Dec. 26, 2003. 01:00 AM
Experts say Arar inquiry is feasible
Must overcome security `obstacle' McDonald probe

set precedents


OTTAWA—An inquiry into the Maher Arar case could be held without compromising Canadian security, according to experts on previous inquiries.

But one expert said it would likely be an "exercise in frustration."

Peter Russell, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Toronto, was the research director of the McDonald Commission into activities of the RCMP that was created in 1977 and reported in 1981. Russell pointed out that the commission had testimony from the RCMP and ministers that could have been dangerous to security.

"We had sessions dealing with that evidence in-camera," he said in an interview. "The commissioners would read the transcript, and they would decide if what they heard should be made public or not."

The government challenged this, saying it should have the final say. But the chair of the commission, the late judge David McDonald, refused.

"We thought when we came to work the next day, the doors might be locked," Russell said in an interview.

But the commission continued. "That's a precedent," he said, adding it takes a very determined commissioner to resist the government in a situation like that.

Russell said some explosive testimony that was given in-camera remained secret. "There was some stuff that was pretty sexy that didn't come out in public," he said. "And it still hasn't."

American officials seized Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, when he was trying to change planes in New York on Sept. 26, 2002. After holding him in the United States for a few days, the U.S. sent him to Syria where he was kept in prison for a year and tortured.

According to sources, he was arrested and deported from the United States when Canada would not guarantee he would be taken into custody when he returned to Canada. Since his return to Canada, he has been calling for an independent public inquiry. An inquiry has been set up by the RCMP public complaints commission.

Wesley Wark of the Munk Centre for International Studies said it would be possible to follow the model of the McDonald inquiry. "I know the Canadian government would throw up (the threat to security) as an insurmountable obstacle, but it isn't," he said, adding that it would require that the commissioner or commissioners have the highest security clearance.

"But at the end of the day, the kind of information that is required is not the raw material of intelligence," he said. "It's the policy and bureaucratic procedures that were followed. They don't necessarily threaten what the intelligence community calls `sources and methods.'"

The challenge for a commission of inquiry, he suggested, would be to establish trust with the intelligence and security community, the government and public. "The more any commission is seen as seeking a scapegoat, chasing headlines, or as being inexpert, the more hopeless it all becomes," he said.

He concluded the RCMP complaints inquiry is "a terrible dead end."

Reg Whitaker of the University of Victoria said the problem would be to have an inquiry that is satisfactory to Arar, his counsel and "all the rest of us who are watching this with horror and disgust." He said a great deal would depend on the determination of the commission to force testimony from those tempted to e vade telling the truth.

"In the Arar case, I suspect there is a lot that could be alluded to without violating the law," he said.

But Russell said a public inquiry into the Arar case would be a big mistake, even though it involves a very alarming set of events.

"What I learned from the McDonald inquiry is that you never get to the crucial evidence, the smoking gun," he said. "All kinds of fences go up related to the need for security."

And in this case, he said, co-operation would be required from the U.S., which is playing hardball. "It would be a real exercise in frustration," he said. "It would increase the anger of the public and we would learn very little."

Additional articles by Graham Fraser

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