Nine months after Ottawa computer engineer Maher Arar was deported to Syria and brutally tortured, Canada's civilian spy agency wanted to prolong his detention, according to a newly declassified document.
"There is not sufficient evidence against Arar for him to be charged with anything in Canada," reads a memorandum prepared for the Foreign Affairs intelligence unit. "CSIS has made it clear to the department that they would prefer to have him remain in Syria, rather than return to Canada."
The explosive memo, dated June 24, 2003, was a draft document and was never sent, the government legal team at the inquiry said yesterday. It was prepared by a senior Foreign Affairs official for Scott Heatherington, who then headed the ministry's intelligence unit.
It is yet another confirmation of the deep divisions between Foreign Affairs and CSIS. "CSIS officials do not seem to understand that, guilty or innocent, Maher Arar has the right to consular assistance. . . ," the memo reads. "CSIS must accept that [the Department of Foreign Affairs]must assist Arar even though this may result in his regaining his freedom in Canada."
Former solicitor-general Wayne Easter, who had cabinet responsibility for both CSIS and the RCMP during Mr. Arar's incarceration, questioned the memo's veracity.
"I don't know whether that's an accurate statement," Mr. Easter told the inquiry yesterday. "I would question that statement."
Nevertheless, the memo appears to confirm long-held suspicions that CSIS had a direct hand in Mr. Arar's year-long imprisonment in Syria, and in impeding the government's halting and confused efforts to get him home.
Documents reviewed during testimony yesterday show CSIS consistently opposed efforts, led by Gar Pardy at the Department of Foreign Affairs, to have Mr. Arar sent home.
NDP foreign-affairs critic Alexa McDonough said the memo raises questions about how committed the government was to achieving Mr. Arar's release. "It raises astounding questions about what we've done," she said. "Is there no oversight, is there no accountability over these security agencies?"
Conservative deputy leader Peter MacKay said the memo shows CSIS's efforts to get at the truth are laughable.
"It's at best a cop-out and a dereliction of duty and it seems to me that a higher standard should be expected from our security service," he said.
Mr. Easter, who was ousted from cabinet in December of 2003 but who remains an MP from Prince Edward Island, insisted that CSIS did all it could to aid Mr. Pardy's efforts.
"I believe that within the Department of the Solicitor-General, and all levels of government that were involved, and given the circumstances, we made the best efforts to get Mr. Arar back," he said.
The document record, and earlier testimony by Defence Minister Bill Graham, who was foreign affairs minister during the time of the Arar arrest, and Mr. Pardy, tell a different story. Inquiry testimony has established, and Mr. Easter did not deny yesterday, that in November of 2002, CSIS officials visited Syria and held discussions with Syrian officials that left them with the impression that Canada did not want Mr. Arar returned home.
Commission lead counsel Paul Cavalluzzo led Mr. Easter yesterday through a series of instances, beginning in January of 2003, in which CSIS resisted efforts to correct that impression.
In January, Mr. Graham heard from various sources within his department that the Syrians were citing CSIS officials as saying Mr. Arar should be kept in Syria. He telephoned the Syrians to assure them that this was not true.
Nevertheless, in late March, two MPs advocating on Mr. Arar's behalf were told by the Syrian ambassador that he understood CSIS didn't want Mr. Arar back. In May of 2003, Mr. Pardy repeated again in another memo that the Syrians still maintained this belief. There are more Foreign Affairs document references to that effect in early June.
Throughout this period, Mr. Pardy and Mr. Graham were pursuing the crafting of a letter, to be jointly signed by the minister of foreign affairs and the solicitor-general, that would tell the Syrians unequivocally that Mr. Arar posed no threat and should be returned home.
Mr. Easter refused all those entreaties. Asked about this yesterday, he said it wasn't his job to write such letters. "I think it would be wrong for any solicitor-general to get into writing letters on the innocence, or not, of any individuals," he said. "I think it goes against our system."
Asked repeatedly whether it wasn't his responsibility to correct the Syrians' misapprehension, if it was a misapprehension, that CSIS wanted Mr. Arar left in Syria, Mr. Easter simply repeated that he didn't believe it was.
