Maher Arar is not a terrorist, according to a report released this week by a government commission in Ottawa. The document describes how Canadian and U.S. law enforcement blunders led to Arar’s deportation to his native Syria, where he was held for ten months as a suspected Al Qaeda sympathizer and tortured. Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente tells Mark Jurkowitz how the Mounties used the media to help smear Arar.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
MARK JURKOWITZ: And I'm Mark Jurkowitz. A government commission in Ottawa this week cleared a Canadian citizen of suspected ties to al Qaeda in a case that dates back more than four years. In September 2002, computer engineer Maher Arar was detained at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City by U.S. officials acting on what turned out to be false intelligence from Canadian law enforcement.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or RCMP, believed Arar might be a terrorist based on entirely on circumstantial evidence, evidence that the U.S. Justice Department nevertheless found compelling. Arar soon found himself on a plane to Syria in what the U.S. government has called a deportation but others are calling rendition, the practice of transferring a terrorism suspect to a third-party nation for interrogation.
MARK JURKOWITZ: This launched a series of events that led to the leak of yet more false information, and, more significantly, the torture of Mr. Arar. Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente believes that in this case, the media are as guilty as the government. Margaret, welcome to On the Media.
MARGARET WENTE: Thank you.
MARK JURKOWITZ: Now, he wasn't held, obviously, in the United States for very long. He was deported to his native Syria, over his objections. What happened to him in Syria?
MARGARET WENTE: The first couple of weeks he was tortured, whipped with electric cable and roughed up pretty badly. And, under torture, he made a false confession. After that, he was kept in a little room the size of about six by six or something like that, for the next 10 months or so.
MARK JURKOWITZ: How were the media treating the story and his presumptive guilt or innocence?
MARGARET WENTE: They were asking hard questions about how the Canadians could let the Americans get away with this. Whether this guy is a good guy or a bad guy or whatever he is, why didn't they just send him back to Canada? But I think the jury was kind of out, you know, on Maher Arar's guilt or innocence, because nobody really knew for sure.
MARK JURKOWITZ: The Canadian government obviously did manage to get him back from the Syrians in late 2003. He gave a press conference then. First of all, what did he say when he came back, and then did that change public reaction toward his case and his role?
MARGARET WENTE: He described the details of his torture. He said he confessed to al Qaeda ties. But, he said, I would have confessed to anything. He described his mental anguish. He described how he had lived in this cell the size of a coffin. And his wife, who had been fighting for him all this time and protesting his innocence, was by his side. People looked at this man and they said, that man is telling the truth. But, of course, for the authorities, this posed a very difficult problem, because behind the scenes, the Mounties, the RCMP, had told the Americans that this couple were Islamist terrorists with connections to al Qaeda. So if Maher Arar is telling the truth, this means that the Canadian authorities framed, either by design or by incompetence, an innocent man.
MARK JURKOWITZ: Now, I gather that editorial opinion in the Canadian press began to change at this point, but there still seem to have been articles, front-page articles, even, continuing to raise suspicions about Mr. Arar, keeping the doubt alive. Was this a matter, as far as you can tell, of law enforcement leaking information to the press to continue to raise doubts about him, and, secondarily, the press being too willing to accept that information?
MARGARET WENTE: Yes. Lots of suggestions that Maher Arar is not the innocent virgin he claims to be, in the quote of one highly-placed professional. There were maybe half a dozen stories that included this type of innuendo, all attributed to highly-placed government officials with knowledge of the case. Some of these people were quoted. They got onto the CBC, CTV, the other national network, a couple of the national papers, including our own, to some extent. So there were a lot of doubters out there, and the doubters were allowed to keep on doubting when they read this stuff.
MARK JURKOWITZ: Right now where's public opinion in Canada, first of all, about Mr. Arar? Is he widely seen as a victim or a hero or something in between?
MARGARET WENTE: There's been a complete reversal in public opinion. The public inquiry just concluded, and the report was issued this week – 1,200 pages. It did not find that the RCMP knew what the Americans were doing or going to do when they "rendered" Mr. Arar back to Syria, but it did find that the RCMP fed the Americans false information. The report also dealt with the disinformation campaign and the efforts to smear Mr. Arar in the media, which were, of course, partially successful. But now, Maher Arar, having been completely vindicated, is now seen as a hero.
MARK JURKOWITZ: You know, in this country, in the last couple of years, there's been a lot of soul-searching about the use of anonymous sources and leak information. In your column about this episode, you quote a professor as saying, the media are too willing to be used. It's time to hold these people accountable. Do you think there have been real lessons learned for the news media in Canada as a result of what's happened here?
MARGARET WENTE: I would like to say yes. There are debates now in our paper, for example, over the use of anonymous sources – just the very same kind of debate that The New York Times had with itself – and a resolution that we have to come a little bit cleaner with readers, and we also have to hold these anonymous people to account so that we can understand what their agendas are. Because what we did to Maher Arar was a minor role in his torment, but we're still responsible for some of it.
MARK JURKOWITZ: In the immortal words of former Labor Secretary Ray Donovan, where do I go to get my reputation back, I guess he's asking right now.
MARGARET WENTE: That's right.
MARK JURKOWITZ: Margaret, thank you very much.
MARGARET WENTE: Thanks. I enjoyed being with you today.
MARK JURKOWITZ: Margaret Wente is a columnist for The Toronto Globe and Mail. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]