Officials frustratedby secrecy in Arar probe


UPDATED AT 3:35 PM EST Wednesday, Dec 15, 2004


Officials at the Arar commission yesterday spoke out for the first time about their growing "disappointment" and "frustration" with the federal government, which has moved to block the release of intelligence information that could shed light on how Maher Arar ended up jailed in Syria.

"It's a setback for the public," commission counsel Paul Cavalluzzo said yesterday. ". . . We're very disappointed with the position they are taking."

Government concerns about compromising national security have kept the commission behind closed doors for five months, but this week Ottawa officials blocked the release of parts of an intelligence summary that the commission had produced and wanted to be made public.

This development spurred commission officials to openly express disgruntlement with the government and its use of national-security laws created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks, which are about to be reviewed by Parliament.

"I really can't explain why they're taking this position," Mr. Cavalluzzo said. "We feel we've been more than reasonable."

He said the commission will not be delayed, but the dispute sets the stage for a possible Federal Court battle where parties will haggle further over what can -- and can't -- be made known. The public's right to know takes a back seat to the government's stated national-security concerns.

A 10-page summary of Canadian Security Intelligence Service information that may have factored into Mr. Arar's detention in Syria is the latest bone of contention.

Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor produced the summary, which was to be released this week, after hearing weeks of in camera testimony from CSIS officials.

While the judge allowed many of the government secrecy arguments, officials representing the Attorney-General were unhappy with what was left on the table.

The Attorney-General had a Monday deadline to accede to the summary's release, but instead invoked new provisions of the Canada Evidence Act to keep the document secret.

This morning, officials representing the Attorney-General are to issue a statement to the commission explaining why they feel Judge O'Connor disclosed too much information. But this statement is not expected to be made public immediately, nor are Judge O'Connor's 55-page decision outlining his reasoning on why the summary should be released, or the contentious 10-page summary itself.

"The Government also has a duty to safeguard the security of Canadians at home and abroad and to protect information whose release could harm international relations or national defence or national security," Stephen Bindman, a spokesman for the government's legal team, said in an e-mail yesterday.

He said "most" of the summarized information can be released "quickly," but "vital interests" preclude the release in full.

All this amounts to a big showdown over information from what had been, until now, regarded as a bit player.

So far, CSIS has not emerged as more than a peripheral agency in a complex chain of events during which the security-intelligence case against Mr. Arar rapidly expanded before deflating just as fast.

In 2001, the computer engineer was quietly deemed a "peripheral" figure in an RCMP-led counterterrorism probe. In 2002, however, the United States deemed him a deportable member of al-Qaeda and arrested him in a New York airport.

In 2003, Mr. Arar returned to Canada a free man after a year of detention in Syria to give an emotional and televised account of torture he said he suffered there.

His account garnered public sympathy that was instrumental in prompting the federal government to order the public inquiry. But the process has proven trickier than most envisioned and many officials within the Canadian government have denied doing anything wrong with respect to Mr. Arar.

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