It emerged yesterday that Mr. Easter did not request a full briefing on the Arar case until July of 2003, shortly before then-prime-minister Jean Chrétien intervened and sent a personal request to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for Mr. Arar's return.
A spokesman for Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan cautioned yesterday that the memo was just in draft form.
"The commission's findings may not turn on one document," said Alex Swann.
Also yesterday, the Ontario Court of Appeal ordered the Crown to reveal the identities of people whose properties were searched in the RCMP-led investigation that factored in to Mr. Arar's ordeal.
In January of 2002, months before the U.S. deported Mr. Arar to Syria, the Mounties obtained seven search warrants looking for bombs and schematics of government buildings. Considering Mr. Arar "peripheral" to the main line of the investigation, they stopped by his home to ask him some questions, but were more interested in searching the home of a Syrian-Canadian he knew. But both men were abroad.
Except for the acquaintance, Abdullah Almalki, the names of the others mentioned in the search warrants have remained sealed and it's not clear where the warrants were executed.
The court yesterday ruled in favour of an Ottawa Citizen motion that the identities be released in the interests of press freedom.
Three judges found that such disclosure would not prejudice the interests of "innocent persons" provided that the media would be prohibited from publishing names.
"This would allow the press full scrutiny, in the public interest, of the search warrant documents, notwithstanding the temporary ban on publication," the judges found.
Key moments in Arar case
September, 2001: The RCMP drafts a memo planning a "unique" and "precedent-setting" investigation of possible terrorist activity in Canada after al-Qaeda attacks kill 3,000 people in the United States.
November, 2001: An Arab-Canadian truck driver who was under intense RCMP scrutiny is jailed upon arrival in Syria. Much later he says he falsely confessed under torture to plotting to bomb a U.S. target in Ottawa and to implicating other Canadians -- including Maher Arar.
January, 2002: Looking for bombs and weapons, RCMP national-security detectives execute several search warrants in Ottawa. They knock on Mr. Arar's door to ask him some questions, but he is abroad.
August, 2002: The Mounties get wind that the Syrians may be abusing the truck driver, so they work at launching a "proactive measure to discuss media lines to be used when [the suspect's]allegations about torture" surface.
September, 2002: U.S. authorities detain Mr. Arar in a New York airport. Citing the fact that he knows two men jailed in Syria who were under RCMP investigation, they deem him an al-Qaeda terrorist.
October, 2002: Jailed for two weeks, Mr. Arar tells a Canadian official he fears the Americans will soon deport him to Syria. Shortly afterward, he is awoken in the middle of the night and flown to the Middle East. The Syrians beat him with electric cables, he says, prompting him to falsely confess that he attended a training camp in Afghanistan.
June, 2003: Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister is told by a subordinate in a memo that "should Mr. Arar return to Canada, CSIS and the RCMP have both indicated that they want to interrogate him." In another memo, top Foreign Affairs officials write that CSIS "made it clear to the department that they would prefer to have him remain in Syria, rather than return to Canada."
July, 2003: Overriding the objections of Canadian security agencies, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien writes a letter asking Syria's President for the release Mr. Arar. Senator Pierre De Bané is dispatched to Damascus to hand-deliver the note.
August, 2003: The Canadian consul visits Mr. Arar, who is ordered to speak in Arabic by his Syrian minders. The Canadians leave the prison meeting saying that Mr. Arar told them he has not been tortured.
October, 2003: Mr. Arar is freed and allowed to return to Canada. A few weeks later he appears on national TV. "I am not a member of al-Qaeda," he says. "I do not know anyone who belongs to this group."
January, 2004: The federal government yields to mounting pressure to hold a public inquiry into the Arar affair. The Mounties draw the ire of the Canadian media by raiding the home of an Ottawa Citizen reporter who published leaked information concerning Mr. Arar's confession.
April, 2004: Mr. Arar launches a lawsuit seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages from the Canadian government.
June, 2004: The public inquiry begins but quickly disappears for months into secret hearings to deal with the government's national-security concerns. Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor denies standing to two other Canadians who were under RCMP investigation and jailed in Syria.
May, 2005: The inquiry resumes.
June, 2005: Former foreign affairs minister Bill Graham tells Mr. Arar he's "very sorry" he wasn't released earlier. Staff