The federal government was slammed Monday for blocking the release of new details on the role of Canada's spy service in the deportation of Maher Arar, including information that could help to clear the name of the Ottawa-based engineer.
Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor, the head of the Arar inquiry, complained in a ruling that the Department of Justice prevented the release of the full 12-page summary of the closed-door testimony he heard from nine members of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
Instead, large portions of the summary made public Monday were blacked out.
In his ruling, which was also partly expurgated, Judge O'Connor said that some of the information being blacked out is “favourable to Mr. Arar,” whose reputation was tarnished in recent years by government-fuelled allegations that he was a terrorist. Judge O'Connor said the information should be released in the name of fairness.
“I see no reason to delay that disclosure,” he said.
Paul Cavalluzzo, the lead counsel at the inquiry, also complained about the decision.
“We are very surprised and disappointed with the government's position on what the public is entitled to know,” he said.
“This government called a public inquiry and not a private investigation,” he told a news conference.
Judge O'Connor objected to Ottawa's argument that the information had to remain secret to avoid creating a precedent.
“The Arar situation is highly unusual. I do not accept that the disclosure of this information would create a precedent,” he said.
Judge O'Connor did succeed in releasing some new information on efforts by CSIS in 2003 to water down a letter calling for Mr. Arar's release from a Syrian jail. CSIS objected to a sentence in the draft letter saying that the government “has no evidence that Mr. Arar was involved in terrorist activity.” At the urging of CSIS and the RCMP, that sentence was removed from the final letter, which was signed by then prime minister Jean Chrétien and sent to Syrian authorities.
Still, Judge O'Connor said that most of the information blocked out from his ruling and from the summary is innocuous or already in the public domain. He added that he was extremely careful in the creation of the documents not to jeopardize national security. Mr. Cavalluzzo added that Ottawa is “not being consistent” in its position. For example, some of the blacked-out portions of the documents are parts of newspaper articles that are publicly available, or of information already released in other federal reports.
The Federal Court has been called in to settle the debate “on an expedited basis,” said Stephen Bindman, a spokesman for the Department of Justice. In a statement, he said some of the passages in Judge O'Connor's documents are “injurious to national security and international relations.
“The government of Canada remains committed to a full and fair inquiry into the role of Canadian officials in what happened to Mr. Arar,” Mr. Bindman added.
“However, the government also has a duty to safeguard the security of Canadians at home and abroad and to protect information whose release could harm...national defence or national security.”
Mr. Arar called on the cabinet to release all the information. He said it was now becoming clear that CSIS had a major role in his fate, and that he, like all Canadians, deserves to know all the facts.
“The Prime Minister [Paul Martin] stated publicly that he wants to get to the bottom of this. Getting to the bottom of this will not happen the way it is right now,” he said.
Government critics said it was a clear case of damage control by the Liberal government.
“This undermines the whole notion of a public inquiry, when you censor to death a report of the independent inquirer,” New Democrat MP Ed Broadbent said.
Last week, the Prime Minister defended his government as the initial details of the battle with Judge O'Connor became public.
“There are other arguments, and in the end these are issues between the Department of Justice and the commissioner,” Mr. Martin said.
The issue of the edited information is now heading to the Federal Court. Regardless of the ruling, the federal government could still block the release of the information by issuing a national security certificate.