Is This America?


We knew damn well if Maher Arar went to Syria, he’d be tortured. 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 . . . Let us not create more terrorism around the world by telling the world we cannot keep up to our basic standards and beliefs.

Senator Patrick Leahy, questioning Attorney General
Alberto Gonzales on the CIA’s kidnapping of Maher Arar

On the day the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia ended in 1787, Benjamin Franklin told an inquiring citizen: “We have a Republic—if we can keep it.” Two years later, in a letter to a friend, Franklin was more rhapsodic about the long-term impact of the American Revolution and its Constitution:

“God grant that not only the love of liberty, but a thorough knowledge of the rights of man, may [through our Revolution] pervade all the nations of the earth.”

But on January 18, 2007, Vermont senator Patrick Leahy assessed how Bush’s war on terrorism has affected many people around the world who do not hate us but no longer trust us as a lover of liberty and the rights of man. Said Leahy: “The administration’s secret policies have reduced America’s standing around the world to one of the lowest points in our history.”

I expect that future historians of our continuing decline as a source of liberty and inspiration to the world will tell the story of Maher Arar.

In 2002, Arar, a software engineer and citizen of Canada, was kidnapped and flown by the CIA to Syria, where for 10 months he was held in an underground cell seven feet high, three feet wide, and six feet deep (“like a grave,” he said). The persistent tortures he underwent finally forced him to make a false confession of connections to Al Qaeda.

On his release, Syrian officials admitted there was a total lack of evidence against him. Then, after a two-year inquiry and its 1,200-page report by a Canadian commission—in which the United States refused to participate—Dennis O’Connor, the chief justice of the Ontario Court of Appeal, said, “I’m able to say categorically that there is no evidence to indicate that Mr. Arar has committed any offense or that his activities constitute a threat to the security of Canada.”

The official inquiry had determined that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had given the CIA unsubstantiated, brittle “evidence” that Arar was probably some kind of Al Qaeda supporter. And that’s why, when he was changing planes at Kennedy Airport on the way back to Canada after a vacation in Tunisia, Arar was abducted by the CIA and sent to his native Syria.

On December 7, 2006, the commissioner of the RCMP, Giuliano Zaccardelli, resigned because he had mishandled the case, saying he had “made a mistake” in not being aware of the false information the RCMP had given the CIA.

In this country, you will not be surprised to learn, no one—at the CIA, the Justice Department, or in Dick Cheney’s office of “dark arts”—has resigned or admitted any error at all.

Instead, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was asked at a press conference whether the Justice Department might at least offer Arar—who can’t find a job and still suffers from the effects of his stay in the grave-like Syrian cell—an apology. Astonishingly, since Arar’s ordeal has been reported in detail in mainstream American newspapers as well as in the foreign press, Gonzales actually said: “We were not responsible for Mr. Arar’s removal to Syria. I’m not aware that he was tortured, and I haven’t read the [Canadian] commission report. He was initially detained because his name appeared on terrorist lists, and he was deported according to our immigration laws.”

The attorney general did not mention that his Justice Department approved the removal of Arar or the special accommodations for Arar in a CIA plane, bound not for Canada, where he is a citizen, but for Syria’s torture chambers. And Gonzales has yet to answer the insistent questions on that brutal rerouting from senators Leahy and Arlen Specter.

On January 26, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper formally apologized to Arar: “We cannot go back and fix the injustice that occurred to Mr. Arar. However, we can make changes to lessen the likelihood that something like this will ever happen again.”

Moreover, the prime minister added that Arar will receive $9 million in compensation. That will settle Arar’s claim against the Canadian government for its RCMP having given the CIA false information about him.

The prime minister explained that the Canadian government decided the $9 million was about what Arar would have been awarded in a lawsuit. Arar’s attorneys also received $879,000 in legal fees. (Arar’s lawsuit against the U.S. has been dismissed in our courts on the basis of “state secrets.”)

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported on January 27 that “public resentment in Canada swelled . . . over U.S. officials’ insistence that Arar would remain on its ‘watch list’ of potential suspects.” (That order came from Alberto Gonzales and Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff.)

Along with Arar on that terrorist list are his wife and two young children. The family is prohibited from flying into—or over—the United States. (Who knows what those kids would drop on us?)

At a televised news conference, Arar, with 10 Canadian flags behind him, said, according to the Los Angeles Times: “The struggle to clear my name has been long and hard. This struggle has taught me how important it is to stand up for human rights. I feel proud as a Canadian.”

How proud do you feel as Alberto Gonzales insists there is secret information justifying Arar and his family being on the terrorist list? With Canada asking that they be removed from the list, Stockwell Day, the Canadian minister of public safety, went to see Chertoff and Gonzales and reviewed the whole secret dossier on Arar. He saw nothing justifying the exclusion of the Arars from this sweet land of liberty. Says Arar: “I will never be the same. The United States must take responsibility for what it did to me and must stop destroying more innocent lives with its unlawful actions.”