Tuesday, September 19, 2006
By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 19, 2006; A01
TORONTO, Sept. 18 -- Canadian intelligence officials passed false warnings and bad information to American agents about a Muslim Canadian citizen, after which U.S. authorities secretly whisked him to Syria, where he was tortured, a judicial report found Monday.
The report, released in Ottawa, was the result of a 2 1/2-year inquiry that represented one of the first public investigations into mistakes made as part of the United States' "extraordinary rendition" program, which has secretly spirited suspects to foreign countries for interrogation by often brutal methods.
The inquiry, which focused on the Canadian intelligence services, found that agents who were under pressure to find terrorists after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, falsely labeled an Ottawa computer consultant, Maher Arar, as a dangerous radical. They asked U.S. authorities to put him and his wife, a university economist, on the al-Qaeda "watchlist," without justification, the report said.
Arar was also listed as "an Islamic extremist individual" who was in the Washington area on Sept. 11. The report concluded that he had no involvement in Islamic extremism and was on business in San Diego that day, said the head of the inquiry commission, Ontario Justice Dennis O'Connor.
Arar, now 36, was detained by U.S. authorities as he changed planes in New York on Sept. 26, 2002. He was held for questioning for 12 days, then flown by jet to Jordan and driven to Syria. He was beaten, forced to confess to having trained in Afghanistan -- where he never has been -- and then kept in a coffin-size dungeon for 10 months before he was released, the Canadian inquiry commission found.
O'Connor concluded that "categorically there is no evidence" that Arar did anything wrong or was a security threat.
Although the report centered on Canadian actions, the counsel for the commission, Paul Cavalluzzo, said the results show that the U.S. practice of renditions "ought to be reviewed."
"This is really the first report in the Western world that has had access to all of the government documents we wanted and saw the practice of extraordinary rendition in full color," he said in an interview from Ottawa. "The ramifications were that an innocent Canadian was tortured, his life was put upside down, and it set him back years and years."
Arar, who came to Canada from Syria when he was 17, said in Ottawa that he was thankful that he had been vindicated. He expressed surprise and anger at learning Monday that Canadian authorities also had asked U.S. authorities to put his wife on the al-Qaeda watchlist.
"Today Justice O'Connor has cleared my name and restored my reputation," he said at a news conference. He said the individual Canadian officials should be held accountable: "Justice requires no less."
O'Connor said it was beyond his mandate to recommend discipline for any individual.
"He really is a victim of authorities in three governments, as well as being an innocent man," Irwin Cotler, a member of parliament from the Liberal Party, said after the report was issued.
Stockwell Day, the federal government's public safety minister, said the treatment of Arar was "regrettable. We hope, with any future situations, never to see this happen again."
Since Sept. 11, the CIA, working with other intelligence agencies, has captured an estimated 3,000 people in its effort to dismantle terrorist networks. Many of them have been secretly taken by "extraordinary rendition" to other countries, hidden from U.S. legal requirements and often subject to torture.
Those renditions are often carried out by CIA agents dressed head to toe in black, wearing masks, who blindfold their subjects and dress them in black. The practice is generating increased opposition by other countries; Italy is seeking to prosecute CIA officers who allegedly abducted a Muslim cleric in Milan in February 2003, and German prosecutors are investigating the CIA's activities in their country.
Although details of the renditions and the destinations of those held are secret, President Bush has confirmed the existence of CIA-run prisons throughout the world. Some of the subjects of renditions have been held in those prisons.
O'Connor also recommended that the government review the case of three other Muslim Canadian citizens, who were detained when they traveled through Syria, to determine what role Canadian authorities played in their imprisonment.
But it was the case of Arar, a reserved, soft-spoken father of two, that created outrage in Canada after he returned in 2003 and said he wanted the public to know what had happened to him.
The report said agents of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police "overstated" Arar's importance in the broad investigation they began of potential Canadian suspects after Sept. 11.
Canadian police opened a file on Arar after seeing him talking to two other Muslim Canadians they were watching, authorities have acknowledged. Arar insisted the men were casual acquaintances in the small Muslim community in Montreal, where he lived before moving to British Columbia.
O'Connor said Monday that police agents told the Americans that Arar was "suspected of being linked to the al Qaeda movement." The judge concluded: "The RCMP had no basis for this description."
The Mounties also falsely claimed Arar had refused to be interviewed and had "suddenly" left for Tunisia. It listed him as a business associate of another man they called a "Bin Laden associate." Those descriptions were "either completely inaccurate" or overstated his casual connections, O'Connor said in an 822-page, three-volume report.
That information "very likely" led to his rendition, the report said. U.S. officials refused to cooperate with the Canadian inquiry.
Cavalluzzo said the Canadian agents apparently operated without proper training. "The best one can say is that it was sheer incompetence. They did not appreciate the fact that the branding of someone as a 'target' or 'suspect' or 'Islamic extremist' to Americans in 2002 could lead to disastrous consequences."
After Arar was detained in New York, Canadian authorities apparently were unaware the Americans were preparing to send him to Syria, according to the commission finding.
The RCMP contact, Inspector Michel Cabana, "was under the impression that Mr. Arar would only be detained for a short time," O'Connor's report said. "In his view, Mr. Arar was being held in a country with many of the same values as Canada."
Arar filed a lawsuit in U.S. federal court, but the case was dismissed by a judge citing "national security" issues. Arar is also seeking compensation from the Canadian government.
Some crucial questions about the incident remain unanswered, at least publicly. Over the repeated objections of O'Connor, the federal government censored much of the testimony given during the proceedings as well as some of the final report. O'Connor's report said a federal court should be asked to decide whether to disclose some of the censored items.
Arar was not permitted to testify; the judge ruled it would be unfair to subject him to questioning based on secret information. He has testified before a European Parliament committee in Brussels.
Special correspondent Natalia Alexandrova contributed to this report.