Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Arar Commission Sets a Precedent

The release on Monday of Dennis O’Connor’s public report on the events relating to Maher Arar demonstrates that when it takes matters seriously, the government of Canada can accomplish good things—even on matters of terrorism, where it tends to overact, and even when the results make it look bad but are in the interest of the people.

Occurring around the time when US President Bush and the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Michael Hayden are pushing for the CIA’s right to continue detaining and using extraordinary interrogation measures against high-value terrorism suspects—using techniques that go against the Geneva Conventions—the release of the Arar report gives us hope that societies have not altogether given up on individual rights when those rights happen to clash with issues of national security. To sum up the Commission’s findings, Mr. Arar has been found not to ever have represented a threat to the security of Canada; the RCMP shared information with US authorities which probably was used by the latter to build a case against him and subsequently deport him to Syria; while in Syria, interrogation techniques utilizing torture methods were likely used against him, leading to confessions that were made under duress; the same information the RCMP shared with the US was deficient but sufficient to damage Mr. Arar’s image; the RCMP and other Canadian governmental agencies were not aware that the information that had been provided to the US would lead to extraordinary rendition resulting in torture; and consular services were provided to Mr. Arar while he was in Syria.

All in all, the RCMP is made to look bad and in fact appears to be the scapegoat. The manner in which Canadian agencies playing the intelligence game distribute and share their intelligence products among themselves and with foreign agencies needs to be looked at. Hearsay, unverifiable or uncorroborated intelligence cannot—should not—be shared willy-nilly with other agencies, especially when it is known that the latter will, in the wake of 9/11, be using it aggressively, as the US so obviously did and still do to this day. It is one thing (already unacceptable) for an investigation to be based on false intelligence occurring here in Canada; it is another for that same information to be shared which will result in an individual’s torture. The quality threshold for intelligence products—raw or finished—that is shared with international allies should be higher. At this writing, it is not, and all kinds of bits of intelligence, from the obviously groundless to the passable, are shared on a daily basis between agencies.

While the Arar Commission sets an encouraging precedent that, one hopes, will force intelligence and law enforcement agencies to clean up their houses, a few question marks remain, and they are troublesome. First, portions of the public report were redacted by the government under the pretext that they contained material whose release could be deleterious to national security. Perhaps this is true, but more likely this continues the long tradition of intelligence agencies hiding blunders behind the wall of secrecy, about which I have written extensively in these pages. And while a full, unexpurgated version has been handed to government, I doubt that even this report is the result of unrestricted access. Here again, walls must have been created to protect high-ranking people at CSIS and the RCMP who have an interest in their activities surrounding the Arar case not being known. I do not intent to imply that there were evil machinations at play in this case, but let’s just say that there is a certain aversion to blunders resulting from incompetence being made public. The old boys’ club likes to keep things the way they are and will do their utmost—use national security confidentiality if need be—to ensure that. Note the sullying campaign, based on groundless accusations, that Canadian agencies launched against Mr. Arar soon after he made his case public.

The clear loser, as I have already stated, in the case is the RCMP. For its part, CSIS seems to have emerged unscathed, and this is not surprising as from the very beginning it has done everything it could to distance itself from the RCMP. But paying close attention to the text raises some questions:

“It is very likely that, in making the decisions to detain and remove Mr. Arar to Syria, the US authorities relied on information about Mr. Arar provided by the RCMP. Although I [O’Connor] cannot be certain without evidence of the American authorities, the evidence strongly supports this conclusion.” The wire service I am relying on to write this entry then paraphrases Mr. O’Connor, adding that CSIS did not share information with the Americans at this time. Those last three words, almost hidden in the text, leave the door open for questions concerning the role of CSIS in all this. What does “at this time” mean? What period does this refer to? While they will likely go unnoticed, those three words seem to imply that CSIS did in fact share information with the US on Arar. If this indeed occurred, was it before, or after the key information that was sent the US way by the RCMP?

The Commission was unquestionably a step in the right direction by the Canadian government. Many future terrorism suspects have Mr. Arar to thank, who unlike most such targets of investigations prefer to suffer in silence. Mr. Arar did not only fight for his own welfare, he fought for what Canada means to our society. He proved, through his courage and not inconsiderable charisma, that in a democracy like ours, individuals can still stand up to entire institutions and come out the winners. If we are lucky, heads will start rolling in Ottawa and the entire process of collection and sharing of intelligence will be scrutinized. The Arar case has demonstrated how far bad intelligence practices can take a targeted individual, and how dire the consequences can be.

If the Commission is simply taken as a list of recommendations, we can assume that nothing of substance will change. For the repercussions of this inquiry to be felt, high-ranking individuals will have to be retired.

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