Special Report

Patriot Acts in the Great North

The case of Maher Arar rattles North America.

By 1.28.04

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EDMONTON -- When a certain former presidential candidate labeled Canada "Soviet Canuckistan," most people north of the 49th parallel dismissed it as the silly rant of a right-wing Yankee wacko. But a week and a half ago they all stopped laughing. Newspaper editors, columnists, pretty much the whole of the Canadian media, started making blunt comparisons between their country and the bad old USSR.

The whole nation watched in shock while ten Royal Canadian Mounted Police raided a newspaper reporter's Ottawa bungalow at eight in the morning on January 21 and started rifling through all her belongings. Cameramen stood behind yellow police tape, taking pictures as stone-faced Mounties crunched through the snow, hauling out her boxes of files, notebooks, floppy disks, cassette tapes, and, for good measure, her Rolodex. The RCMP had gone in armed with a broad-ranging search warrant looking for evidence that would lead them to the source of a leak of sensitive information relating to the strange case of one Maher Arar.

The 34-year-old computer engineer with dual Syrian/Canadian citizenship was detained by American authorities at New York's Kennedy airport in transit to Montreal as he was returning from a family vacation in September of '02. Arar had been flagged as a terrorist suspect. After being held for five days, and without being charged with anything, he was deported to Syria.

There he was imprisoned for a year, again without charge, finally released and returned to Canada in October '03. Arar claims the Syrians tortured him and has filed a sweeping lawsuit against American authorities -- including Attorney General John Ashcroft, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, and FBI director Robert Mueller -- claiming the Americans illegally deported him to his country of origin knowing there he would be tortured to obtain intelligence about any possible terrorist connections.

Arar's wife, Monia Mazigh, played a critical role in publicizing the case in Canada, contacting the media, marching in front of Parliament, and presenting her case to then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien. She represented her husband as a totally innocent victim of over-zealous police surveillance of Muslims in the wake of September 11 and of an American government quite willing to indulge in torture-by-proxy, using rogue regimes to brutally extract information they could not legally obtain themselves.

The Canadian media took up Mazigh's cause, replaying the images of her pleading for her husband's release and showing her two young, temporarily fatherless, children. But this obviously was only one side of the story. The other side was constrained by official secrets legislation and possibly the need to protect ongoing investigations into domestic terrorist cells.

LAST NOVEMBER, ARAR HELD a press conference detailing his experience, including graphic descriptions of the torture by Syrian authorities. He hinted that someone inside the Canadian government knew about his detention at Kennedy airport. He further claimed American authorities had intimate personal information about his life in Canada at their disposal. The Canadian government has denied all involvement in the affair, especially in the deportation to Syria.

It was then someone leaked secret intelligence documents on Arar to the press. On November 8, the Ottawa Citizen ran a story by reporter Juliet O'Neill detailing the case against Arar. It is widely presumed that the documents were leaked in an effort to counter all the bad publicity generated by his charges.

Two-and-a-half months later, the now infamous raid occurred. The search and seizure coincided with a broadcast of a segment on 60 Minutes II about the Arar affair. The show ran the accusation of unnamed American authorities that not only was Canada informed of Arar's detention, it had signed off on his deportation as well.

THE REPORT AND THE RAID set whirling a storm of criticism of the current Liberal government. Gordon Fisher, president of news and information for CanWest, the company that owns the Citizen, opined that it "smacks of a police-state mentality that one might equate with the former Soviet Union rather than a Canadian democracy." Canadian Prime Minster Paul Martin, out of the country at the time in Davos, Switzerland, found himself having to say, rather awkwardly, to his own press corps that no, Canada was not a police state.

The warrant for the search of O'Neill's home was based on provisions of the Security of Information Act, part of Canada's anti-terrorism legislation brought into law -- like the American PATRIOT Act -- in the wake of September 11. (The delicious irony here is that Canadian media subjected the PATRIOT Act to quite a bit of scrutiny while largely ignoring its counterpart in their own country. But I digress.)

As part of the efforts at damage control, Prime Minister Martin this week announced a full public inquiry into the Arar debacle, which, if not bungled, may give Canadians and Americans at least a glimpse at the extent of the shadowy war on terror on the home front. It should also, for the first time, force changes in the current anti-terror laws, including new provisions to ensure freedom of the press. But the worm could very well burrow a whole lot deeper than that.

If it transpires that the government was lying to the Canadian people about its involvement in the deportation, there will be heavy political fallout, on fronts foreign and domestic. The sitting Liberal government will take several political body blows from a righteously angered press and this, in turn, could poison relations with the U.S. government for a good long time.

Cognizant of this fact, the Americans have already begun the damage control by leaking to the Canadian media. Details of the INS documents relating to Arar's deportation wound up splashed across the front pages of Canada's newspapers. Factor in that this is an election year in both countries and this story could very well be hub on which the North American collective approach to security turns.

Tomorrow: the elephant in the room that everybody would rather ignore: charges of torture-by-proxy.

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About the Author

Kevin Steel is a writer, graphic designer, and musician. He runs the website KevinSteel.org.