Feb. 7, 2004. 01:00 AM
Arar inquiry a problem for government

JAMES TRAVERS

As every parent knows and every politician should know, asking tough questions can lead to embarrassing answers. Paul Martin, a parent and the Prime Minister, is getting reacquainted with that life-lesson.

Forced on to a dangerous course by a foolhardy RCMP raid on a reporter, Martin's administration is now scrambling to limit the damage of what promises to be a long, wide-ranging Q & A over the Maher Arar affair.

A few days after announcing that Justice Dennis O'Connor will probe how and why U.S. authorities detained and then deported a Canadian to Syria, the federal government announced terms of reference that suggest the answers the inquiry makes public will be less than complete, less than convincing.

What Ottawa is hoping is that the inquiry will silence Arar, opposition critics and journalists, at least until after an expected spring election. After that, it will have time to manage an issue with worrying domestic and international implications.

As determined as Martin and Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan are to be seen defending the rights of Canadians, they know more is at stake.

A government that came to office promising better relations with Washington and is trumpeting the Monterrey meeting between Martin and George W. Bush as a triumph knows that the inquiry is a sharp stick poking directly at Uncle Sam's eye.

So, McLellan is doing her best to dull the point. Late this week, she first gave O'Connor the power to ask tough questions and then bluntly reminded him that he has a duty to keep confidential answers that are not in the national interest.

To be precise, the inquiry will be required to keep secret any evidence the judge believes would harm national security or — and take careful note of this — foreign relations. If Ottawa thinks O'Connor is being a little too open, a federal court will decide what will, and won't, be revealed.

That control is essential to a government that is repositioning itself as a staunch ally, a friend willing to do whatever is necessary to secure America's back door. Any inquiry that threatens to roll back the rock now covering cross-border security links will also effectively roll back Ottawa's efforts to build confidence.

Martin didn't always tilt toward those concerns. His support for a public inquiry faltered after he became Prime Minister and only rallied when the RCMP provoked a national outcry by figuratively busting down Ottawa Citizen reporter Juliet O'Neill's door.

Martin has good reason to be nervous.

Judicial inquiries have a lengthy record of creating more political problems than they solve. Along with making better relations with Washington more difficult and putting Ottawa's smart border initiative at risk, this one will focus public attention here on government decisions and practices most Canadians have either forgotten or are ignoring.

Among them is the 2001 anti-terror legislation that reversed nearly 20 years of successful security practice to put the RCMP back in the spy business and evidence that federal agencies are riding roughshod over Canadian rights to meet U.S. security demands.

This is ugly stuff and it is certain to get uglier when the Arar inquiry, as it must, looks for answers south of the border.

The case is getting little attention there now, but that will change if U.S. officials already involved in the case — and that includes Secretary of State Colin Powell and Ambassador to Canada Paul Cellucci — are asked to testify.

It would be a real surprise if a Bush administration that could be embarrassed by the inquiry will co-operate. That sets the stage for a confrontation that will only exacerbate the perceived differences between two capitals and two countries.

With Canadians rightly appalled by Arar's treatment, Ottawa can only forcefully defend human rights.

Washington, as it has done since Sept. 11, 2001, will again make clear that in a traumatized nation, nothing trumps security. All of this is a consequence of flawed decisions taken in haste. None of it was necessary.

The genesis of the current mess is in the Liberal government's rush to overturn the findings of another inquiry, the McDonald Commission that investigated RCMP wrongdoing and recommended replacing its spy operation with the carefully controlled Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

Had a wiser cabinet not made that mistake in the frenzied aftermath of the attacks on the U.S., security would have remained the singular responsibility of CSIS and any problems would have been credibly investigated, without a public inquiry, by the watchdogs established precisely for that purpose.

Instead, a government that didn't respond effectively to the growing Arar controversy now finds itself saddled with an inquiry it doesn't want at a most inopportune time. With elections looming here and in the U.S., it is setting in motion a process that it can only try to control.

Before it's over, awkward questions, the kind both parents and politicians learn to avoid, will be asked. Some of the most important ones won't be answered; others may have been better left unasked.

Additional articles by James Travers


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