Tuesday night, I happened upon a special two-hour version of a Canadian news program, “As It Happens.” I heard the voice of Canadian citizen, Maher Arar, 33, providing outrageous details of his capture by the US last fall and his shipment to Syria for the purposes of “interrogation.” Arar was returning from visiting family in Tunisia. He was on his way back to Canada, by way of New York City, when he was detained at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. Reason for detention: “suspected terrorist.” He was flown under U.S. guard to Jordan, where he was handed over to Syrian authorities. He was imprisoned in Syria for 10 months, in what seems to be the equivalent of the “hole” in U.S. prisons (solitary confinement, darkness). He says he was physically tortured, but the Syrian ambassador to the U.S., speaking on the program, denied that much of the story. He agreed that they did the questioning at the request of the U.S. government, an oddity in itself, since Syria has been deemed a “terrorist” state and Bush has made it clear that after it settles its score in Iraq, it is turning its sights on ferreting out “terrorism” in the Syrian government.
The ambassador conceded that they took Arar in order to get “information” about Arar’s alleged “terrorist” activities. Ten months of “interrogation” turned up no hint that he was a “terrorist” and he was returned to Canada, against the wishes of the Bush administration.
Further details of Arar’s “detention” were reported in the November 5 Washington Post. Apparently, Arar’s treatment came at the behest of the CIA. Anonymous officials of the CIA said that Arar fit the bill of a covert “extraordinary rendition”-the practice of turning over “low-level, suspected terrorists to foreign intelligence services, some of which are known to torture prisoners.” The practice is so secret that no other details are or ever will be available to the public or Congress (as if Congress would do anything useful, anyway). Additional information in the Washington Post article indicated that “renditions” used to take place on U.S. soil, but since the CIA is loathe to actually physically torture “detainees,”since the early 1990’s the CIA and the FBI arrange for the person to be sent to countries who will do the torturing for them.
Your Friendly Neighborhood Cop as Ashcroft’s Agent
The same edition of the Post contains a small story, hidden inside (Arar’s story appeared on the front page, below the fold), about a new directive from Attorney General John Ashcroft putting in place the procedures by which the FBI will share its surveillance results with state and local law enforcement. A provision of the USA Patriot Act broke down the “wall” between law enforcement and surveillance activities, so that we now have, in effect, our own version of KGB, or secret police. Of course, the regulations are not available for you and me to see, but this much is certain: If the FBI is watching you or any organization (or website) that it suspects is a threat to “national security or public safety,” it can tell your local cops what it knows about you and your organization and put them on your trail. You could then be targeted for preemptive detention under the material witness law (where you can be held indefinitely in prison to answer prosecutors’ questions if and when they feel like talking to you), targeted for violating some minor criminal law or administrative infraction (better clean up those overdue parking tickets), or charged with aiding and abetting terrorism for knowing someone on the government’s many suspicious persons lists.
What befell Mahar Arar could be your, my fate. What is to stop the FBI from throwing a blanket over your head, putting you on a plane to Jordan with U.S. Marshals as your escort, and dumping you in Syria to be tortured? Not a damn thing as I can see it.
Keep in mind, that your family and friends won’t know about any of this, you won’t have any access to an attorney and, if and when you are released and in the slim chance return home, you won’t have any redress against the federal government. For the government will deny that it ever happened.
The Algerian Waiter
Shortly after September 11, Mohamed K. Bellahouel, a 34-year-old Algerian immigrant, a waiter living in Miami, was one of the more than 1,200 Arab and Muslim men rounded up for “questioning” by the FBI. He was deemed “suspicious” because he was said to have waited on two of September 11 hijackers, and might have even been seen going to a movie with one of them. He was subsequently arrested in Florida on a material witness warrant, imprisoned for more than five months, and charged with a minor visa violation. He was brought to Alexandria, Virginia to give testimony before the grand jury investigating Zacarias Moussaoui.
He filed a writ of habeas corpus, which became moot when immigration authorities finally released him on bail ( immigration authorities are still trying to deport him for violating terms of a student visa), but the federal courts sealed all records of the case. The case never even appeared on the courts’ docket lists. Bellahouel, news, and civil liberties organizations appealed the orders of secrecy surrounding the case. Both a Florida federal district judge and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the secrecy surrounding the case violated the First Amendment. The government appealed the case to the Supreme Court, yet the government has refused to file any briefs. On November 4, the Court ordered Solicitor General Theodore Olson to file briefs explaining the government’s determination to keep the case secret. That would suggest that the Supreme Court wants to know what’s going on, except that it gave Olson no deadline to get back to them and they won’t consider whether to take the case or not until Olson does so. I guess the Court, for whatever reasons, wants to appear to care about liberty when in fact it does not. (Earlier this term, it refused to hear an appeal of a lower court’s order that deportation hearings could be conducted in secret, as hundreds were done post September 11).
So, there you have it. Secrecy, secrecy, and secrecy. Detentions, arrests, and tortures. A friend this week asked if I thought the new Iraqi constitution would be better than ours-or what we have left of it. I replied that it would likely be the same sham that ours has become. It is obvious that we live in a police state, and our freedom to speak, travel, to be free from arrest except on probable cause of having committed a crime, to have the right to counsel, to have judicial review of our treatment by our government-these guarantees are the exception, no longer the rule. It’s too late to whine about it now, and with few courts to run to, not a damn thing we can do about it except be prepared to pay with our lives if John Ashcroft, George Bush, or George Tenet sets their sights on us.
ELAINE CASSEL practices law in Virginia and the District of Columbia, teachers law and psychology, and follows the Bush regime’s dismantling of the Constitution at Civil Liberties Watch. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org