U.S. legislators to see file on Arar
January 18, 2007
WASHINGTON”“U.S. Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales, facing accusations he has abused core American values and invited condemnation from his country’s closest ally, says he will open his government’s file on Maher Arar next week.
Gonzales yesterday told Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chair of the Senate judiciary committee, he would share with legislators the Bush administration’s rationale for barring the British Columbia man from entering the United States, even after he was cleared of any terror links by a commission of inquiry in Canada.
He said he would also seek to open the file to the general public.
Gonzales sat silently for much of his confrontation with Leahy, a sign of the changed atmosphere in Washington where Democrats now rule Congress and have vowed tough oversight of what they consider the erosion of American liberties under the Bush administration’s so-called war on terror.
It was extraordinary, however, to see a bilateral Canada-U.S. issue explode in a Senate committee, and Leahy’s assault on the attorney-general was the clearest challenge yet to the Bush policy of rendition, essentially the contracting out of torture to third countries.
Leahy said the policy was “a black mark” on his country.
“Canadians have been our closest allies, (we have) the longest unguarded frontier in the world,” Leahy said.
“They’re justifiably upset. They’re wondering what’s happened to us.”
Leahy also sparked laughter by mocking Gonzales’ statement that former Attorney-General John Ashcroft had received assurances from Syria that Arar would not be tortured.
“It is easy for us to sit here comfortably in this room knowing that we’re not going to be sent off to another country to be tortured, to treat it as though, well, Attorney-General Ashcroft says we’ve got assurances,” Leahy said.
“Assurances from a country that we also say, now, we can’t talk to them because we can’t take their word for anything?”
Leahy and Gonzales sparred the same morning Public Security Minister Stockwell Day raised the Arar matter with Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff.
Day told reporters his officials had seen “recent information” from the Bush administration on Arar and Ottawa still believes he should be on no watch or terror list in the U.S.
“Our officials recently have looked at all the U.S. information, and that does not change our position,” Day said. “We are still maintaining that he should not be on that (no) fly list.”
Day said he was pleased to hear Gonzales promise to release more information.
Chertoff sought to turn the Arar case into a “hypothetical” issue, even after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay before Christmas that she would have the homeland security chief review the case.
He said the issue only becomes relevant if someone presents themselves for entry to the U.S.
“Otherwise, it’s kind of a hypothetical issue,” Chertoff said.
Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian, was returning to Ottawa from a vacation in 2002 when he was detained by American officials at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport ”“ based on erroneous information provided by the RCMP, according to Justice Dennis O’Connor’s report ”“ then “rendered” to Syria, where he was held for 10 months and tortured.
American authorities did not tell Canadian officials that they had sent Arar to Syria.
The U.S. ambassador to Canada, David Wilkins, confirmed late last year that, despite the findings of the Canadian probe, Arar remains on a U.S. watch list.
Leahy asked Gonzales why that was and the attorney-general said he had “some very definite views” on the case, beyond the fact that it is still in litigation.
Arar is appealing a New York court’s decision to deny him compensation for his treatment at the hands of the Americans.
But Gonzales would not expand on that, only telling Leahy that he couldn’t answer the questions at the hearing, but would by next week.
“We knew damn well, if he went to Canada, he wouldn’t be tortured,” Leahy said.
“He’d be held. He’d be investigated.
“We also knew damn well, if he went to Syria, he’d be tortured.
“And it’s beneath the dignity of this country, a country that has always been a beacon of human rights, to send somebody to another country to be tortured.”
Gonzales told Leahy he understood his government’s legal obligations when someone is extradited or rendered to another country and understood its obligations under the Conventions Against Torture.
It marked the first time Gonzales had used the word “rendered” in relation to Arar.
Until yesterday, he had always characterized the case as a deportation.
Lorne Waldman, Arar’s Toronto lawyer, said he was heartened by Day’s comments, indicating that Ottawa had seen the file and could see no terror links.
“It looks like we’re making some progress here,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see the file, but it should tell us there was never any basis to keep him on the no-fly list.”
Gonzales appeared one day after the Bush administration announced it was ending a controversial domestic wiretapping program which bypassed court supervision, reversing itself and subjecting wiretaps to that courts.
The program had faced prolonged opposition, but Bush asserted his right to circumvent the court until the Democrats took control of Congress.
“It is a little hard to see why it took so long,” said Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who headed the panel until his party lost power in November.
“There hasn’t been a sufficient sense of urgency,” to change the policy, he said.
Wow: Senator Layhe gave him what for! Perhaps there is hope, America can restore what she was before 9/11. Arar deserves some good news.