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After clerking for the Chief Justice of Canada, Jameel Jaffer moved to Manhattan from Ottawa to start a career in corporate law. The Harvard-educated lawyer was poised to reap a small fortune on Wall Street. It was the summer of 2001 and he had not quite turned 30.

That September, he found himself among one of the millions shaken by the 9/11 terrorist attacks – and America’s response. He headed across the Hudson River to do some pro bono work inside a New Jersey detention centre. There, he found himself speaking to a young Afghan from Kandahar, who, like hundreds of other immigrants, had overstayed his visa.

The Afghan was crying as he complained of being locked away as a trumped-up terrorism suspect, stripped of his most essential rights. “He was just completely lost,” Mr. Jaffer recalls. “I was just a corporate lawyer and he thinks, ‘Here is this lawyer who can help me.’ … I was the only link this guy had to the outside world.

“It's impossible to go from a situation like that,” he says, “and go back to your day job.”

So, he quit – and traded his Wall Street gig to join the American Civil Liberties Union, where he has emerged as a leading voice for those caught in clandestine U.S. detentions around the globe, and helped force the disclosure of 130,000 pages of classified documents chronicling abuse, torture and death during the war on terror.

Sitting in a Montreal café recently after delivering a speech at McGill University, Mr. Jaffer recalls the early days in 2002, when he took a huge pay cut to join a group of young civil-libertarians poking around on the terror file. If U.S. agents were rounding up foreigners indiscriminately at home, they wondered, what might they be doing abroad?

The ACLU spent years on the paper chase. The lawyers filed Freedom of Information requests. They fought in court for top-secret documents. They tried and tried to obtain classified memos and e-mails buried deep within the bowels of the White House, the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency.

“Nobody thought we’d get very much,” said Mr. Jaffer, now 38 and still a Canadian citizen.

Latest ACLU win: Disclosure of 'Top Secret' CIA documents about 'waterboading'

His team at the ACLU forced revelations about prisoner torture and death in such places as Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Abu Ghraib in Iraq and the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. The disclosures made headlines around the world – and prompted debates in courts and in Congress about where state secrecy ends and where human rights begin.

One former CIA lawyer says the ACLU has been the “most instrumental” U.S. group in challenging state secrecy – and adds the world would know much less without its work. Mr. Jaffer “is a solid contributor in this very important field,” said John Radsan, a former CIA assistant general counsel now teaching at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn. “I respect his work.”

Some of the most damning documents the ACLU uncovered detail how CIA spies in secret foreign prisons water-boarded al-Qaeda suspects and then destroyed the interrogation tapes. Yesterday, the ACLU obtained and circulated an e-mail from a high-ranking official who wrote that “the heat from destroying is nothing compared to what it would be if the tapes ever got into the public domain … it would be devastating to us.”

In conversation, Mr. Jaffer chooses his words as carefully as any lawyer does. Yet he is outwardly passionate about why he fights these battles. He says he doesn’t seek headlines – merely the rule of law.

“I can't force anybody to cough anything up. All I can do is go to court and ask a judge to force the government to cough things up,” he said. “The whole point of having an intelligence service that’s subject to democratic control is to have an intelligence service that’s subject to democratic control.”

He recalled the inmates he first visited in the New Jersey detention centres and how they changed his life. He says he saw something of himself in them.

“The people who were sitting across the [prison] table were people who looked like my father, my uncle or my grandfather,” he said. “I'm not a practising Muslim, but my family background is Muslim…. It definitely personalized these issues.”

He hails from a line of Ismaili Muslims, migrant adventurers and traders originally from Gujarat. His pharmacist father and librarian mother were raised in East Africa.

In 1969, they left Tanzania for Canada and started a family in Ontario. Mr. Jaffer studied at Upper Canada College before going to Harvard Law School.

It was in 2003 that he and a fellow ACLU lawyer – Amrit Singh, the daughter of India’s current Prime Minister – began filing their first Freedom of Information Act requests for information about secret detention programs. At that time, they had no idea how far the Bush administration was prepared to go.

Ms. Singh has since left the ACLU, but co-authored a book with Mr. Jaffer titled The Administration of Torture. In an interview, she called her former research partner a “great strategic thinker.”

“Every time we got a set of documents we would go over them with a fine-tooth comb,” she said. “With every successive disclosure we became convinced that torture and abuse of prisoners were systemic and policy-driven, and that that implicated high-ranking officials.”

The Bush administration is now a memory. But the Obama administration is not distancing itself enough from its predecessor, according to Mr. Jaffer.

The ACLU is seeking new disclosures. The civil libertarians want to peel back the veil on U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. Yesterday, Mr. Jaffer was in a New York appeals court, arguing against warrantless wiretapping programs that target American citizens.

The most crucial questions, he said in the interview, are not about the character of terrorism suspects but the integrity of the processes used to target and detain them.

“You don’t have to look very hard to find instances over the last decade where the American government has identified someone as a terrorist and then turned out to be wrong,” Mr. Jaffer said.

“And when the consequence of being identified as a terrorist is that you get tortured in custody or get held in prison for the rest of your life, or that you get held incommunicado without access to your family or access to lawyers, then you had better be damn sure you get it right.”

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