It was an instructive moment during an otherwise sonorous edition of the now-defunct public-affairs television program Diplomatic Immunity. Two scribes and an academic—the Globe and Mail’s Patrick Martin, veteran Toronto Star columnist Richard Gwyn, and University of Toronto professor Janice Stein—joined the show’s effervescent host, Steve Paikin. The program’s guest on April 9, 2004, was Stewart Bell, a National Post reporter and the author of Cold Terror, a thin volume under discussion that evening. Bell’s book repeated a familiar mantra: Canada was a haven for terrorists and Canadians were soft on terror.
With the exception of Stein, who dismissed Cold Terror as hyperbole, the panellists treated Bell guardedly. Toward the end of the interview, Bell was asked to comment on the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who insisted that he had been abducted, deported, and tortured by Syrian thugs masquerading as intelligence officers with the complicity of US and Canadian authorities acting on the suspicion that he was an Islamic extremist. “Well, I think I’m kind of reserving judgment on the Arar thing because we really don’t know that much about it,” Bell said. The largely restrained Martin called that reply a “convenient dodge” and snapped that the evidence clearly suggested that Arar was an innocent man who had been maligned by authorities on both sides of the border.
On September 18, 2006, Justice Dennis O’Connor delivered the judgment that Bell had been waiting for. After spending more than two years examining Arar’s story, the sober Associate Chief Justice of Ontario issued a blunt and damning verdict: Arar was an innocent victim of incompetent rcmp officers who produced worthless intelligence. O’Connor also concluded that a smear campaign had been orchestrated against Arar by Canadian officials, aided by members of the media. Leaks to the press spanned two years and constituted a campaign with the intent, O’Connor stated, not only to tar Arar’s name and reputation but also to keep him imprisoned. When that ultimately failed, the goal was to thwart a public inquiry.
Though it has received scant attention, a twenty-two-page section of O’Connor’s encyclopedic report stands as an indictment of the reporters who participated in labelling Arar a terrorist and a habitual liar. “The impact on an individual’s reputation of being called a terrorist in the national media is obviously severe . . . labels, even inaccurate ones, have a tendency to stick,” wrote O’Connor.
On September 28, 2006, none other than rcmp Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli confirmed the key findings of Justice O’Connor’s report when he admitted to a parliamentary committee that he knew within days of Arar’s arrest that the software engineer was not a terrorist; Zaccardelli also confessed that he had kept that fact a secret. “You let him rot for almost a year in Syrian prisons,” Bloc Québécois MP Serge Ménard told Zaccardelli. “For most Canadians, before the O’Connor commission report, Mr. Arar was linked to terrorists, and you knew it was false. How, as a policeman, could you leave someone that you know is innocent in prison? ”
Zaccardelli insisted that no one had been misled. A look at the media record suggests otherwise. Wittingly or unwittingly, several reporters became complicit in a cover-up by perpetuating the myth that Maher Arar was a terrorist.
Arar was already a damaged man when he returned to Canada from his ten-month nightmare in a coffinlike Syrian cell. The trauma was registered on his ashen face as he sat in front of a bevy of reporters at Montreal’s Dorval airport on October 6, 2003, shoulders slumped and clutching his wife’s hand. At that moment it must have been difficult for him to imagine that some of the reporters in his midst would soon compound his suffering by repeating government lies about who and what he was.
A careful review of more than 2,500 stories, editorials, opinion pieces, letters to the editor, and transcripts of newscasts between the time word broke in mid-October 2002 that Arar had been secretly shipped to Syria and early October 2006 reveals much about the sometimes- incestuous relationship between anonymous government sources and parliamentary reporters. These documents also speak to the hypocrisy of news organizations and writers who demand transparency and accountability from others but fail to provide it themselves, and to a great divide between the coverage of the Arar story published by Canada’s two national newspapers.
This examination also reveals that there were journalists who faithfully pursued the truth and lived up to another core journalistic duty—to serve as a monitor of power. Among them were veteran columnists Thomas Walkom, Catherine Ford, Haroon Siddiqui, and Paul Knox. The list also includes Globe reporters Colin Freeze and Jeff Sallot (although Sallot’s record has blemishes), who, along with the Globe’s editorial board, followed the Arar story with determination and produced articles that today appear prescient. Sallot wrote early and often about how the rcmp’s handling of the Arar case constituted “guilt by association” and how it exposed the force’s inability to gather intelligence “without trampling on the rights of citizens.” Ottawa bureau reporters at the Canadian Press, notably Jim Brown and Jim Bronskill, reported on the inquiry hearings fairly and with precision. Ottawa Citizen reporters Kate Jaimet, Mike Trickey, Janice Tibbetts, and Lee Greenberg also produced exemplary work. Their reporting did not treat Arar like a commodity that could be bartered in return for an ephemeral scoop on page one or at the top of a newscast.
The literature search also unearths moments of refreshing candour by writers who acknowledged their past failure to challenge official lies. But such introspection was rare, and there was a near-total absence of analysis of media complicity in smearing Arar. Writers often condemned government officials and the rcmp when it became apparent that misinformation was being leaked, but rarely condemned the reporters and news agencies who published or broadcast the accusations.
