citizens."
Justice Dennis O'Connor, who headed the inquiry into the case, tried to include a description of the 2002 CSIS suspicions in his report last year.
The material was withheld from public view at that time because of claims - by lawyers for Harper's government - that it could undermine national security, international relations or the defence of Canada.
Those contentions were rejected by a Federal Court judge, who ruled last month that the information should be released.
Paul Cavalluzzo, chief counsel for the O'Connor inquiry, said he's glad the information is finally on the public record.
"Our position all along was that the government was overclaiming," said Cavalluzzo. "The law is very clear that the government can only legitimately claim material that could injure national security. That's not to be used to cover information that could cause embarrassment."
Marlys Edwardh, one of the lawyers for Arar, said it doesn't appear, from the evidence she's seen, that CSIS ever shared its suspicions about the CIA's role in the affair with the Liberal government of Jean Chretien five years ago.
"They did absolutely nothing," said Edwardh. "Where's the memo to cabinet, where's the memo to the prime minister, to the solicitor general?
"The only thing you can draw from this is that they (CSIS) are making sure that this policy of rendering people - outsourcing interrogation in circumstances when someone is going to be tortured - is something they supported."
Thee was no comment from CSIS on the matter. In Washington, a spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department reiterated his government's long-standing position that Arar was lawfully deported as a security risk. The Americans have always maintained they had assurances from the Syrian government that he wouldn't be tortured.
On another point, Edwardh was scathing in her criticism of the RCMP for relying on intelligence obtained abroad, again possibly under torture, to support search and wiretap warrant applications within Canada.
The Mounties played fast and loose with their duty to make full disclosure to the judges who issued those warrants, she said.
"The effect is to create a false impression . . . It perpetrates a fraud on the court."
O'Connor concluded, in a section of his report that had also been secret until now, that the RCMP used information from an unnamed country to help obtain search warrants against several individuals in January 2002, as part of a wider anti-terrorist investigation known as Project A-O Canada.
They neglected to mention to the judge who issued the warrants that the country had a questionable human rights record, and conducted no analysis of their own to determine if the information had been obtained under torture.
O'Connor also found that the Mounties again included suspect evidence in an application for a wiretap warrant in September 2002. This time the information came from a purported confession by Ahmad El Maati, another Arab-Canadian who was interrogated in Damascus but later repudiated the statements he made there and said they were extracted under torture.
The RCMP acknowledged, in their affidavit, that El Maati had changed his story but suggested he could be lying in his claims of mistreatment as part of a "damage control" effort. They also insisted that, whatever the circumstances of the original confession, they had obtained evidence to corroborate what the Syrians had passed to them.
A separate inquiry is currently under way, under former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci, into the cases of El Maati and two other men, Abdullah Almalki and Muayyed Nureddin. All three deny any terrorist links and suspect the RCMP and CSIS collaborated in their detention and torture abroad.
O'Connor has already cleared Arar, saying the RCMP wrongly labelled him a terrorist and passed that information to U.S. authorities, who in turn used it to arrest him and deport him. The judge found no evidence, however, that Canadian intelligence or police officers directly collaborated in the decision to send Arar to Syria.
The Conservative government has since apologized to Arar and paid him $10.5 million in compensation. He has launched a separate legal action south of the border, seeking damages from the U.S. government, which continues to keep his name on a terrorism watch list despite the findings in Canada.