Monday, August 13, 2007

It Starts When You're Always Afraid

Canadians were justifiably proud when Prime Minister Jean Chretien refused to join the "Coalition of the Willing" before the invasion of Iraq in 2001. But when previously censored documents were released last week, we discovered that we had no cause to be proud of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service -- or, indeed, of the Chretien government -- after Maher Arar was detained in the United States and shipped to Syria, where he was imprisoned for a year -- tortured -- and eventually released.

Last summer, a judicial inquiry headed by Justice Dennis O'Connor, concluded that the Americans were acting on faulty information provided them by the RCMP. The government awarded Mr. Arar ten million dollars in compensation and set up another inquiry to investigate the role that the Mounties and CSIS played in the affair. But the Harper government also censored sections of O'Connor's report, citing national security, and claiming that release of the censored information could damage relationships with international security agencies, more specifically, the C.I.A.

Last week, the Federal Court of Canada ordered the release of the censored material. And it immediately became apparent why the government had tried to keep the information under lock and key. To begin with, the RCMP had provided misleading information to the judge who granted a warrant to look into Arar's affairs. The Mounties neglected to tell him that the information they possessed had probably been obtained under torture and could therefore be tainted. Most disturbing of all, CSIS suspected that as soon as Arar was handed over to American intelligence officials, he would be whisked out of the country and taken to a site where the kind of interrogation prohibited in the United States could take place.

Two days after the U.S. secretly deported Arar, Jack Hooper -- the second in command at CSIS -- wrote a memo in which he speculated that, "the U.S. would like to get Arar to Jordan where they can have their way with him." This opinion was bolstered by a report from a CSIS liaison officer, based in Washington, who had noted a trend "that when the C.I.A. or F.B.I. cannot legally hold a terrorist subject, or wish a target questioned in a firm manner, they have them rendered to countries willing to fulfill that role."

All of this was known by Canada's police and security services long before The Washington Post reported on "black sites" overseas, which were used to expedite the process of "extraordinary rendition"-- an Orwellian phrase if there ever was one -- which made torture by proxy sound like a new and melodic cover of an old song.

What is most shameful of all is the fact that, knowing all of this, the Liberal government let Mr. Arar languish in a Syrian jail for a year, even though they knew the Syrians considered him more of a nuisance than a critical threat. And, to fuel the fires of cynicism, William Elliot -- the newly appointed commissioner of the RCMP (who was appointed supposedly to clean up incompetence in the national police force) -- revealed at the end of last week that he participated in the censoring of Justice O'Connor's report.

It's clear that when a government (of any stripe) cites national security as the reason for withholding information from the public, chances are that its real motive is to avoid hanging out its dirty laundry. Last week's revelations are a reminder that, in Canada, the judicial inquiry is a critical oversight mechanism, whose purpose is to keep the government of the day honest -- and that paranoia's first target is the judicial system. As Buffalo Springfield reminded us four decades ago, "It starts when you're always afraid."

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