Court lifts lid on secret Arar details
Newly declassified information shows that that Canadian agencies worked directly with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and also received information known to be likely derived from Syrian torture during a post-9/11 investigation that culminated in the Maher Arar scandal.
The disclosure follows a pitched legal battle by Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor, who fought to make public 1,500 words that the Canadian federal government had excised from his four-volume report released last year.
A Federal Court decision resulted in the release of some of the information Thursday morning.
Almost universally, the blotted out passages referred to the CIA or information most likely derived from Syrian torture.
Ottawa officials fought to keep the information secret, frequently arguing that it did not want to compromise the goodwill of foreign allies who sent in intelligence from abroad.
As anticipated, the Maher Arar affair was found to be the result of a chain of detentions of Canadian suspects in Syria. Much of what happened appears to have been influenced by the coerced confession of the first Canadian
suspect to be jailed there.
Truck driver Ahmad Abou El Maati, just two months after 9/11, “confessed” in Syria to plotting a truck bomb attack in Canada at the behest of his brother, who is still considered a fugitive al-Qaeda suspect.
The truck driver has since returned to Canada, uncharged, and recanted his statements as purely the product of torture. He has also expressed regret that he was forced into naming Canadian associates of his, including Maher
Arar, including saying that he saw the telecommunications engineer in Afghanistan in the early 1990s.
In his findings last year, Judge O'Connor said Canadian agencies should not necessarily be forbidden from using intelligence from countries that abuse human rights, but that officials should carefully assess the reliability. That
does not appear to have happened in 2001-2002.
Judge O'Connor found that Mr. Arar was never a threat to Canadian national security and that authorities here had no case against him, but still spread incorrect and misleading information that may have caused the United States to send him to the Middle East, where he was jailed for a year. Canada has since compensated Mr. Arar $10-million.
Newly declassified findings of Judge O'Connor's report indicate a host of foreign agencies shoulder the blame for what happened:
• Investigating Mounties had no experience in dealing with the CIA before 2001, but a relationship began to develop after the Sept. 11 attacks that year.
• As anticipated, information from abroad – likely the statements by Mr. El Maati – found its way into Canadian searches and interviews conducted in January, 2002. "When applying for search warrants, Project A-O Canada
relied on information obtained from a country with a poor human rights record." The report adds that "no assessment was made of the reliability of that information."
• In the fall of 2002, the information was still being treated as credible. "In September 2002, the RCMP filed an application for a telephone warrant ... [it] referred to [Ahmed Abou El Maati's] confession to the Syrians that he
undertook pilot training at the request of his brother and that he accepted a mission to be a suicide bomber by exploding a truck bomb on Parliament hill."
• Even though the RCMP was made aware that the confession was extracted by "extreme coercion," they insisted that it was "still accurate and continues to be true." In this period, RCMP investigators had heard of Mr. El Maati's complaints of torture but dismissed them as "damage control" and asserted the confession corroborated their earlier investigation of him.
• It was the CIA that sent questions to Canada about Mr. Arar when U.S. border guards arrested him in October. The CIA, which sent him to the Middle East in shackles aboard a leased Gulfstream jet, appears to have
been driving the process to send Mr. Arar to Syria.
• Canadian officials were knowledgeable about the U.S. practice of "rendering" suspects to harsh interrogations third-countries. "I think the U.S. would like to get Arar to Jordan where they can have their way with him," one CSIS official wrote in an email on October 10, 2002 – two days after Mr. Arar was quietly sent to that country, and on to Syria, for questioning.
• CSIS visited Syria once Mr. Arar was in custody and came back with the impression that officials there "looked upon the matter as more of a nuisance than anything." He remained jailed there for nearly a year.
Last month, following a fierce legal battle, Mr. Justice Simon Noel ruled he would uncensor some, but not all, of the 1,500 words that had been blacked out.
"In the end, I have agreed in part with the Attorney-General and in part with the [Arar] Commission," Judge Noel wrote in a 64-page ruling last month, without revealing further details The federal Attorney-General had tried to counter disclosure by repeating what has become a mantra: National
security would be imperilled if Canada is forced to divulge state secrets – especially ones received from foreign agencies, or "third parties."
Judge Noel was partly responsive to Ottawa's argument, so some passages remain censored.
"The third-party rule is one that is sacred among law-enforcement and intelligence agencies, and is premised on mutual confidence, reliability and trust," he writes at one point in the new decision.