Friday, August 10, 2007

The Road To Damascus

The RCMP yesterday admitted for the first time that it worked with the CIA during the Maher Arar affair. Suggestions of CIA involvement have been public since the Ottawa engineer provided convincing evidence he was flown to the Middle East on a CIA Gulfstream jet after his arrest in a U.S. airport, but yesterday was the first occasion there has been official confirmation to support his accusations.

Ottawa officials had insisted on keeping a lid on the fact that Canada was working with the Central Intelligence Agency on the case, arguing such confirmation would work against national security. There was no such compunction over citing assistance with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but the government decided the CIA, a clandestine spy organization, deserved greater protection because of its different rules of engagement.

Canadian security officials suggest the reason the CIA was granted blanket protection was because of a cardinal rule in intelligence gathering - namely the third-party rule, whereby the work of foreign spies must not be compromised through public mention of their work. The FBI has routinely shared its work under established rules with Canadian police forces, but this was the first time RCMP officers involved in the Arar debacle had worked with the CIA and as a result, they argued it essential that a blanket ban be put in place.

The Syrian-Canadian was among five Canadian Arabs who were jailed and interrogated in Syria at various points between 2001 and 2003. Most had flown there voluntarily. But Mr. Arar arrived only after being sent to the Middle East in shackles, on a CIA Gulfstream jet, after his arrest in a U.S. airport. These detentions occurred during an almost perfect storm of fear and the rethinking of standard protocols.

Agents were picking up information about a "second wave" of al-Qaeda attacks. U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney stated the CIA had to contemplate working on "the dark side." Certain Canadian agents came to believe walls that had separated their investigations from U.S. ones had come down.

And Syria, a pariah nation known for flouting human rights, saw an opportunity. During a brief thaw in relations after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks in the United States, Damascus claimed to have provided valuable intelligence about an al-Qaeda bomb plot against a target in Ottawa - an apparent reference to statements procured from a Canadian suspect, Ahmad Abou El Maati, who now says he was tortured into false admissions.

Some U.S. officials, such as Syrian expert Flynt Leverett, have gone on record praising the information Damascus provided Washington in this period. Other U.S. security officials disagree. "That relationship never produced significant useful information," said Bruce Riedel, a Mideast expert who retired from the CIA last year.

Whatever the case, the thaw didn't last. During the 2003 Iraq war, Syria became the main entry point for fighters wanting to take on U.S. forces.

The Arar commission found that at one juncture, Canadian police directly sent questions to Syria to be put to one of the Canadian suspects.

"Sending someone to Syria is a pretty extreme solution to the problem of interrogation," Mr. Riedel said. The regime, he said, is well known to be "much less interested in information than they are in confession."

"They are not truth seekers, they are guilt seekers," added Mr. Riedel, now a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution.

"That should set off big red flags. You are asking for trouble and you are asking for Syrians to manipulate you. They [the Syrians] are not stupid. They know how to play a sucker when they see one."


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