WHEN MAHER ARAR filed a lawsuit last year over the government's sending him to Syria against his will, the case seemed like an opportunity to clear the air over one of the stranger episodes in the war on terrorism. Mr. Arar is a Syrian-born Canadian who was detained in New York while traveling between Tunisia and Canada in the fall of 2002. Unbeknownst to him, his name had been placed on a terrorist watch list, and when his flight path took him to New York, authorities detained him as a suspected al Qaeda operative. He was held for several days, and then, despite his pleas to be sent to Canada, he was packed off to Syria, where he was held for 10 months and, he alleges, savagely tortured. The government denies any wrongdoing. But unfortunately, the Bush administration is not going to use the lawsuit to make clear what happened. In fact, it has decided not to say anything. In a recent court filing, the government asserted what is called the state secrets privilege to avoid releasing any information about the circumstances of Mr. Arar's detention and removal to Syria. And because it refuses to release any information, the Justice Department argues, Mr. Arar will not be able to prove his case, which should therefore be largely dismissed.
As unfair a Catch-22 as that may sound, the government may actually have a claim here, legally speaking. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey have filed sworn declarations in the case, saying that litigating Mr. Arar's major allegations would require disclosing information that "reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave or serious damage to the national security of the United States and its foreign relations or activities." This may well carry the day in court. Whether or not their assertion is sustained, however, the government owes more than silence, and not just to Mr. Arar.
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We had hoped that the litigation would shed light on two key questions: First, whether Mr. Arar, who has become a kind of cause célèbre in Canada, is really an innocent man wrongly accused or (as the government alleges) a dangerous terrorist operative, and second, whether (as he alleges) he was sent to Syria, instead of Canada, precisely so that he could be tortured. The government should not be subcontracting torture, as Mr. Arar alleges it did. If, as the government claims, he was an al Qaeda operative whose return to Canada could not have been accomplished safely, and if he was sent to Syria only after the government received what it has termed "reliable assurances that Mr. Arar would be treated humanely," the picture would look different. Leaving aside whatever rights Mr. Arar might have to litigate his claim, the American public is entitled to some assurance that the government didn't intentionally send a man to be tortured by Syria and isn't now covering that wrongdoing with a smear.