Why America Sent Someone to Be Tortured in Syria


Condoleeza Rice loses her memory at the most convenient times—call it diplomatic Alzheimers. Asked why America sent an innocent Canadian, Maher Arar, to be tortured in Syria, she answered:

My memory of some of the details has faded.

Those words are reminiscent of her testimony to the 9/11 Commission in which she repeatedly invoked her imperfect memory. One exchange with Commission member Richard Ben-Veniste virtually mirrors her testimony this week:

BEN-VENISTE: Did the president meet with the director of the FBI?…between August 6 and September 11?

RICE: I will have to get back to you on that. I am not certain.

Here is some more evidence of Rice’s Alzheimer’s from her 9/11 Commission testimony:

I cannot tell you that there might not have been a report here or a report there that reached somebody in our midst.

I don’t remember the discussion that Dick Clarke relates… So I don’t know the context of the discussion. I don’t personally remember it.

I really don’t remember, Commissioner, whether I discussed this with the president.

I was not made aware of that. I don’t remember being made aware of that, no.

I don’t remember anything of that kind.

Congress has repeatedly tried to get Rice to testify about various matters, but she has successfully fended them off until this week. With the Iraq War continuing to sour, the Bush Administration needed someone to try to plug the holes in a policy that more and more seems stitched together with rotting threads.

While the American media focused their coverage on her remarks about the Blackwater fiasco, Connecticut Representative Ron Delahunt wanted to ask Rice about Maher Arar. Under his pointed questioning she finally admitted:

Our communication with the Canadian government on this [case] was by no means perfect; it was in fact quite imperfect.

We have told the Canadian government we do not think this was handled particularly well … and we will try to do better in the future.

But that was not good enough for Delahunt. He pressed Rice as to whether the United States sought assurances from Syria that he would not be tortured if sent there. Her answer sounded like the one she gave Ben-Veniste. She offered to provide details of the case at a future time because:

My memory of some of the details has faded.

Told of Rice’s testimony, Arar responded with less anger than most people who had been illegally tortured, which only helped to strengthen his image as an unlikely terrorist:

I am pleased that the U.S. administration has taken the encouraging step of acknowledging that my case was mishandled. I fully support the very important work of the congressional committees which are trying to get to the bottom of the extraordinary-rendition program.

A lot of people are still trying to get to the bottom of the extraordinary-rendition program, whose name evokes the old dodge of calling a lie a misstatement, for the extraordinary-rendition program is one of this government’s most despicable actions in history. It involves sending suspected terrorists to countries whose methods of extracting information go far beyond waterboarding.

At this point I should, as a good reporter, tell you my bias in this story and also why it moves me to depart from my usual focus. My grandfather was a famous German politician who fiercely opposed Hitler, which earned him a death sentence in 1933. He worked for the League of Nations for a while in China, then ended up in France. Long before the first shots were fired in World War II, the Nazis pressured France to arrest my grandfather and deport him. My family spent some time in a French jail before cooler heads prevailed, whereupon my family came to this country. The punchline of the story is that the Gestapo actually tried to abduct my grandfather, but my father saw them coming when he happened to look out the window. He tried to drag my father to the fire escape to get away, but for a minute my grandfather hesitated, saying, “They can’t do anything here, this is a democratic country.”

I imagine Mr. Arar having similar thoughts. Unfortunately he did not have the same luck as my family. The Canadian government investigated the entire affair and issued a much-publicized report last September, following which the Canadian House of Commons formally apologized to Arar and the Canadian government awarded him $10 million in compensation. Arar was detained in New York while awaiting a connecting flight home to Canada from a trip to Tunisia. He was arrested by American authorities based on what turned out to be faulty information supplied by those red-coated heroes of Hollywood the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Our “extraordinary-rendition program” spirited him off to Syria where he spent almost a year being interrogated and tortured.

Arar described his experiences in a news conference held in November 2003, a month after he was finally released:

Interrogations are carried out in different rooms. One tactic they use is to question prisoners for two hours, and then put them in a waiting room, so they can hear the others screaming, and then bring them back to continue the interrogation.

The cable is a black electrical cable, about two inches thick. They hit me with it everywhere on my body. They mostly aimed for my palms, but sometimes missed and hit my wrists. They were sore and red for three weeks. They also struck me on my hips, and lower back. Interrogators constantly threatened me with the metal chair, tire and electric shocks.

The tire is used to restrain prisoners while they torture them with beating on the sole of their feet. I guess I was lucky, because they put me in the tire, but only as a threat. I was not beaten while in tire. They used the cable on the second and third day, and after that mostly beat me with their hands, hitting me in the stomach and on the back of my neck, and slapping me on the face. Where they hit me with the cables, my skin turned blue for two or three weeks, but there was no bleeding. At the end of the day they told me tomorrow would be worse. So I could not sleep.

