On 26 September 2002, a 32-year old Syrian-born naturalized Canadian citizen by the name of Maher Arar was returning alone from a family vacation trip to Tunisia when his Montreal-bound plane made a scheduled stopover at JFK International Airport in New York. Mr Arar was detained by United States Department of Homeland Security officials and questioned because Mr Arar’s name appeared on a watch-list and he was suspected of ties to al-Qaeda. This information had evidently been supplied to US authorities by Canadian security officials – and has since been debunked as evidence of terrorist ties. Despite the fact that Mr Arar carried a Canadian passport, had resided in Canada since the age of 17 and that no serious effort was made to investigate with Canadian authorities whether Mr Arar was, indeed, a terrorist, he was deported a week later, not to Canada his home, but to Syria, a country well known for its harsh treatment of prisoners.
After more than ten months of sheer unadulterated hell in a Syrian prison, during which he was tortured, Mr Arar was released by the Syrians who announced they were satisfied he had no terrorist ties. An official enquiry in Canada reached the same conclusion and the Canadian government, which had already apologized to Mr Arar, recently announced a compensatory award of C$10.5 million (a little over US $9 million) for his pain and suffering. An unrepentant US government, on the other hand, refused to co-operate with the Canadian enquiry and has stubbornly refused to remove his name from the DHS watch-list; this despite official protests from Canada that the evidence held by the Americans provides no justification for such listing.
Welcome to President George W Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney’s America. This disgraceful episode epitomizes for me the attempts by the Bush administration to undermine our nation’s democracy, its international reputation as a beacon of liberty and justice and even the sense of what it means to be an American.
It was clear from the beginning that this president came to office with an alarming view of the unfettered authority and expansive powers of the presidency, which he believed had been diminished by successive presidents and congresses. Bush and Cheney appear to have shared a vision of a sort of elected dictatorship in which once the election was out the way, the president’s was the only power that counted and everyone else was expected to shut up and get out of the way – and to hell with checks and balances.
Under normal circumstances they would have received short shrift from the established order. Unfortunately, Osama bin Ladin and 9/11 intervened to breath life into the administration’s power grab. Cleverly exploiting the fears and uncertainties of the moment, and helped by a disgracefully compliant Republican Congress and intimidated mainstream media, the administration went on an authoritarian binge that, even now, seems breathtaking in its scope. Using national security as a fig leaf, the administration:
– ignored the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and bypassed the FISA court to establish a programme of electronic surveillance of international communications to and from American citizens without judicial or any meaningful Congressional oversight;
– arrested even US citizens to hold as enemy non-combatants without access to the judicial system;
– established a series of secret prisons overseas, notably in Eastern Europe (reportedly in facilities once used during the Soviet-era), to detain and interrogate high-value terrorist suspects without disclosing their detention to the Red Cross;
– established a detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to hold hundreds of individuals seized in Afghanistan and elsewhere, many of them on the basis of unproven and even unfounded allegations or on the flimsiest of evidence, where they have been kept for years without the opportunity to challenge their imprisonment in a court of law;
– illegally seized individuals off the streets of such allies as Italy and Germany to detain and interrogate (and in at least two known cases, to later release when they discovered that they had made a mistake);
– embraced the idea of torture as an interrogation method by trying to narrow its definition under international conventions and assert national executive authority to trump America’s international obligations;
– established what amounts to nothing more than military kangaroo courts (or “military tribunals”) to try detainees at Guantanamo and elsewhere that would have allowed coerced and hearsay evidence with no opportunity for the detainee to even view the evidence if it was classified; when the US Supreme Court threw these out, the administration persuaded the GOP-led Congress, to establish new military tribunals that operate under rules which, whilst not quite as heinous, are shameful enough; to make matters worse, the definition of “enemy combatant” has been significantly broadened, and detainees have lost the right to habeas corpus or the right to challenge their detention in court;
– shrouded its actions in secrecy to a degree unprecedented in modern presidencies and fiercely resisted efforts of those who sought to shine some light on its inner workings.
With this administration, the gloves are always off, as Mr Arar found out to his cost. And in Alberto Gonzales the administration has the perfect face for its totalitarian proclivities. When challenged to defend its actions, Mr Gonzalez typically issues bland statements to the effect that the administration acted, of course, within the law but that for national security reasons the courts should not actually examine their legality. All too often, the courts have bought this self-serving nonsense, as in the case of Mr Arar, whose law suit against the US government was dismissed on those very grounds. And when it confronts defeat in court, on such questions as holding US citizens without trial, or wiretapping without FISA court authority, the administration folds before the Supreme Court can rule.
There are many reasons for believing that George W Bush will be regarded by history as one of the very worst presidents in American history – and very probably the worst. I could list a host of reasons for this that would include everything from his assault on our environment, to his fiscal irresponsibility which has not only significantly increased the amount of debt we are passing on to our children but has had the effect of widening the income disparities in US society to unhealthy levels. And then of course there is Iraq.
Yet, for me, all of these pale beside the immeasurable harm that has been done to our democracy, to our international reputation – to our very national soul by this administration. In our name terrible things have been done by an American government – things I would never have believed possible before this president came along. And he has exposed our democratic institutions and our belief in them to a withering scrutiny in which they have been found wanting. The media let him get away with a mountain of deception, manipulation and misinformation that led us into a disastrous war; the Congress rubber stamped his assault on our civil liberties with the USA Patriot Act and, of course, his plan to attack Iraq; the courts have been slow and at times reluctant to rein in his power grab; and the American people were fooled for far too long by his tough-guy, squinty-eyed rhetoric that successfully masked, for a while, the simple fact that he was not up to the job of being president. Only someone as utterly incompetent as Mr Bush could possibly have made a mess this big.
I realize there are plenty of Americans who support what this administration has done, even now. Shame on them. If they truly share Messrs Bush and Cheney’s twisted vision of America, then I feel sorry for them.
Personally, I look forward to the day when we again have a government in which we can be proud; a government that will return us to the values we as Americans must share if we are to live up to our promise as a nation; in short, a government that will find the moral courage and clarity to apologise to Mr Arar for the terrible wrong that was done to him.
When that day comes, as I believe it will, it will not just be Mr Arar who will have reason to cheer.