Canada's most famous Syrian challenges lawless intelligence agencies.
by Ish Theilheimer, with transcription by Ruth Cooper
Maher Arar, Canada's most famous Syrian, is using the fame he never wanted to hold the national security establishment accountable. His story of illegal rendition from the USA to Syria in September, 2002 — followed by repeated torture while being held in a tiny, squalid cell for almost a year — became a symbol of rights abuse in the name of national security.
Finally released, thanks mostly to the relentless efforts of his wife, Monia Mazigh, he was quickly exonerated. Syria declared him "completely innocent." Canada also cleared his name, and Stephen Harper formally apologized for Canada's role in the extradition.
Since then, Arar has devoted most of his energies to human rights advocacy, to investigating Canada’s national security establishment and its international connections and attempting to hold this hugely expensive, hidden arm of government to public account. As part of this effort, Arar has launched an online magazine called Prism.
Maher Arar visited the SGNews office in Ottawa on November 20 to talk with publisher Ish Theilheimer. They talked about Arar's work, about Syria and the Gaza situation. The interview, posted on the Straight Goods News YouTube channel; this text has been adapted for easier reading.
The state of lawlessness that many of the intelligence agencies have been in is particularly worrisome to me. The gloves came off after 911.
Maher Arar is probably Canada's best known Syrian and one of Canada's best known human rights advocates. We've heard a lot about your history Maher, but I think Canadian's aren't as familiar with what you're doing today. So perhaps you can tell us about your current activities.
I'm involved in many projects. One of them is an online outlet that I founded in January 2010. It's called Prism. The focus of Prism is on national security and related subjects, such as accountability and transparency — everything that has to do with Government secrecy. We all know the importance of those subjects. Since 911 governments have become a lot more secretive in their dealings, especially with foreign agencies with countries who do not share our human rights standards.
Prism grew out of my frustration with mainstream media. While there were and still are good investigative journalists, they are very few. And we all know they're not free to talk about everything. I thought that by launching such an online project, I would be able to bring this topic to the forefront.
And how do you feel about your progress two years down the road? Not so much in terms of the publishing industry, but what you've been able to bring out: the information, the people you've been able to bring together
I have brought in many experts, Canadians as well as Americans. Even though so far Prism has been run by volunteers, I'm proud to say that we have achieved a lot. Given how small Prism is, I think that compared to other outlets I think we have done a lot. We have also produced various video clips. We have realised over time that we can never just restrict our attention to National Security because there are other intertwined topics that we have to cover so that we can understand the context. In fact recently we have also focussed on foreign policy.
You are a computer engineer by trade and you've become something of a self-educated national security expert. What are the issues around national security that concern you the most?
The state of lawlessness that many of the intelligence agencies have been in is particularly worrisome to me. The gloves came off after 911. Who are they accountable too? My story is only one of thousands of other stories.
What also worries me is that we do not know what is being done in our name. Governments have become so secretive! For instance, if you happen to travel frequently and you happen to be of Muslim background and you are stopped and you are not allowed on a flight, there is no way for you to know why, whether it's the Canadian government or the US government. And some European governments, you will never be able to find out why.
Is it because of your ongoing activism, is it because you're Muslim, is it because you happen to have associated with people in the past that you don't even know had some connections to terrorism? There is no way to know why this is the case. And that is very troubling for me. We live in a democracy where transparency should be the norm, not secrecy. So secrecy should be the exception a democracy. That's what worries me about the future.
Ish Theilheimer:I understand that an awful lot of your work in national security ends up focussing on the United States, but we're a Canadian outlet. I'm interested in the Canadian implications of some of your work. What are the secrets the Canadian government is keeping that we ought to know about?
Just yesterday I was traveling back from Toronto and I was selected for random screening. So, it's not the first time, of course. So, if I ever decide to find out why, will I be able to? And I would never even try because I know that it will be are frustrating process — at the end of which I will never get an answer. I'm just maybe one of thousands of people. Another good example is our intelligence agency dealing with governments like Syria or Iraq or Jordan or Morocco, who torture people to death to get out information them. Those are some issues that I think are still grey areas that we don't know much.
Unfortunately, I find journalism as a whole in Canada has become a nine-to-five job — where in the past we you used to find journalists who were ready to work on investigative pieces for long periods of time. Nowadays, journalists knock off work at five and go home and relax. That's troublesome to me. This is not supposed to be. Journalism, is supposed to be a 24/7 job, I think. Journalists are the people that will be able to hold our government to account. And if they are not doing this job, who will?
