By Christopher H. Pyle
On Sept. 26, 2002, U.S. immigration officials seized a Syrian-born Canadian at Kennedy International Airport, because his name had come up on an international watch list for possible terrorists. What happened next is chilling.
Maher Arar was about to change planes on his way home to Canada after visiting his wife's family in Tunisia when he was pulled aside for questioning. He was not a terrorist. He had no terrorist connections, but his name was on the list, so he was detained for questioning. Not ordinary, polite questioning, but abusive, insulting, degrading questioning by the immigration service, the FBI and the New York City Police Department.
He asked for a lawyer and was told he could not have one. He asked to call his family, but phone calls were not permitted. Instead, he was clapped into shackles and, for several days, made to "disappear." His family was frantic.
Finally, he was allowed to make a call. His government expected that Arar's right of safe passage under its passport would be respected. But it wasn't. Arar denied any connection to terrorists. He was not accused of any crimes, but U.S. agents wanted him questioned further by someone whose methods might be more persuasive than theirs.
So, they put Arar on a private plane and flew him to Washington, D.C. There, a new team, presumably from the CIA, took over and delivered him, by way of Jordan, to Syrian interrogators. This covert operation was legal, our Justice Department later claimed, because Arar is also a citizen of Syria by birth. The fact that he was a Canadian traveling on a Canadian passport, with a wife, two children and job in Canada, and had not lived in Syria for 16 years, was ignored. The Justice Department wanted him to be questioned by Syrian military intelligence, whose interrogation methods our government has repeatedly condemned.
The Syrians locked Arar in an underground cell the size of a grave: 3 feet wide, 6 feet long, 7 feet high. Then they questioned him, under torture, repeatedly, for 10 months. Finally, when it was obvious that their prisoner had no terrorist ties, they let him go, 40 pounds lighter, with a pronounced limp and chronic nightmares.
Why was Arar on our government's watch list? Because "multiple international intelligence agencies" had linked him to terrorist groups. How many agencies? Two. What had they reported? Not much.
The Syrians believed that Arar might be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Why? Because a cousin of his mother's had been, nine years earlier, long after Arar moved to Canada. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported that the lease on Arar's apartment had been witnessed by a Syrian- born Canadian who was believed to know an Egyptian Canadian whose brother was allegedly mentioned in an al Qaeda document.
That's it. That's all they had: guilt by the most remote of computer- generated associations. But, according to Attorney General John Ashcroft, that was more than enough to justify Arar's delivery to Syria's torturers.
Besides, Ashcroft added, the torturers had expressly promised that they would not torture him.
Our intelligence agencies have a name for this torture-by-proxy. They call it "extraordinary rendition." As one intelligence official explained: "We don't kick the s -- out of them. We send them to other countries so they can kick the s -- out of them."
This secret program for torturing suspects has been authorized, if that is the right word for it, by a secret presidential finding. Where the president gets the authority to have anyone tortured has never been explained.
It is time someone asked. What our government did to Maher Arar is worse than anything the British did to our Colonial forefathers. It was worse than anything J. Edgar Hoover did to alleged Communists, civil rights workers and anti-war activists during his long program of dirty tricks.
According to the Bush administration, we are at "war" with al Qaeda. If so, then delivering a suspect to torturers is a war crime and should be prosecuted as such. But first, we need to know who was responsible, and that will not be easy -- unless there is a firestorm of protest.
Isn't it time to condemn torture by proxy and demand prosecution of the persons responsible? Isn't it time to question how these watch lists are assembled and used, before more of us fall victim to secret detentions and brutal interrogations based on guilt by computerized associations?
Christopher Pyle teaches constitutional law and civil liberties at Mount Holyoke College.