!! History Commons Alert, Exciting News
Profile: Maher Arar
Maher Arar was a participant or observer in the following events:
Chief Justice Fred Vinson. [Source: Kansas State Historical Society]The US Supreme Court upholds the power of the federal government’s executive branch to withhold documents from a civil suit on the basis of executive privilege and national security (see October 25, 1952). The case, US v Reynolds, overturns an appellate court decision that found against the government (see December 11, 1951). Originally split 5-4 on the decision, the Court goes to 6-3 when Justice William O. Douglas joins the majority. The three dissenters, Justices Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, and Robert Jackson, refuse to write a dissenting opinion, instead adopting the decision of the appellate court as their dissent.
'State Secrets' a Valid Reason for Keeping Documents out of Judicial, Public Eye - Chief Justice Fred Vinson writes the majority opinion. Vinson refuses to grant the executive branch the near-unlimited power to withhold documents from judicial review, as the government’s arguments before the court implied (see October 21, 1952), but instead finds what he calls a “narrower ground for defense” in the Tort Claims Act, which compels the production of documents before a court only if they are designated “not privileged.” The government’s claim of privilege in the Reynolds case was valid, Vinson writes. But the ruling goes farther; Vinson upholds the claim of “state secrets” as a reason for withholding documents from judicial review or public scrutiny. In 2008, author Barry Siegel will write: “In truth, only now was the Supreme Court formally recognizing the privilege, giving the government the precedent it sought, a precedent binding on all courts throughout the nation. Most important, the Court was also—for the first time—spelling out how the privilege should be applied.” Siegel will call the Reynolds ruling “an effort to weigh competing legitimate interests,” but the ruling does not allow judges to see the documents in order to make a decision about their applicability in a court case: “By instructing judges not to insist upon examining documents if the government can satisfy that ‘a reasonable danger’ to national security exists, Vinson was asking jurists to fly blind.” Siegel will mark the decision as “an act of faith. We must believe the government,” he will write, “when it claims [the accident] would reveal state secrets. We must trust that the government is telling the truth.”
Time of Heightened Tensions Drives Need for Secrecy - Vinson goes on to note, “[W]e cannot escape judicial notice that this is a time of vigorous preparation for the national defense.” Locked in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and fighting a war in Korea, the US is, Vinson writes, in a time of crisis, and one where military secrets must be kept and even encouraged. [U. S. v. Reynolds, 3/9/1953; Siegel, 2008, pp. 171-176]
Future Ramifications - Reflecting on the decision in 2008, Siegel will write that while the case will not become as well known as many other Court decisions, it will wield significant influence. The ruling “formally recognized and established the framework for the government’s ‘state secrets’ privilege—a privilege that for decades had enabled federal agencies to conceal conduct, withhold documents, and block civil litigation, all in the name of national secrecy.… By encouraging judicial deference when the government claimed national security secrets, Reynolds had empowered the Executive Branch in myriad ways. Among other things, it had provided a fundamental legal argument for much of the Bush administration’s response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Enemy combatants such as Yaser Esam Hamdi (see December 2001) and Jose Padilla (see June 10, 2002), for many months confined without access to lawyers, had felt the breath of Reynolds. So had the accused terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui when federal prosecutors defied a court order allowing him access to other accused terrorists (see March 22, 2005). So had the Syrian-Canadian Maher Arar (see September 26, 2002), like dozens of others the subject of a CIA extraordinary rendition to a secret foreign prison (see After September 11, 2001). So had hundreds of detainees at the US Navy Base at Guantanamo Bay, held without charges or judicial review (see September 27, 2001). So had millions of American citizens, when President Bush, without judicial knowledge or approval, authorized domestic eavesdropping by the National Security Agency (see Early 2002). US v. Reynolds made all this possible. The bedrock of national security law, it had provided a way for the Executive Branch to formalize an unprecedented power and immunity, to pull a veil of secrecy over its actions.” [Siegel, 2008, pp. ix-x]
