Lawmakers Revisit Canadian's Terrorism Arrest

Homeland Security officials will take a second look at the case of a Canadian seized in New York as a terrorism suspect and sent to Syria, where he was allegedly tortured. House Democrats want the Justice Department to conduct a criminal probe into the 2002 case.

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On Capitol Hill, members of Congress are calling for a special prosecutor to look into the Bush administration's handling of Maher Arar. He's the Canadian citizen, born in Syria, who was detained at JFK Airport in 2002 because Canada mistakenly labeled him a terror threat.

U.S. agents intercepted him changing planes on his way from Zurich to Montreal. He was repeatedly questioned, then sent to Syria, where he was allegedly tortured.

Testimony yesterday indicates it could be a case of illegal extraordinary rendition. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: In a long-awaited report to Congress, the Department of Homeland Security's internal watchdog raised questions about how the agency treated Maher Arar. Massachusetts Democrat William Delahunt co-chaired the House committee hearing.

Representative WILLIAM DELAHUNT (Democrat, Massachusetts): This isn't about stopping terrorists coming into the country. The issue is why did they send Mr. Arar back to Syria.

ELLIOTT: Homeland Security Inspector General Richard Skinner didn't have the answer, but he testified that after immigration agents determined Arar to be a terror suspect based on Canadian intelligence, authorities could have sent him back to Switzerland, where his flight originated, or to Canada, his country of citizenship. Instead, Skinner said, they designated his native Syria as his country of removal, despite a pressing concern.

Mr. RICHARD SKINNER (Inspector General, Department of Homeland Security): INS concluded that Arar was entitled to protection from torture and that returning him to Syria would more likely than not result in his torture. However, we concluded that assurances upon which INS based Arar's removal were ambiguous regarding the source or authority purporting to bind the Syrian government.

ELLIOTT: In other words, it wasn't clear that the U.S. had good reason to believe Syrian authorities would treat Arar properly. A 1998 law prohibits the government from turning a suspect over to a foreign country where the suspect might be tortured.

Skinner's report doesn't find evidence agents broke that law. New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler was not satisfied.

Representative JERROLD NADLER (Democrat, New York): Do you feel that your investigation has ruled out the possibility that the decision was made to send him to Syria because people in our government wanted him interrogated under conditions that our law would not permit?

Mr. SKINNER: We can't rule that out.

ELLIOTT: The man who started this investigation, former DHS Inspector General Kent Ervin, had a more direct answer.

Mr. KENT ERVIN (Former Inspector General, Department of Homeland Security): There is no question but that given everything we know the intention here was to render him to Syria as opposed to Canada because of the certainty that he would be tortured in Syria, and he would not be in Canada.

Rep. ERVIN: And the intention was to take whatever shortcut possible so as to avert any legal challenge, such a writ of habeas corpus, that he could bring, which would have stopped that rendition.

Mr. ERVIN: That to me is the only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from this.

Rep. ERVIN: Is there anything in our law that would stop them from doing it tomorrow to somebody else, Mr. Ervin?

Mr. ERVIN: Well yes. I mean, the laws prevented this occurrence; it's just that the laws were not observed.

Rep. ERVIN: You think they broke the laws?

Mr. ERVIN: Yes.

ELLIOTT: Skinner said the agency has reopened its review, but Democrats say they'll ask the Justice Department to appoint a special prosecutor to conduct a criminal probe. That troubled California Republican Dana Rohrabacher.

Rep. DANA ROHRABACHER (Republican, California): This was a mistake, and we should admit our mistakes, and it should be open to the American people, but to bring a prosecutor or something like that in with the idea that this might represent a criminal intent is absolutely the wrong way to go.

ELLIOTT: Maher Arar is back home in Canada but remains on the U.S. no-fly list. The Bush administration says the reason is classified. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, the Capitol.

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