Business as usual for security officials after Arar case

Please chip in to support rabble's election 2019 coverage. Support rabble.ca today for as little as $1 per month!

View of the WikiLeaks homepage. Photo: Prism Magazine

A classified U.S. diplomatic cable records how American officials worked with senior Canadian police and security officials to find "work-arounds" to anticipated restrictions on intelligence-sharing even before the Arar commission report went to the printers in 2006.

The cable from David Wilkins, then the U.S. ambassador in Ottawa, details a series of damage-control meetings he and other senior American diplomats held in 2005 with the commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and with the prime minister's national security adviser.

The Americans wanted to make sure the free flow of Canadian security intelligence would continue despite outraged Canadian public opinion at the news that the U.S. had sent Canadian computer engineer Maher Arar to be tortured in Syria.

Top Canadian officials were happy to oblige the U.S., and spoke openly with the American diplomats about how to keep the information tap running.

The confidential cable, captioned "U.S.-Canada law enforcement and counter-terrorism cooperation: mitigating fallout from the Arar commission," contains not a single word of American remorse for arresting Mr. Arar in 2002 and deporting him in chains in the middle of the night to Syria on a secret flight.

The cable was in a pile of material posted to the Web by Wikileaks, a site that specializes in distributing documents leaked by whistleblowers around the world.

The Arar commission, headed by a highly respected Ontario judge, Dennis O'Connor, found there was no evidence supporting allegations Mr. Arar was a terrorist.

The commission, however, found ample evidence that the RCMP passed unsubstantiated rumours about Mr. Arar to American law enforcement officers before Mr. Arar was deported from the U.S. to Syria.

The Wilkins cable, written on December 14, 2005, opens with a reminder that the Arar commission report would be published in just a few months, just as a new Canadian government would be finding its feet.

The Mounties

The cable says Giuliano Zaccardelli, who was the RCMP commissioner at the time, "fears that the recommendations (of Justice O'Connor) will seek to undermine his institution's independence and its ability to freely and proactively share information with us."

In a meeting with the U.S. legal attaché, the diplomatic cover usually given to the senior representative of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Canada, Zaccardelli said that "the hostile nature of the questions put to him by the (Arar) commission leads him to believe there will be a strong move to restrict flexibility in information-sharing and the conduct of investigations.

"Law enforcement officials will simply have to adapt and develop work-arounds to allow for continued effectiveness in investigations and prosecutions. Overall, Zaccardelli believes everything can be overcome through close cooperation, but it will take a concerted effort to make it work."

The cable goes on to quote Mr. Zaccardelli as saying he was "still smarting" from the Arar case especially because the Mounties were never notified by U.S. officials prior to Mr. Arar's deportation to Syria.

Mr. Zaccardelli "regrets that some of the proposed recommendations will make it even more cumbersome to exchange information and confirmed that the fallout from Arar has already made it more difficult to conduct joint law enforcement operations, employ U.S. informants, and monitor conversations."

The Privy Council Office

Mr. Wilkins reported on a meeting he and two other U.S. diplomats had with Canadian National Security Adviser Bill Elliott of the Privy Council Office.

Mr. Elliott, who later succeeded Mr. Zaccardelli as RCMP commissioner, said he hoped the incoming government of Stephen Harper "will be reasonable in its implementation of Arar recommendations," the cable says. "He intends to impress this upon the transition team."

Mr. Harper's Conservatives won the winter election of 2005 and took office on Feb. 6, 2006.

The cable says, "Elliott said he shares our concern that the Arar commission may continue to hamper the free flow of law enforcement information. "But Elliott said he has tried to impress on everyone, including the RCMP, that they cannot let Arar stop them from doing what they need to do -- the safety of Canada depends on the ability to share information with its allies, in particular the U.S. "He reiterated that his message has been to not overreact, and this is the message he will pass on to the transition team for the next government."

The Department of Foreign Affairs

The Wilkins cable says Scott Heatherington, the Canadian foreign ministry's top official dealing with the Arar commission, said he expected Justice O'Connor's key policy recommendation "will be for better oversight of the RCMP, specifically as regards what was 'broken' in the bilateral information-sharing system." He does not, however, foresee this leading inevitably to recommendations that would disrupt information sharing."

Mr. Heatherington also said "a key 'fix' might be the widespread use of more explicit originator 'caveats' for Canadian information provided to U.S. officials."

The Wilkins cable gave an example of a possible Canadian caveat that would say classified material "is loaned to the U.S. FBI in confidence for its use in assessing and investigating terrorist threats against U.S. interests. It is not to be reclassified or further disseminated outside the FBI or used in relation to any watch list without the consent of the originator."