Entity Tags: William O. Douglas, Zacarias Moussaoui, US Supreme Court, Yaser Esam Hamdi, Robert Jackson, Jose Padilla, Felix Frankfurter, Bush administration (43), Fred Vinson, Barry Siegel, George W. Bush, Hugo Black, Maher Arar
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
Maher Arar. [Source: Chris Wattie / Reuters]On his way home to Montreal, Maher Arar, a 34-year old IT specialist, makes a stopover at JFK International Airport in New York. He is returning alone from a family holiday with his wife and daughter in Tunisia. At the airport, Arar, who was born in Syria and has dual Syrian and Canadian citizenship, is arrested by officers wearing badges from the FBI and the New York Police Department. Arar happens to be on a terrorist watch list. A US official later says Arar has the names of “a large number of known al-Qaeda operatives, affiliates or associates” on him. [Washington Post, 11/19/2003] Canadian Solicitor General Wayne Easter later admits that Canada contributed information that led to Arar’s arrest. [Washington Post, 11/20/2003] In an interrogation room Arar asks for an attorney, but, as he later publishes on his website, is told he has no right to a lawyer because he is not an American citizen. Subsequent requests for a lawyer are ignored and the interrogation continues until midnight. His interrogators are particularly interested in another Canadian by the name of Abdullah Almalki. Arar says he has worked together with his brother, Nazih Almalki, but knows Abdullah only casually. Then, with his hands and feet in shackles, he is taken to a nearby building and put in a cell around 1 a.m. “I could not sleep,” Arar later writes. “I was very, very scared and disoriented.” [Amnesty International, 8/19/2003; CounterPunch, 11/6/2003; CBS News, 1/22/2004; Washington Post, 5/11/2004; CBC News, 11/26/2004; Maher Arar, 1/15/2005]
On the second day of his detention, Maher Arar, a Canadian, is questioned for eight hours. At the end of his interrogation, a US immigration agent enters the room and asks Arar if he would like to go to Syria. “No way,” Arar recalls saying. “I wanted to go home. He said you are a special interest. They asked me to sign a form. They would not let me read it, but I just signed it. I was exhausted and confused.” [Washington Post, 11/12/2003] He has not slept since coming off an airplane 27 hours ago. He is then taken to the New York Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC), where he is strip-searched. A doctor gives him injection, which he is told is a vaccination. But the doctor refuses to explain what the injected fluid is. “My arm was red for almost two weeks from that,” Arar will later remember. For the first few days, Arar is interrogated several times and he is granted neither a hearing nor provided the opportunity to contact family, friends, or a lawyer. He is shown a document that says he is accused of being a member of al-Qaeda. On October 2, six days after his arrest, Arar is allowed to make a two-minute phone call. He contacts his mother-in-law and asks her to get him a lawyer. The next day or the day after, he fills out a form saying he prefers to be sent to Canada, not Syria. On October 4, he receives a visit from Canadian consul Maureen Girvan, whom he tells of his fear of being deported to Syria. That won’t happen, she assures him. A lawyer finally visits Arar on October 5, who tells him not to sign anything without her being present. [Maher Arar, 1/15/2005] The following night of October 6, guards take Arar out of his cell, saying his lawyer is waiting to see him. He is led into a room with seven or eight people, but his lawyer is not present. He is then informed that “he”—the lawyer—has refused to come. His lawyer, however, is female. The theme of the subsequent questioning is Syria and why he does not want to go there. “I told them,” Arar recalls, “I would be tortured there. I told them I had not done my military service; I am a Sunni Muslim; my mother’s cousin had been accused of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and was put in prison for nine years.” He is again asked to sign a document and he refuses. At 3 a.m. he is returned to his cell. [Maher Arar, 1/15/2005]
Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, in his capacity as acting attorney general, signs an order to transfer Maher Arar from the US to Syria, stating, according to officials speaking on condition of anonymity, that sending him to Canada would be “prejudicial to the interests of the United States.” Arar has dual Canadian and Syrian citizenship and has expressed his fear of being tortured once extradited to Syria. One year later, Imad Moustafa, Syria’s charge d’affaires in Washington says Syria had no reason to detain Arar, but that his country has agreed to take him as a favor to the US and to win its goodwill. He also says US intelligence officials have told their Syrian counterparts that Arar is a member of al-Qaeda. [Washington Post, 11/19/2003]
FBI agent Robert Fuller interrogates Canadian citizen Omar Khadr at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Fuller is an FBI agent who failed to locate the 9/11 hijackers in the US before 9/11 (see September 4, 2001, September 4-5, 2001, and September 4-5, 2001), while Khadr is a minor accused of throwing a hand grenade that killed a US soldier in Afghanistan. The interrogation lasts from October 7 to October 22. On the first day, Fuller shows Khadr a black-and-white photograph provided by the FBI in Massachusetts of Maher Arar, a Canadian terror suspect the US has been holding in New York (see September 26, 2002). Fuller will later say that Khadr identifies Arar as someone he has seen in a safe house run by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and that he also “may have” seen Arar at a terror training camp near Kabul. However, at the time Khadr says he saw Arar in Afghanistan—September and October 2001—Arar was first in the US and then in Canada under surveillance by the local authorities, according to Walter Ruiz, a lawyer who will later represent Khadr. Ruiz will also point out that it takes Khadr several minutes to identify Arar. Another of Khadr’s lawyers, Lieutenant Commander Bill Kuebler, will say that Khadr repeatedly lies to his interrogators to avoid being abused. Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson decides that Arar will be deported to Syria on this day (see October 7, 2002), and the deportation is soon carried out (see October 8, 2002). However, it is unclear whether Thompson’s decision is motivated by Fuller’s interrogation of Khadr or other factors. [CBC News, 1/20/2009; Canwest News Service, 1/20/2009] Fuller will testify about the identification at a Guantanamo hearing (see January 19, 2009), but facts calling it into question will emerge under cross-examination (see January 20, 2009).
At 3 o’clock in the morning, Maher Arar is woken up in his cell in New York and taken to another room where he is stripped, searched, shackled, and chained. Two officials read him a decision by the director of the INS, saying that he will be deported to Syria and, as Arar recalls it, “that INS was not the body that deals with Geneva Convention regarding torture.” There is no such convention, but this is probably a reference to the Convention Against Torture (CAT—see October 21, 1994). However, Article 3 of the CAT states: “No State Party shall expel… a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” In addition, the US immigration law cited to justify Arar’s deportation prohibits sending individuals to a country where “it is more likely than not that they will be tortured.” A Justice Department spokesman nevertheless maintains that “the removal of Mr. Arar was accomplished after interagency consultation and in full compliance with the law and with all relevant international treaties and conventions.” [Washington Post, 11/19/2003] On that early morning of October 8, Arar is put on a small jet. After a landing in Washington, a “special removal unit,” a term Arar overheard, boards the plane and is at this point in custody of the CIA. [Washington Post, 11/12/2003; Washington Post, 5/11/2004] “They said Syria was refusing to take me directly,” Arar will later recall, “and I would have to fly to Jordan.” Torture is again his prime thought. “At that time I was thinking of what would happen once I arrived in Syria and how am I to avoid torture.” Via Portland, Maine, and Rome, the jet lands in Amman, Jordan, where six or seven Jordanians are waiting for him. Without a word being spoken Arar is handed over. Blindfolded and chained, he is put in a van, and “right away,… they started beating me,” Arar recalls. Half an hour later inside a building, he is subjected to more questioning. [CBC News, 11/26/2004]
