Tortured by Mistake

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

ACOUPLE of years ago, President Bush might well have counted Maher Arar as one of the success stories of the CIA's secret program for detaining and interrogating suspected terrorists. Mr. Arar, a Canadian citizen, was arrested at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport in September 2002 because he was on a watchlist; Canadian police said they believed he had connections to al-Qaeda. Rather than being returned to Canada, Mr. Arar disappeared into the CIA's secret system -- he was transported to Syria and handed over to its military intelligence service. For several weeks, Mr. Arar was tortured by his Syrian captors, who beat him with an electric cable. Eventually he broke and confessed that he had trained at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan.

The problem with this story, as an official Canadian investigation reported Monday, is that Mr. Arar was innocent. "Categorically there is no evidence" that Mr. Arar was a terrorist or posed a security threat, the report stated. He never traveled to Afghanistan. The Canadian police intelligence about him was simply wrong. But after his coerced confession, he was held in a Syrian dungeon for 10 months and suffered "devastating" mental and economic harm before finally being released in 2003.

Mr. Arar's case vividly illustrates a couple of the points that veteran military and diplomatic leaders have been trying to impress on Mr. Bush about the dangers of the CIA program, for which the president is demanding congressional approval. From early 2002 until this month the agency held some al-Qaeda suspects in secret prisons and subjected them to harsh interrogation techniques that, though they don't include beatings with cables, violate the Geneva Conventions and current U.S. law. Others, like Mr. Arar, have been secretly handed over to foreign governments known to use torture in interrogations, including Egypt and Jordan as well as Syria -- a practice known as "rendition."

Mr. Bush claims that the renditions, secret detentions and harsh U.S. techniques -- which most of the world regards as torture -- have yielded important intelligence. But as the military commanders who oppose such methods have insistently and courageously pointed out, it is well known that the information they produce is unreliable. Many detainees, as Mr. Arar did, will falsely incriminate themselves or others to avoid abuse. Over time, better intelligence can be obtained by working within guidelines mandating humane treatment of detainees -- such as those in the new Army interrogation manual released this month.

Moreover, as Mr. Arar's case illustrates, cruel treatment of prisoners, even in secret, eventually becomes known and can badly damage the honor and influence of the United States and its relations with allies. The mistreatment of Mr. Arar has hurt U.S. relations with Canada and could impede cooperation with its police and security services in the future. Other cases of rendition have similarly upset U.S. intelligence relations with Italy, Germany and Sweden.

It's no wonder that two former Republican secretaries of state, Colin L. Powell and George P. Shultz, oppose Mr. Bush's attempt to modify U.S. compliance with the Geneva Conventions to permit future secret detentions and renditions by the CIA. Or that military leaders ranging from Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Maj. Gen. Scott C. Black, the senior serving uniformed lawyer in the Army, also oppose the president's initiative. They understand well what Mr. Bush refuses to see -- that the price of his policies is bad intelligence, the criminal mistreatment of some innocent people, and damage to U.S. prestige and alliances that the country can ill afford.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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