Now, many Canadians watching this interview might say, "Well I'm not Muslim; this doesn't effect me. I'm not Middle Eastern; this doesn't effect me." Are they wrong?
When discrimination happens and we don’t take action, we’ll ll be affected eventually.
I think that our history tells us that this attitude is wrong. I can cite so many examples of communities that have been discriminated against: Jewish community, for example, or black people. When discrimination happens and we don't take action, we'll ll be affected eventually.
Here’s a very concrete example: Right after 911 — just the day after — Muslims started to be searched at the airport for no reason. But, because they are Muslims, they used to go through very harsh types of questioning or interrogation or even searches. And no one cared. The mainstream — I would say, white citizenry — they said, "Well this is not us." They never said it verbally, but that was the attitude.
If you recall just two years ago when those machines at the airport became extremely intrusive, then everyone starts talking, "Why? (like we're upset) What's going on?"
So the question I'm asking is, If people took action right away back then, at the earliest stage, would this have happened? Would our government have spent billions of dollars installing machines, some of which I don't think we even need?
I just want the government to tell me — whether it's the Canadian government or the US government — whether those machines caught any terrorist in fact. The public information we have, tells us that they have not. So that questions whether this was a good investment or not.
To the contrary; since those machines were installed, we have at least two people who were still able to go through — the one who was sent from Yemen, for example. If we don't have information about what our government is doing, how are we supposed to keep the government accountable? So to answer your question: I think governments normally target weaker communities and that gives them the motivation later to target the wider population.
What about snooping? The Harper government has introduced various laws that have been quite controversial that will enable police and law enforcement to get at your cell phone, you e-mail, your internet. How big has the snooping industry become in Canada?
Well it's a huge industry. There's no doubt that there are various lobby groups that have interest in increasing the surveillance state capability too. It's a multi-billion dollar industry, whether it's in Canadian or the US. In fact Ottawa, as a city, has become the hub for governments to buy surveillance, whether software or hardware.
What are they capable of doing now?
Well with the introduction of Voice Over IP it's become a lot harder for intelligence communities to spy on the people. It's extremely challenging and the challenge has been: What do we do? How do we do it? So there were various companies who were launched within the last few years to actually solve that problem.
What the government wants from the Bells and the Rogers and the Tellus is direct access — a back door — to various communications. Of course the government will always use the argument that they are looking for pedophiles and criminals — which is true. It is true that this technology is being exploited.
What I have issue with is not that the fact that the government is asking for those increased powers. What I have issue with is that when they introduce such bills or laws, they don’t include appropriate checks and balances. They do not, for example, increase oversight to the same level. If you increase surveillance then you have to increase oversight with it.
If you look at where the money went within the last 11 years, the increase of the CSIS and RCMP budget is way up here and the oversight is still down here. That's the problem, I think; it's the oversight part. Especially that the surveillance has become extremely, extremely intrusive.
Just recently, I don't know if you know, but the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) is building huge structures to house its new stuff. Do we even know why they want this? My wife Monia wrote a good piece for rabble.ca about that. Why are we spending $800 million on a huge structure like this? Aren't we better off spending this money on something else? These are the kinds of things that we have to start talking about as citizens.
How do you contrast the National Security activities in this country with the United States where you've done a lot of research?
Well we always follow, right? We're always followers, unfortunately. Through my experience and through the readings I've done, it just seems that the United States has always exercised direct or indirect pressure on Canada to follow suit. To be fair, I don't think we have done as much in terms of the abuse of civil liberties. So that's a credit. But I think that's mostly attributable to the fact that we Canadians value civil liberties more. We are not ready to give up. But at the same time, we should not be complacent.
I'd like to talk about Syria a little bit. You are Syrian. You have more experience with the Syrian government than you would like to have. Tell me of your impressions of what's going on in Syria today?
There's a lot of confusion. There are people who think everything is a conspiracy. People who have opposed imperialism for a long time believe that it's all conspiracy. And that if I want to prove that I'm anti-imperialist I have to side with Assad against the West. So that's part of the story. The other part is the people who are on the other side of the spectrum. They say, "Well, there's no conspiracy at all."
I think that to analyze Syria on its own doesn’t give you the whole picture. I think you have to look at the wider Middle Eastern situation.