The day following Maher Arar’s handover by the CIA to Jordanian authorities (see October 8, 2002), the overland journey to Syria resumes in various cars and again Arar is beaten. In the evening, Arar arrives at the so-called “Palestinian branch” of Syrian military intelligence. Interrogation begins. “I was very, very scared,” Arar will later recall. There is a metal chair in the corner, and each time Arar does not answer quickly enough, a Syrian colonel points at the chair and asks, “Do you want me to use this?” Arar later learns it is used for torture. Four hours later, he is taken to a cell in the basement. “It was like a grave,” Arar says. “It had no light. It was three feet wide. It was six feet deep. It was seven feet high.… There was a small opening in the ceiling, about one foot by two feet with iron bars. Over that was another ceiling, so only a little light came through this. There were cats and rats up there, and from time to time the cats peed through the opening into the cell. There were two blankets, two dishes, and two bottles. One bottle was for water and the other one was used for urinating during the night. Nothing else. No light. I spent ten months and ten days inside that grave.” [CBC News, 11/26/2004]
A day after his arrival at the “Palestinian Branch” prison in Syria (see October 9, 2002), Maher Arar’s captors begin torturing him. He will later claim, “The beating started… and was very intense for a week, and then less intense for another week. That second and the third days were the worst. I could hear other prisoners being tortured, and screaming and screaming. Interrogations are carried out in different rooms.” Only on this day, two days after his removal, is Canada officially informed of Arar’s deportation from the US. [CBC News, 11/26/2004] A few days later, Arar’s wife, Monia Mazigh, relays her concerns about his fate. “I don’t know even if he’s dead, alive, tortured, punished, anything,” she says. [CBC News, 10/16/2002] The next two days, his torturers use a two-inch thick black electrical cable to beat him all over his body, but mostly on his hands and wrists. They also threaten him with “the chair,” electric shocks and, while constrained inside a tire, with beatings on the sole of his feet. Another tactic is to scare him by putting him in a waiting room where he is forced to listen to the screams of other prisoners being tortured. On the third day, the interrogation round lasts about 18 hours. “They kept beating me so I had to falsely confess and told them I did go to Afghanistan. I was ready to confess to anything if it would stop the torture. They wanted me to say I went to a training camp. I was so scared I urinated on myself twice. The beating was less severe each of the following days. At the end of each day, they would always say, ‘Tomorrow will be harder for you.’ So each night, I could not sleep—I did not sleep for the first four days, and slept no more than two hours a day for about two months.” Interrogations and torture end around October 20, three days before Arar receives a visit from the Canadian consulate. With the colonel and three other Syrian officials present, Arar does not dare talk about his experiences. After the visit, he is required to sign a document, the contents of which are unknown to him, and on another document he is forced to write that he has been to Afghanistan. All in all, Arar receives seven consular visits and one from members of the Canadian parliament. He is never in the position, however, to tell his visitors about the torture and his grave-like cell. For six months he does not see any sunlight, except for during the interrogations and visits. He loses 40 pounds. “I had moments I wanted to kill myself. I was like a dead person.” [Washington Post, 11/12/2003]
In the Syrian “Palestine Branch” prison, Maher Arar is instructed by an interrogator to write a statement admitting that he went to a training camp in Afghanistan and sign it. He does so only after being kicked. After more than 10 months in solitary confinement (see October 9, 2002), Arar is let out of his grave-like cell. He is then transferred, first to the “Investigation Branch,” and then to Sednaya prison. “I was very lucky,” he says, “that I was not tortured when I arrived there. All the other prisoners were tortured when they arrived.”
