Watchdog: RCMP failed to give CSIS key Arar info

Mahar Arar, who was arrested by U.S. authorities and deported to Syria, takes part in an inquiry in Ottawa on Monday, Oct. 24, 2005 that is looking into facts related to his arrest.

Mahar Arar, who was arrested by U.S. authorities and deported to Syria, takes part in an inquiry in Ottawa on Monday, Oct. 24, 2005 that is looking into facts related to his arrest. (CP / Fred Chartrand)

Canadian Press
Updated: Wed. Nov. 1 2006 11:35 PM ET

OTTAWA — It's obvious something went awry when the RCMP failed to share key information about the Maher Arar affair with the rest of the Canadian intelligence establishment, says the head of a federal watchdog group.

Gary Filmon told a parliamentary committee Wednesday the key question is who was to blame for not following well-established rules.

"There is a protocol, a memorandum of understanding, between CSIS and the RCMP about this information-sharing, and that should have ensured that this thing never happened," said Filmon.

The controversy centres on an RCMP document, passed to U.S. officials in 2002, that wrongly labelled Arar an "Islamic extremist" with suspected ties to the al-Qaida terror network.

In fact, the Ottawa-based telecommunications engineer was a peripheral figure in an anti-terrorist investigation being run by the Mounties. He had been seen in the company of someone else who was the real target of the probe.

Justice Dennis O'Connor, who headed a public inquiry into the affair, concluded the erroneous information provided by the RCMP was "very likely" the reason U.S. officials arrested Arar and deported him to Syria, where he was tortured into false confessions of terrorist activity.

RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli has testified that he learned of the error shortly after the deportation. He said the force tried to correct the information privately with American officials.

But Zaccardelli didn't admit the mistake publicly at the time and never commented on it until O'Connor had blown the whistle four years later.

Ward Elcock, then head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, has said the RCMP boss never told him about the blunder made by his men.

And Wayne Easter, then Liberal solicitor general and political master of the Mounties, says he was kept in the dark, too.

"That has to confirm what a huge gap there was, and what an unusual gap there was, that so many people who should have known about it didn't," said Filmon.

"So the question is where do you put the responsibility and what do you do to correct that?"

Several members of the Commons public safety committee have appeared ready, in recent days, to lay the blame on Zaccardelli.

But Liberal Irwin Cotler suggested Wednesday that CSIS should shoulder some of the responsibility as well.

Cotler termed it "astonishing" that the service didn't manage to find out about the problem for four years. "It says something very disturbing about their relationship with the RCMP at the time."

Filmon pointed out that CSIS was never the lead agency in the Arar investigation. Although the spy service shared some background information with the Mounties at the start of the probe, it was the RCMP who quickly assumed the key role.

Filmon, a former Conservative premier of Manitoba, has delved into the matter in his current post as head of the Security Intelligence Review Committee.

The watchdog group has a mandate to monitor CSIS operations, but no authority to perform the same role for the RCMP. Justice O'Connor is now at work on a second volume of his report that will recommend ways to beef up civilian oversight of the Mounties.

Arar, a Canadian citizen of Syrian birth, spent a year in prison in Damascus before being freed and returned to Canada. He has a lawsuit before the courts claiming millions in financial damages from the federal government.

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