Gonzales Revisits Deportation Remarks

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 22, 2006

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales's claim this week that the Justice Department was not responsible for sending Canadian software engineer Maher Arar to a Syrian prison in 2002 was the result of imprecise wording by Gonzales and a misunderstanding by those who reported his remarks, according to a Justice Department spokeswoman.

The matter turns on the meaning of the word "we."

On Tuesday, a day after a Canadian government commission concluded that the Syrian-born Arar was "interrogated, tortured and held in degrading and inhumane conditions" for 10 months after being falsely accused of terrorist ties, Gonzales was asked whether the department owed him "an apology."

"Well, we were not responsible for his removal to Syria," Gonzales replied. "I'm not aware that he was tortured, and I haven't read the commission report."

Gonzales was aware that in 2002 the Immigration and Naturalization Service arranged Arar's removal from the United States and his delivery to Syria after he was accused of ties to al-Qaeda, spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said. The INS has since been transferred from the Justice Department to the new Department of Homeland Security and is known as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Since Arar was officially deported, Scolinos said, his case was "an immigration-related issue." She said Gonzales was trying to "make that point" because "immigration matters are no longer handled by the [Justice] Department."

On the question of torture, Scolinos said, "My understanding is that the U.S. government received what they believed to be reliable assurances that he would be treated humanely, consistent with international treaties and conventions." Gonzales, she said, was "emphasizing that point."

Arar, now 36 and living in Canada, sued the U.S. government in federal court, but the case was dismissed on national security grounds. He filed a notice of appeal Sept. 12, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal group that is handling his case.

The possibility of further litigation may have limited what the Justice Department is prepared to say on the matter, said some U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the matter.

Canada's House of Commons unanimously agreed Wednesday that "apologies should be presented" to Arar on behalf of Canada. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who earlier acknowledged that Arar had been done "an injustice," balked at going that far, saying it might influence negotiations with Arar's lawyers over possible compensation.

Arar's ordeal began in New York City on Sept. 26, 2002, a year after the al-Qaeda attacks there. Changing planes on his return trip to Canada after visiting Tunisia with his family, he was arrested on what the commission concluded was false information, provided to the FBI by Canadian law enforcement, that he had al-Qaeda connections. After being held for 12 days, he was flown in a government plane to Jordan and transported over land to Syria, the nation he had left as a 17-year-old.

U.S. officials later confirmed that the order to deport him was signed by then-Deputy Attorney General Larry D. Thompson. They said it would be "prejudicial to the interests of the United States" to send Arar home to Canada, despite his Canadian citizenship.

The Canadian government was not informed until he was gone.

U.S. law prohibits sending anyone, even on national security grounds, to a country where he or she is likely to be tortured. Although the State Department has long branded Syria a human rights violator, then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft responded to Canadian protests by saying the Syrian government had assured that Arar would be treated humanely.

On Tuesday, Gonzales also repeated the administration's denial that Arar's removal was part of the practice of secret "renditions" of terrorism suspects to third countries where they could be more aggressively interrogated. "That is not what happened here," he said. "It was a deportation."

Even if Arar "had been rendered to Syria," he said, "we would have sought those same kind of assurances" against torture.

Correspondent Doug Struck in Toronto and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company