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Canadian ambassador passed Syrian intelligence report on Arar to CSIS

OTTAWA (CP) - The Canadian ambassador in Damascus helped Canada's spy agency obtain a written account of what jailed Ottawa engineer Maher Arar confessed to his Syrian captors.

A study declassified Monday reveals Franco Pillarella, Canada's chief representative in the Middle Eastern country in November 2002, was briefed on "the Syrians' investigation of Arar" up to that time. Arar, detained in a grim Damascus cell as a terrorist suspect, says he was tortured into falsely confessing involvement in Islamic extremism.

During a verbal briefing by Syrian military intelligence officials, Pillarella requested "a written report" on the Arar investigation, a copy of which was translated to English from Arabic and subsequently forwarded to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

Lorne Waldman, one of Arar's lawyers, pounced on the disclosure, saying it raised questions about Pillarella's role in his client's ordeal.

"Is that something an ambassador should be doing?" asked Waldman.

"This is a very important issue, which has now come out."

The new information is contained in a study by the Security Intelligence Review Committee, the watchdog over CSIS. Portions of the study, completed in May, were released Monday by the federal commission of inquiry into the Arar case.

But most of the document remains under wraps, the latest reminder of the secrecy surrounding the circumstances of the Ottawa engineer's deportation and imprisonment.

Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, was detained in New York in September 2002 as a suspected member of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.

The telecommunications engineer, travelling on a Canadian passport, was then deported to Syria by U.S. authorities after a stop in Jordan.

Arar, who turns 35 Wednesday, says he was brutalized for months by Syrian officials before being released. He denies any involvement in terrorism.

The review committee report provides a few more pieces of the complex Arar puzzle. But a full picture of the affair has yet to emerge.

The inquiry, led by Justice Dennis O'Connor, went behind closed doors Monday to begin several weeks of confidential hearings into the roles that CSIS, the RCMP and the Foreign Affairs Department may have played in the Arar case.

Pillarella, appointed ambassador to Romania last year, is expected to be called as a witness at the inquiry.

Stephen Bindman, a spokesman for the government's legal team at the probe, declined to answer questions Monday about Pillarella's actions in the Arar matter, noting the commission hearings are underway.

"In the interim, it would not be appropriate to comment on various elements of this case in isolation and we will not do so."

The review committee study, based on a review of CSIS files and additional information provided by the service, found nothing to contradict the spy service's longstanding claim it had no prior knowledge of the U.S. plan to detain and deport Arar.

In fact, CSIS "had difficulty ascertaining Arar's whereabouts for several days thereafter."

The study also says it is unclear what information prompted the Americans to put Arar's name on their security watch list "or whether any of that information came from CSIS via the RCMP."

It adds that the RCMP said it's possible U.S. authorities possessed information relating to Arar's activities when he lived and worked in the Boston area.

Arar took a job with a Boston high-tech firm in 1999 before returning to Ottawa two years later.

Almost an entire section of the review committee study, "Information Received and Divulged by CSIS," remains withheld.

However, the committee provides some hints as to its overall concerns by recommending that CSIS:

-Examine its practices to ensure more timely identification of reports containing potentially time-sensitive or important information.

-Maintain a written record when requests for information from CSIS headquarters are sent verbally to foreign intelligence agencies.

-Review arrangements with the RCMP to determine whether "the existing caveats and conditions" attached to the sharing of CSIS information provide necessary protections against improper disclosure.

The RCMP has acknowledged breaking one of its own policies when passing some information to U.S. officials about Arar.

The circumstances are not entirely clear. But testimony at the inquiry indicates that in at least one instance, the RCMP disclosed material provided by another Canadian agency without obtaining that organization's consent.

© The Canadian Press, 2004