The Mounties raided the home and office of a newspaper reporter yesterday, looking for evidence that one of their own officers may have leaked damaging allegations in the politically charged Maher Arar case.
Ottawa Citizen Editor Scott Anderson said the raids at the home and office of his reporter, Juliet O'Neill, smacked of a "police state."
Prime Minister Paul Martin, who has denounced leaks in the Arar case as "unacceptable," had no advance knowledge of the raids, his officials said.
However, Mr. Martin is concerned about the leaks because they damage the reputation of a Canadian who has been through a terrible ordeal in Syria, a senior official in the Prime Minister's Office said.
"It is despicable to use the media to get into character assassination," the official said.
The raids began even as an Ontario judge in Toronto quashed a warrant in another press freedom case that would have required a National Post reporter to surrender a leaked document concerning former prime minister Jean Chrétien's financial interests in a Quebec golf course.
The ruling, by Senior Justice Mary Lou Benotto, came too late to stop the raids in Ottawa. But the ruling will bolster arguments that the search warrants in the Arar case violate the press freedom provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Globe and Mail lawyer Peter Jacobsen said.
The Globe and Mail and the CBC joined the National Post in the legal battle to quash the warrants.
In a front-page article last November, Ms. O'Neill reported that leaked documents link Mr. Arar to an al-Qaeda terrorist support group in Ottawa. The article also said that the 33-year-old software engineer told Syrian interrogators that he had trained at a terrorist camp in Afghanistan.
Ten Mounties showed up at Ms. O'Neill's home in Ottawa's historic Bytown Market district yesterday morning. The police left five hours later with a brown cardboard carton full of seized material.
"They even went through her underwear drawer," Mr. Anderson said.
Another RCMP squad staged a simultaneous raid at Ms. O'Neill's office in Ottawa City Hall.
The Mounties have not laid charges. "But we believe charges are pending," Mr. Anderson said.
The two search warrants say the Mounties were looking for the documents, records or any other material that might identify the source of the leak. The warrants were issued under the federal Security of Information Act, which makes it a crime to disclose or receive secret information related to national defence or security.
No Canadian journalist has ever been successfully prosecuted for publishing official secrets.
Mr. Arar, who today plans to file a civil rights lawsuit against the U.S. government for deporting him to Syria, said he made the false confession under torture.
Mr. Arar, an immigrant from Syria who was travelling on his Canadian passport when arrested in New York in September, 2002, denies any terrorist links and wants a public inquiry so he can try to clear his name. The Martin government has resisted calling an inquiry while the RCMP public-complaints commission is investigating the case.
After 10 months in solitary confinement, Mr. Arar was released by Syrian authorities last October. The Syrians say they could not substantiate U.S. government claims that Mr. Arar is a terrorist.
The searches are an "outrageous violation of press freedom" aimed at silencing sources who are trying to shed light on the Arar case, Mr. Anderson said in an interview.
Mr. Anderson said the RCMP has agreed to seal the seized material until the newspaper can launch legal action - perhaps as early as today - to quash the warrants.
RCMP spokesman Sergeant. Jocelyn Nimeault said the force will not say who they suspect leaked the information to Ms. O'Neill.
But the raids are part of an ongoing criminal case, he said.
Mr. Anderson said the raids "are a black, black day for freedom in this country. And I am absolutely outraged that we seem to be living in such a police state that journalists are targeted" for doing their job of informing the public.
The federal government "has a lot to answer for" in the Arar case, Mr. Anderson said.
"And we are seeking answers and they are using intimidation techniques to try to keep a free press from answering questions" about what can happen to Mr. Arar and other Canadians in the atmosphere after the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Anderson said.
Mr. Martin should look closely at how the RCMP is handling the case because it is a branch of the federal government and it is "handcuffing a free press ..... This is a Star Chamber mentality that is creeping into our justice system," Mr. Anderson said.
Ms. O'Neill, a veteran reporter, has worked in Moscow under Soviet restrictions on foreign correspondents. She said she was feeling "okay" after the raid, but she couldn't say anything more on legal advice.
Chris Dornan, the head of the journalism school at Carleton University, said the raids yesterday "seem heavy handed."
If the reporter is charged, "the implication of this would be an attempt to intimidate any journalist who might receive information from a government source," Prof. Dornan said. "That would put an enormous chill on the ability of journalists to hold government accountable for their actions."
The case of Mr. Arar was featured on a U.S. prime-time TV show last night.
The CBS News program 60 Minutes II said Canadian intelligence officers knew in advance that the Americans were going to deport Mr. Arar to Syria and "signed off on the decision." The program quoted U.S. government officials. CSIS has denied any role in the Arar affair.
The Department of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa has always maintained its officials believed Mr. Arar would be returned to Canada. Ottawa filed a formal diplomatic protest with the U.S. State Department when consular officers learned Mr. Arar had been sent to Syria.
The U.S. news program said it could not get any U.S. officials to comment on the Arar case on camera, but the Justice Department in Washington issued a statement reiterating its position that "We have information indicating that Mr. Arar is a member of al-Qaeda and, therefore, remains a threat to U.S. national security."