Then on the third day, the interrogation lasted about 18 hours. They beat me from time to time and make me wait in the waiting room for one to two hours before resuming the interrogation. While in the waiting room I heard a lot of people screaming…

They kept beating me so I had to falsely confess and told them I did go to Afghanistan. I was ready to confess to anything if it would stop the torture.

The most bizarre part of the Arar story is not just that we send anyone anywhere to be tortured but where we sent him. It is a sad comment on how low morality has sunk in this nation that we contract out our dirty work to others, as if somehow that makes our hands cleaner. But Syria?

In 2003, the Bush administration strongly pushed for the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act. It called on Syria to:

Halt Syrian support for terrorism, end its occupation of Lebanon, stop its development of weapons of mass destruction, cease its illegal importation of Iraqi oil and illegal shipments of weapons and other military items to Iraq.

The Act gave the president the power to impose at his discretion two of six of the following sanctions:

  • 1) Reducing U.S. diplomatic contacts with Syria;
  • 2) Banning U.S. exports to Syria;
  • 3) Prohibiting U.S. businesses from investing or operating in Syria;
  • 4) Restricting the travel of Syrian diplomats in Washington and the United Nations;
  • 5) Banning Syrian aircraft from taking off, landing in or flying over the United States;
  • 6) Freezing Syrian assets in the United States.

Speaking about Syria that year as part of an effort to drum up support for the bill, then Secretary of State Colin Powell said in a BBC interview:

Syria has been a concern for a long period of time. We have designated Syria for years as a state that sponsors terrorism.

The impossible twist to all this is that according a CBC News timeline on the Arar case, US officials deported Arar to Syria on October 7th or 8th 2002. He spent the next 375 days in jail! This timeline very closely parallels the path of the Syria Accountability Act, which was introduced in April and signed in December of 2003. In other words, at the same time we were condemning Syria and threatening to ban exports or not allow US businesses to invest or operate in Syria, we were willing to export people for torture in Syria. The juxtaposition of this indefensible act with Bush Administration quotes at the time Arar was being beaten, represent yet another example of their moral bankruptcy.

Those who sent Arar to Syria knew what they were doing. During the interrogation Arar underwent in this country he said:

They wanted to know why I did not want to go back to Syria. I told them I would be tortured there. I told them I had not done my military service; I am a Sunni Muslim; my mother’s cousin had been accused of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and was put in prison for nine years.

In other words, We used Syria as a threat and when Arar refused to confess being a terrorist, we sent him there.

Arar, of course, is not the first person we have sent off in the extraordinary-rendition program. The American Civil Liberties Union issued a fact sheet about the practice in 2005. It stated:

The current policy traces its roots to the administration of former President Bill Clinton. Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, however, what had been a limited program expanded dramatically, with some experts estimating that 150 foreign nationals have been victims of rendition in the last few years alone.

The report quotes former CIA agent Robert Baer:

“If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear – never to see them again – you send them to Egypt.

Baer’s statement confirms we knew exactly what we were doing when we bundled Mr. Arar off to Syria. The problem is that, as the ACLU points out , the practice is illegal:

It is clearly prohibited by the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment, ratified by the United States in 1992, and by congressionally enacted policy giving effect to CAT.

The European Union has been especially angered by the practice. Earlier this year a yearlong European parliamentary investigation into CIA flights transporting terror suspects to secret prisons revealed according to TimesOnline:

Fourteen governments in Europe turned a blind eye to at least 1,245 CIA flights through their airspace, some of which were used to illegally abduct terrorist suspects for questioning.

The Times also noted:

The report revealed that all EU countries had been fully informed of the practice of extraordinary rendition by Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, at a Nato-EU meeting in February 2005 and subsequently at high-level meetings in Brussels on February 8 and May 3 last year.

All this background makes Rice’s convenient memory loss about the Arar affair seem ingenuous at best. She may not have known the specifics of the Arar case, but she was obviously aware of the policy that sent him to Syria. However, her “diplomatic Alzheimers”—should we call it “Bushheimers?”—has worn thin. Increasingly, this administration appears top have a short memory about much that has happened in the Iraq War.

Lurking behind all this is a disquieting question. Someone please tell me why we were sending a suspected terrorist to be tortured by a country we had labeled as a terrorist sympathizer? If the Bush Administration believed its characterization of Syria, did they really think Syria would punish a “fellow terrorist” or that we would get accurate information? And, if not, then the anti-Syria rhetoric and putting Congress through seven months of bill writing was all a sham. In other words, is this administration crazy or beyond hypocrisy? I can’t think of another administration we have ever asked that question of.