I think that to analyze Syria on its own doesn't give you the whole picture. I think you have to look at the wider Middle Eastern situation. We all know the facts now: "The Arab Spring", as some people like to call it, started in Tunisia.
Was it a surprise to me? No I was not surprised! I was not surprised that this wave of revolution started in the Middle East because it's overdue. There was so much oppression, so much dictatorship, so much injustice. I think there was a popular revolution, or popular uprising, if you want to put it that way, because a revolution is an ongoing process, it doesn't just end overnight.
Western intervention was not the main reason people revolted — but the injustice they see on a daily basis. Now, I personally believe that the United States and many other Western governments have been caught by surprise. They were not expecting anything like this to happen, even though there are people who say, "Well no, the United States has been preparing and funding bloggers." I think they were taken by surprise.
To this day, I, for one, believe that the United States does not have a clear policy with respect to what's happening in the middle east. They don't know; they don't have a clue about what's going on. They don't know how to deal with the situation. Of course, like usual.
So, to come back to the issue: What happened in Syria is not separate from what happened in Tunisia or Egypt, right, or Yemen. It's a popular uprising. As always, Western governments wanted to ride the wave and they wanted to protect their interests. And that's when they started, maybe, to influence events on the ground. But I don't think the extent of their involvement is huge, as some people would like to portray it.
I think that the situation in the Middle East has really changed after what happened in Tunisia. People are a lot more aware of what's going on. I mean, it is an insult to say that this is strictly conspiracy, because, if you say that then you are insulting people. Like, for instance Syria: There's so much being talked about like it's the West who are arming the rebels and all of this. If you dig down into the details and you analyse the situation and you read various reports and you read people on the ground and you analyse the phrase, you'll come to a conclusion that what you're reading about is all gossip.
In fact, it is not true that the CIA has been arming the rebels; it's the contrary. They are actually stationed in Turkey trying to limit the supplies of weapons or the types of weapons the Syrian rebels use. So, I think, emotions have to be separated from facts on the ground, when analysing the situation in Syria. It's extremely volatile. Yes, Qatar has interest. Yes, Saudi Arabia has interest and they are actually funding part of the area. Yes. But the politics is much more involved than is it a conspiracy or not. It's just never clear cut.
One sure thing is that people there have been oppressed for a long time and they are simply just rising up against the dictator. Now, what will the end of this be? I really don't know at this point in time, but I believe the situation will stay as is for a long time to come.
Ish Theilheimer:Where is your heart?
My heart in terms of … ?
Ish Theilheimer:In terms of the Syrian conflict.
I think I sympathize with the legitimate demands of the people. I'm extremely worried and concerned about the involvement of some Western countries. That they would like to basically guarantee that the outcome of this will be in their favour. They are trying. There are plans. Whether this will succeed or not is a different matter. And we have to remember that planning is one thing and controlling is another thing. Some people go as far as saying, "Well they're controlling". I don't think so, but I think they're planning to try to have an outcome favourable to them.
So my heart is with the Syrian people. I really do not believe the plans will work. And for a simple reason: People in the Middle East have become a lot more aware. They are talking about politics now like never before. From my various readings, especially the youth, I don't think that people are naive any more.
Finally, we have another exchange of bombardments between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza. Do you have any reflections on that based on your experiences and people you're in contact with?
Well, again, it's emotional. I think we have to look at the facts. The facts speak for themselves. There's occupation. There's a suffocating blockade. There's targeted killings. So for people to just analyze the situation in terms of Hamas throwing rockets or Israel replying back with missiles. I think, if we think about it like that we are not doing justice to the story.
We have to look at the roots of this. We have to look at why this happening. To go with emotions, it will get us nowhere — who killed more, who killed less … We have to look at the facts. We all know that the people in Gaza have been living under blockade — 1.7 million people, living in a tiny crowded area. We know stories about even boats having been prevented from reaching Gaza under the pretext that, you know, they will be delivering arms to Gaza.
We have to look at history as well. Who's the occupying force here? I, for one, believe that violence brings violence. The solution to all of this is not through military force. In fact, the only guaranteed outcomes of the assault on Gaza will be to bolster Hamas' reputation and to actually weaken [Mohamed] Abbas. And, I would not be surprised that within the next few weeks or months there will be an Arab Spring in the West Bank. So those are the two guaranteed outcomes. Maybe a third, even, guaranteed outcome is that Israel's reputation will be even damaged more.© Copyright 2012 Ish Theilheimer, All rights Reserved. Written For: StraightGoods.ca