CNN uncritically reported Gonzales' defense of sending suspect to country that tortured him


On the January 18 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, CNN justice correspondent Kelli Arena uncritically reported Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' defense of the Bush administration's decision to send Canadian-Syrian citizen Maher Arar to Syria, where he was tortured and falsely confessed to terrorist affiliations, according to the findings in a Canadian judicial report that was released on September 18, 2006. During her report on Gonzales' January 18 appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arena reported that "Gonzales and other U.S. officials have said that they got assurances from Syria that Arar would not be tortured." Arena did not challenge or question Gonzales' assertion; she made no mention of Syria's reputation -- documented in the State Department's Human Rights reports -- for using torture in interrogations or that the Canadian inquiry noted such assurances often have little credibility.

As Media Matters for America has noted, according to the Canadian "Arar Commission" inquiry, Arar's saga began on September 26, 2002, when, based [Page 142] on information provided by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Arar was detained by U.S. officials at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. The inquiry found that the RCMP neither requested nor anticipated Arar's detention by the U.S. government. U.S. authorities -- after reportedly [Page 31] ascertaining that Canada would be unable to detain Arar further -- subsequently sent him to Syria on October 9, 2002, in a practice known as "rendition." During the first few weeks of his imprisonment, Syrian Military Intelligence (SMI) reportedly tortured [Page 57] Arar, beating him with a "black cable"; by November 2002, he had falsely confessed to receiving terrorist training in Afghanistan in 1993. SMI held Arar until early October 2003, in what the inquiry called "abysmal" [Page 47] and "atrocious" [Page 58] conditions; eventually SMI released [Page 47] Arar to Canadian diplomats. Neither Canadian nor Syrian officials ever charged Arar with a crime, and the inquiry found [Page 11] that "that there is no evidence to indicate that Mr. Arar has committed any offence or that his activities constitute a threat to the security of Canada."

Gonzales' defense that the administration received assurances from Syria is undermined by a State Department Human Rights report on Syria released months before Arar was rendered there. According to the State Department's 2001 Syria report, issued on March 4, 2002, "there was credible evidence that security forces continued to use torture." The report continued, stating that "torture is most likely to occur while detainees are being held at one of the many detention centers run by the various security services throughout the country, and particularly while the authorities are attempting to extract a confession or information regarding an alleged crime or alleged accomplices." The Arar Commission, citing the State Department's substantially similar 2002 and 2003 reports, stated [Page 181] that "[w]hen Mr. Arar arrived in Syria in October 2002, Syria had a well-established reputation for committing serious human rights abuses."

The Arar Commission also stated [Page 178] that, according to testimony from Human Rights Watch, "diplomatic assurances from totalitarian regimes that they will not torture detainees are of no value and should not be relied upon for the purposes of article 3 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment." That article of the Geneva Conventions prohibits countries from "return[ing]" or "extradit[ing]" a person to "another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture."

In October 2006, the Canadian government filed an official complaint with the United States over the treatment of Arar, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper saying the United States should acknowledge ''inappropriate conduct'' in the case. The Globe and Mail reported on October 30, 2006, that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's written response "contain[ed] no apology for the deportation that led to a harrowing year in a Syrian jail as a suspected al-Qaeda terrorist." Arar, who has been completely cleared of any wrongdoing, still remains on a U.S. database of terror suspects. The Gazette (Montreal) reported on December 22 that Rice has pledged to review the Bush administration's intelligence file on Arar "after a personal appeal from [Canadian] Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay."

From the January 18 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

BLITZER: First this hour, a vivid reminder that the new Democratic leaders in the Congress have plenty of bones to pick with the Bush administration. It happened on Capitol Hill today, just a few hours ago, when the attorney general of the United States, Alberto Gonzales, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee. That's when the questions and the fur started flying.

Let's turn to our justice correspondent, Kelli Arena -- Kelli?

ARENA: Wolf, this was the first time that the attorney general appeared before the Judiciary Committee since the Democrats took over control of Congress. And I can tell you, it was hardly a friendly reception.

Democrats pounced on several of the administration's anti-terror policies, including domestic wiretaps and the detention of terror suspects in Guantánamo Bay [Cuba].

But the most heated exchange came when Judiciary Chairman Senator Patrick Leahy [D-VT] brought up a man named Maher Arar. Now, he's a dual Canadian and Syrian citizen, and he was deported from the U.S. to Syria, where he says he was tortured. Arar was allegedly on a watch list for suspected terrorist ties. He's since been cleared by the Canadian government. Listen to this, Wolf.

[begin video clip]

LEAHY: We knew damn well if he went to Canada he wouldn't be tortured. He'd be held, and he'd be investigated. We also knew damn well if he went to Syria, he'd be tortured. And it's beneath the dignity of this country, a country that has always been a beacon of human rights, to send somebody to another country to be tortured.

GONZALES: Before you get more upset, perhaps you should wait to receive the briefing be --

LEAHY: How long?

GONZALES: I'm hoping that we can get -- we can get you the information next week.

[end video clip]

ARENA: Now, Gonzales and other U.S. officials have said that they got assurances from Syria that Arar would not be tortured. Leahy promised Gonzales that if he didn't get the information that he wanted within the week that he promised that he would hold a hearing on the issue, Wolf.

BLITZER: He's been cleared by the Canadian government. But is there still suspicion in the Justice Department in the U.S. government that this individual may have had some links to terrorism?

ARENA: Yeah. Actually, Senator Leahy today said that he is still on a U.S. watch list, and he wanted to know why from the attorney general. But the attorney general refused to give any details about that case, at least in a public forum, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Maybe that's what he's talking about; next week, they'll have a private briefing. All right, thanks very much.

Posted In
Justice & Civil Liberties, Interrogation
Kelli Arena
The Situation Room
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