Former prime minister Jean Chrétien was kept in the dark about the RCMP's involvement in the case of Maher Arar even as Canada was loudly protesting against the U.S. decision to deport the Ottawa man to Syria, federal documents show.
The newly declassified documents, and interviews with officials, also suggest that bureaucrats gave incorrect or incomplete information to Mr. Chrétien and other ministers about the way Canadian diplomats handled the Arar case in the crucial days between his arrest by U.S. authorities and deportation.
“These documents raise more questions than they answer about who knew what and when,” Lorne Waldman, Mr. Arar's lawyer said yesterday. “Only a public inquiry can get to the bottom of this.”
Mr. Arar, 33, a Syrian-born Canadian, was arrested as a suspected terrorist on Sept. 26, 2002, at New York's JFK airport. The RCMP had previously flagged Mr. Arar for U.S. authorities as a “person of interest,” U.S. government sources have told The Globe and Mail.
In the early hours of Oct. 8, 2002, he was deported to the Middle East where he says he was tortured. He spent 10 months in solitary confinement in a dark, rat-infested prison cell in Damascus. He has never been charged with a crime and was released by Syria three months ago.
As his ordeal was unfolding, Canadian political leaders were getting incomplete and inaccurate information about his case from their officials.
Alex Himelfarb, the Clerk of the Privy Council and Canada's most senior public servant, prepared a secret three-page memorandum for Mr. Chrétien on the Arar case on Oct. 18, 2002 – 10 days after Mr. Arar was deported and three days after Canada lodged a formal protest with the United States.
The memo details Canadian diplomatic efforts on Mr. Arar's behalf, including the calling in of U.S. ambassador Paul Celluci to receive an official protest.
But the memo also says the Privy Council Office – the very hub of the government — had no information about RCMP involvement in the case.
“It is unknown at this time if Mr. Arar is under criminal investigation by the RCMP,” the memo says.
The then solicitor-general, Wayne Easter, minister responsible for the RCMP, was also unaware at that time that the RCMP had passed along information about Mr. Arar to U.S. officials, federal government sources said.
Privy Council officials said they cannot answer questions about the declassified documents.
They noted that the Arar case is being investigated internally by the RCMP complaints commission and an oversight committee for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
But generally speaking “the RCMP is really under no obligation to inform anybody ... of operational matters of this type,” spokesman François Jubinville said.
Senior RCMP officers have also said they will not discuss the Arar case.
If, in the middle of a diplomatic flap, the prime minister and his most senior official did not know what the federal police were up to — or could not find out — “this raises serious concerns about who controls the RCMP,” Mr. Waldman said.
(U.S. government sources have told The Globe and Mail Mr. Arar became a suspect only after the RCMP identified him to them.)
Secretary of State Colin Powell was the first U.S. official to inform a Canadian cabinet minister that the Mounties were in fact involved in the investigation of Mr. Arar.
Mr. Powell told Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham during a meeting in Ottawa Nov. 14, a month after Canada's diplomatic protest.
The documents, declassified this week and obtained for Mr. Arar by researcher Ken Rubin, also indicate that Canadian officials had early knowledge that the Syrians were going to interrogate Mr. Arar about U.S. allegations that he was connected to terrorism.
An Oct. 23, 2002, memo prepared by the Privy Council Office for ministers says: “Syrian authorities are investigating the suggestion by U.S. authorities that he has a connection to al-Qaeda.”
There is no mention in the memo of RCMP involvement in the case. On the contrary, the document indicates that Canadian officials believed Mr. Arar was innocent. “Once he is cleared of such charges, we will seek his return to Canada.”
Another declassified memo says that Canadian consular officials in New York were informed by U.S. authorities on Oct. 7, 2002, that Mr. Arar's deportation hearing would be held later that day, a holiday Monday in the United States.
No consular official attended the hearing.
The memo suggests this was because consular officials believed Mr. Arar would be represented by a lawyer.
The memo — dated Oct. 20, or 12 days after Mr. Arar was deported – is incorrect on several counts, Canadian officials now say.
The hearing was held on the Sunday night, Oct. 6, not on Monday. Mr. Arar's lawyer was not present. She did not get the voice-mail notification of the hearing until Oct. 7.
And despite what the memo says, Canadian consular officials did not learn about the hearing in advance, Gar Pardy, who was head of the consular affairs branch at the Department of Foreign Affairs at the time, said yesterday.
Yet this incorrect version of events was repeated in later memos to senior ministers.
“There was a lot of confusion at that time” about when people first learned of the hearing, Liberal MP Dan McTeague, the parliamentary secretary with special responsibilities for consular affairs, said yesterday.
As late as April 29, 2003 – almost seven months after the deportation – the Privy Council Office prepared a memo for Mr. Chrétien and then deputy prime minister John Manley saying: “We were advised that an immigration hearing would be held on the evening of October 7 and it was understood that his lawyer would be attending.”