MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
There is a new twist in the long-running saga of Maher Arar. He's a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, who says he was falsely accused of being an Islamic terrorist in 2002. Arar was then seized by U.S. authorities in New York and sent to Syria, where he says he was tortured. Arar is now back home. The Canadian government has found he is no terrorist ties and has completely cleared his name. But the U.S. government refuses to take the same step.
NPR's Jackie Northam reports.
JACKIE NORTHAM: In September 2002, Maher Arar was at JFK Airport in New York, waiting to board a plane that would take him home to Ottawa, Canada. U.S. officials pulled the Syrian-born software engineer aside and arrested him on suspicion of having links to al-Qaida. Maria LaHood, one of Arar's attorneys, says her client is a victim of extraordinary rendition, where terror suspects are sent to third countries for interrogation.
MARIA L: The U.S. put him on a jet plane and sent him, not to Canada, but to Syria, where he was detained and tortured and held in an underground grave-like cell for over 10 months, and he was finally released a year later.
NORTHAM: The Canadian government launched an exhaustive two-year investigation into the Arar case. It concluded that Arar had no ties to terrorism and that he had been tortured in Syria. The Canadian government removed Arar's name from its terrorism watch list and asked that the U.S. do the same. That request has been denied. Last week, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff sent a letter to Stockwell Day, Canada's minister of public safety. The letter said that based on information U.S. has, it will continue to keep Arar on his terrorist watch list.
Shortly after that letter was sent, the three men sat down to review the information on Arar. Later at a press conference, Stockwell Day said there was nothing new in the U.S. dossier on Arar that would justify keeping him on a terrorist watch list.
STOCKWELL DAY: Our officials recently have looked at all the U.S. information and that does not change our position. We are still maintaining that he should not be on that no-fly list.
NORTHAM: Keeping Arar on the terrorism watch list means that he would be arrested again if he entered the U.S. Officials here said the decision to keep Arar on a watch list is based on information from a variety of sources.
James Carafano, a senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation, says there is a need for secrecy and that the U.S. government should be given the benefit of the doubt about who is on the list.
JAMES CARAFANO: Much like football coaches don't let the other team look at their playbook, you cannot let people know exactly everything that's in a watch list and how information is collected, because if you do that then the people that want to circumvent that list gets figure ways around that.
NORTHAM: The Arar case also raises hackles in the U.S. Last week, Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked Attorney General Gonzales to explain why Arar was still on the watch list, reminding Gonzales that Arar had been cleared by the Canadian government of any terrorism links and that keeping him on the U.S. watch list is adding insult to injury, because it was the U.S. that sent them to Syria in 2002.
PATRICK LEAHY: We knew damn well that if he went to Canada, he wouldn't be tortured. He'll 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 is always been a beacon of human rights, to send somebody to another country to be tortured.
NORTHAM: Gonzales promised Leahy more information about why Arar is still on the list. Leahy says he will wait and see what turns up and whether it's adequate to keep Arar on a watch list.
LEAHY: Otherwise, it's going to be a recurring question every time somebody from the Department of Justice comes before my committee.
NORTHAM: For his part, as he told NPR last fall, Arar would like the U.S. government to acknowledge its mistakes.
MAHER ARAR: An apology would be my worth basically on my wish list. Given the history of the U.S. government, it is unlikely that this will happen.
NORTHAM: Canadian Public Safety Minister Day says he will continue to press the U.S. to remove Arar from the watch list. But David Wilkins, the U.S. ambassador to Canada says, quote, "it's a little presumptuous of Day to say that they to say who the U.S. can and cannot allow into our country."
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.