Regarding the Arar case, the Canadian government is concerned that in the "frenzy" following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington "too much information was shared too freely," the cable says.

Ambassador Wilkins advised his superiors at the State Department that there might be a way to head off any move to restrict the flow of Canadian information to U.S. security agencies. He recommended that Washington formalize notification procedures to be used anytime the U.S. planned to deport a Canadian to a third country.

Mr. Wilkins also wrote that the U.S. needed a high-profile publicity campaign to convince the Canadian public that terrorism is not a threat just to Americans, but to Canadians too. "We need to continue to pursue an aggressive public diplomacy campaign here," the ambassador wrote.

Anne McLellan, the outgoing Liberal government 's public safety minister, was one of the few public officials in Ottawa making this case, the cable says.

The experts react

Two experts on the Arar case, former Canadian diplomat Gar Pardy (Mr. Pardy, a former Canadian ambassador in Latin America, was the head of the consular affairs branch at the time Mr. Arar was arrested in New York and then disappeared. He is the first Canadian foreign affairs official to suspect the Americans had secretly deported Mr. Arar to Syria.) and lawyer Paul Cavalluzzo (Mr. Cavalluzo was the chief legal consul to Judge O'Connor and the Arar commission. The commission's final report led to a decision by the Harper government to pay Mr. Arar more than $10 million in compensation for federal government complicity in his ordeal.), recently read the document and provided analysis.

The two experts said they were not particularly surprised at by the Wilkins cable. They have followed security issues from privileged positions for a long time.

But they both thought the Canadian public might be very surprised indeed to learn how far Canadian officials were prepared to go to reassure the Americans that there were ways to maintain business as usual post-Arar.

Average Canadians would "find it surprising how far their officials would go, to the American altar, bowing down and almost apologizing" to Washington that the Arar case might disrupt or restrict the steady flow of security intelligence from Canada to the U.S., about anticipated fallout from Judge O'Connor's report, Mr. Cavalluzo said. "What struck me was that a number of Canadian officials were advising the Americans on internal Canadian policy discussions."

Nowhere in his cable did Mr. Wilkins make even passing reference to the fact it was the U.S. that botched the Arar case and sent an innocent man to be tortured by a brutal regime, he added.

A question about the value of Canadian caveats on shared security documents brought a chuckle. "The Americans will do whatever they want anyway," Mr. Cavalluzo said.

Mr. Pardy, who is now retired from the foreign ministry, said he is disappointed that senior Canadian officials "were colluding with the Americans" to maintain the status quo even before the report was out. "Elliott was leading the charge."

Caveats on the sharing of intelligence are just window dressing "to make everyone feel better. But they are just a rubber stamp, nothing more," Mr. Pardy said.

"The Americans will make use of the information whenever they think it's in their best interest no matter what they promise Canada," Mr. Pardy added.

Coming clean?

The Arar case eventually brought Mr. Zaccardelli down, but not because of RCMP complicity in the original deportation. Nor was it because he advised U.S. diplomats on how to find "work-arounds" to Arar commission recommendations.

No, Mr. Zaccardelli was forced to resign as Canada's top cop because he couldn't keep his story straight in testimony to a Parliamentary committee. He first said the Mounties had warned the Americans early on that there might be a problem with RCMP intelligence linking Mr. Arar to terrorism. He was back before the committee a few days later, admitting that he had been wrong on his timeline; there was no early warning to the U.S. about faulty intelligence.

The Harper government yanked Mr. Zaccardelli out of the Canadian media spotlight by sponsoring his appointment to a senior position with Interpol, the international police agency headquartered in Lyon, France.

Mr. Elliott, the national security adviser, was as good as his word when he told the American diplomats he would lobby on their behalf with the new Harper government to prevent any "overreaction" to the Arar case.

Mr. Elliott so impressed Mr. Harper that he was appointed RCMP commissioner. There was no sign of "overreaction" on his watch.

On the contrary, Mr. Harper signed a new continental security pact with U.S. President Barack Obama four months ago, proclaiming that any security threat to the U.S. is a security threat to Canada as well.

This is the same Mr. Harper who in 2006 spoke bravely about it being time for the Americans to "come clean" on what they did to Mr. Arar.

Mr. Arar, however, is still on an American blacklist, barred from the United States. He and his family can't even fly over U.S. territory to go someplace else.

There's no more brave talk from Ottawa about making the Americans come clean. Instead, Canadian officials and politicians say by their craven actions that clever work-arounds were successful, it's business as usual on information sharing, and the Harper government will never press Washington to come clean on the Arar case.

This article was first published in Prism Magazine.

Further Reading

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.

Comments

We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:

Do

  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.

Don't

  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.