|Aug. 1, 2004. 02:21 PM|
OTTAWA -The federal government quietly conducted two internal probes into leaks of sensitive information about the Maher Arar case months before the RCMP searched a journalist's home, The Canadian Press has learned. Newly disclosed documents reveal that employees of several federal agencies were grilled during a three-week period last fall about what they knew concerning television and newspaper stories on the Arar affair. The investigations were initiated by the Privy Council Office, the department of senior bureaucrats who serve the prime minister and help oversee federal operations. A federal commission of inquiry is examining the possible role of Canadian officials in Arar's September 2002 arrest while travelling through the United States and subsequent deportation to his native Syria. The Ottawa telecommunications engineer says he was tortured in a Syrian prison and forced to make false confessions about involvement in terrorism. The issue of leaks to the media about what Arar may have told his Syrian jailers exploded onto the national agenda in late January when the RCMP searched the home and office of Ottawa Citizen reporter Juliet O'Neill. The Mounties conducted the raids as part of a criminal investigation under the Security of Information Act, which carries a penalty of up to 14 years in prison for receiving secret information. Critics lambasted the searches as a flagrant attack on press freedom. Records obtained by The Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act show the RCMP investigation was preceded by two government-led probes that tried to find the source of leaks to O'Neill and CTV News reporter Joy Malbon. Richard Dearden, lawyer for the Citizen and O'Neill, said the new information about the initial government attempts to find the source of the leaks "raises the issue of whether there was political involvement in launching a criminal investigation against a reporter who was simply doing her job." The government insists the RCMP decision to open a criminal investigation was made solely by the Mounties. In the internal probes, questions were put to members of the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Foreign Affairs and the Solicitor General's Department (since renamed Public Safety) in response to Privy Council Office requests. O'Neill said revelations about the internal probes are "further evidence that I was a scapegoat in a failed internal witch hunt" for a leaker. The Citizen has turned to the courts to try to quash the search warrants the RCMP used to sift through O'Neill's belongings. "How dare they turn my life upside down and threaten me with criminal prosecution carrying up to 14 years in prison, a threat which has not been withdrawn to this date?" O'Neill said. "On the contrary, they have accused us of stymieing their investigation while we are defending my rights and freedom of the press in court. It's an abuse of power." The first internal probe was prompted by Malbon's Oct. 23 report on CTV and a Globe and Mail newspaper story the following day. The stories said Canadian officials alleged that Arar had provided Syrian authorities with crucial information about the Al Qaeda network, including operatives in Canada. Those interviewed in the probe were given a copy of the Globe and Mail story as a reference, then asked a list of eight prepared questions about their access to information concerning Arar and with whom they might have shared it. They were also quizzed as to whether anyone else in their department may have spoken with reporters. The second probe began following the Nov. 8 publication of a story in which O'Neill cited "a security source" and a leaked document offering details of what Arar allegedly told Syrian military intelligence officials while he was imprisoned. In separate reports to the Privy Council Office, dated Nov. 7 and 19, the Solicitor General's Department concluded it did not possess ``the information in question," and therefore could not be the source of the leaks. Extensive portions of the newly released documents, including individual reports from the RCMP, CSIS and Foreign Affairs, were withheld under the access law due to their sensitivity. It is unclear whether leads uncovered during the government-ordered probes prompted the RCMP to launch its criminal investigation on Nov. 20. Francois Jubinville, a Privy Council Office spokesman, said the internal inquiries were discontinued once the police force decided ``to take the matter into its own hands." Cpl. Monique Beauchamp, an RCMP spokeswoman, said while she could not discuss an active investigation, it is not uncommon for an administrative probe to be superseded by a criminal one. Beauchamp declined to comment on whether the leak to CTV News was also part of the RCMP's ongoing criminal investigation. A briefing note prepared for use during the Commons question period indicates that on Oct. 27 then-prime minister Jean Chrétien was informed an internal inquiry into the first leak was underway. The documents also show Prime Minister Paul Martin was briefed on the investigation into leaks through a memo from Alex Himelfarb, clerk of the Privy Council, the day after the RCMP searches of O'Neill's premises.