[CBC News, 11/26/2004]
Abdullah Almalki. [Source: Tom Hanson / Canadian Press]A month after his transfer to the Sednaya prison in Syria (see August 19, 2003), Maher Arar meets another prisoner he recognizes as Abdullah Almalki, the man he was questioned about a year before (see September 26, 2002) in New York. “His head was shaved, and he was very, very thin and pale. He was very weak.” Almalki is in far worse shape than Arar. “He told me he had also been at the Palestine Branch, and that he had also been in a grave like I had been except he had been in it longer. He told me he had been severely tortured with the tire, and the cable. He was also hanged upside down. He was tortured much worse than me. He had also been tortured when he was brought to Sednaya, so that was only two weeks before.” [CBC News, 11/26/2004]
Maher Arar is taken back to the Palestine Branch prison in Damascus. This time, however, he is not put in a grave-like cell. Instead, he is sent to a waiting room located adjacent to a torture room. “I could hear the prisoners being tortured, and screaming, again,” he later recalls. He is kept there for a week. [CBC News, 11/26/2004]
Maher Arar is brought to court and told that he will be released if he signs a document, the contents of which he is not permitted to see. After signing, he is returned to the Palestinian Branch where he meets with officials from the Canadian embassy and the head of the Syrian military intelligence. He is then finally released. The next day, Arar arrives in Montreal. Canadian Foreign Minister Bill Graham credits “quiet Canadian diplomacy” for his release. [CBC News, 11/26/2004]
Following his release from prison in Syria (see October 5, 2003), former terror suspect Maher Arar issues a statement distancing himself from al-Qaeda. “I am not a terrorist. I am not a member of al-Qaeda and I do not know any one who belongs to this group,” Arar says. “All I know about al-Qaeda is what I have seen in the media. I have never been to Afghanistan. I have never been anywhere near Afghanistan and I do not have any desire to ever go to Afghanistan.” [Canwest News Service, 1/20/2009]
Former CIA manager Michael Scheuer, who ran the agency’s “rendition” program that sent suspected terrorists to foreign nations to be interrogated for information in the late 1990s (see Summer 1995 and 1997), says during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that the assurances of Arab nations such as Egypt and Syria that a suspect will not be tortured are not “worth a bucket of warm spit.” Scheuer tells the assembled lawmakers that he knows of at least three mistakes that the CIA has made in its overseas rendition program, including the capture and subsequent torture of Canadian citizen Maher Arar (see September 26, 2002 and October 10, 2002-October 20, 2002). [Savage, 2007, pp. 149-150; US Congress, 4/17/2007 ]
Robert Fuller, an FBI agent who interrogated Canadian terror suspect Omar Khadr at Bagram Air Base in 2002 (see October 7-22, 2002), testifies about the interrogation at a Guantanamo hearing. The hearing was requested by Khadr’s defence team, to have self-incriminating statements Khadr made during interrogations suppressed ahead of proceedings before a military commission. Fuller says that, during the interrogation, Khadr told him he recognised a man named Maher Arar from a safe house run by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and also possibly from a terror training camp. “He identified him by name,” Fuller says. [CBC News, 1/20/2009; Canwest News Service, 1/20/2009] However, cross-examination by the defense the next day will raise several issues that cast doubt on the identification (see January 20, 2009).
Under cross-examination at a pre-military commission hearing, FBI agent Robert Fuller provides a version of an interrogation of detainee Omar Khadr different to the one he gave a day earlier under direct examination (see January 19, 2009). Fuller had previously described an interrogation of Khadr at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan where Khadr linked a terror suspect named Maher Arar to al-Qaeda (see October 7-22, 2002) through a photograph identification. However, a lawyer for Khadr pulls out Fuller’s contemporary report of the interrogation and shows that the identification did not happen immediately, as Fuller initially claimed, but that it took several minutes. Lawyers for Khadr will also argue that their client made false statements to interrogators to avoid abuse, and that Arar was in the US and Canada at the time Khadr said he saw him in Afghanistan. [CBC News, 1/20/2009; Canwest News Service, 1/20/2009]
Receive weekly email updates summarizing what contributors have added to the History Commons database
Developing and maintaining this site is very labor intensive. If you find it useful, please give us a hand and donate what you can.
If you would like to help us with this effort, please contact us. We need help with programming (Java, JDO, mysql, and xml), design, networking, and publicity. If you want to contribute information to this site, click the register link at the top of the page, and start contributing.