Not surprisingly, there have been belated calls for introspection in the wake of the official imprimatur of Justice O’Connor’s report. The Globe’s Margaret Wente named some names, and former Toronto Star reporter (now a professor of journalism at Carleton) Allan Thompson put the matter in stark terms: “I think Maher Arar . . . has a right to know how the smear campaign against him was orchestrated and who was responsible for it. Journalists owe it to Arar, and to themselves, to get to the truth and learn from this shameful debacle.” Thompson went further, suggesting that the reporters and news organizations that published or aired falsehoods about Arar should identify their sources. “I’ve been down this road,” he wrote. “More than a decade ago, I was duped into helping government officials smear a whistle-blower. Belatedly, I came clean about how material was leaked to me. I wrote a story and named names.”
Thompson chose to identify his discredited sources because a journalist’s paramount responsibility is to tell the truth, not to protect state officials. The critical choice facing journalists who were complicit in smearing Arar is simple: will they continue to shield officials whose principal aim, as Justice O’Connor concluded, was to “harm” Maher Arar, or will they expose those who leaked misinformation that nearly destroyed a Canadian citizen?
On October 12, 2002, the Globe’s Peter Cheney broke the story of Arar’s deportation to Syria. In his 554-word front-page piece, Cheney described Arar as a “respected Canadian engineer” who had been “seized by US investigators” and was “accused of having links to al-Qaeda.” Cheney offered no evidence to back up the allegation, and the heart of his dispatch was, in fact, about a family’s search for answers about a husband and a new father who had disappeared while waiting to catch a plane back to his home in Canada from New York’s Kennedy airport on September 26, 2002. The Canadian Press picked up Cheney’s piece and affixed the headline “US deports respected Canadian to Syria” to its wire story.
The Globe’s rival, the National Post, published a sixty-nine-word story about Arar’s disappearance on page nine. The Post had been scooped, but what was instructive was the headline: “United States deports suspected terrorist to Syria.” Suddenly Arar was not a “respected engineer” but rather a “suspected terrorist.” This judgment would come to represent the Post’s intransigent stance vis-à-vis Arar. Indeed, in March 2003, one perceptive Post reader had a letter published pointing out that “in the past six months, the Post has run forty stories on [William] Sampson [a Canadian consultant tortured in Saudi Arabia], including eight editorials, almost all in support. In the case of Mr. Arar . . . not a single editorial was published. A total of eight news stories on Mr. Arar appeared in your paper, in which he was always referred to as a suspected al-Qaeda terrorist.” While the Post covered the Sampson story aggressively, what accounts for the neglect and the editorial slant regarding Arar?
The Globe seized the Arar story and ran with it. Several news and opinion pieces probed important angles: Who was Arar? What were the allegations against him? What was the role of Canadian authorities in his abduction? What was Ottawa doing to secure his release? Were overzealous US officials unjustly ensnaring Canadians in a post- 9/11 sweep?
Editorial writers and reporters at the Ottawa Citizen—who would later be among the first journalists to deconstruct the rcmp’s central and disastrous role in the Arar affair—also sought answers. Noteworthy here was the work of Mike Trickey, now at Agriculture Canada. In contrast, the Post’s Bell wrote about complaints by Muslim “activists” and “lobby groups” who argued “that the US government should have returned [Arar] to Canada and said Ottawa was not doing enough.”
Word of a Canadian citizen’s deportation by US authorities barely registered at Canada’s largest-circulation newspaper, the Toronto Star, where Arar’s disturbing tale merited little attention, and when it was mentioned, it was buried in the paper. Star columnist Thomas Walkom acknowledged this on October 29, 2002. “Except for the Globe and Mail, which broke the story,” he wrote, “the Arar incident barely ruffled the front pages of this country’s newspapers.”
Early on, the story also garnered relatively minor play on major television newscasts. Monia Mazigh, Arar’s wife, appeared on ctv’s Canada AM in mid- November, insisting that her husband was not a terrorist and pleading for his release. But after an initial burst of reporting, Arar’s story largely dropped off the media’s radar between late December 2002 and spring 2003, and in many quarters the notion of Arar as suspected terrorist took hold. The Globe kept the story alive by publishing a string of pointed editorials questioning the veracity of US allegations linking Arar to terrorism, as well as an impassioned piece by Mazigh. “One day, Maher was a loving husband, a devoted father and a brilliant engineer. Then, he was turned into a file number,” she wrote on January 18, 2003. “I can still believe that one day our family will reunite.”
The prospects for this reunion dimmed when the Globe reported in late April 2003 that Arar was about to be charged by Syrian officials with “terrorist- related activity.” News of the potential charges reignited press interest in the story, prompting the Globe, the Montreal Gazette, and the Ottawa Citizen to publish editorials demanding that Ottawa act more forcefully to repatriate Arar. The pressure paid off. In late June, the Globe’s Jeff Sallot reported that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien had promised a relentless campaign to bring Arar home.
At the bottom of Sallot’s story, however, was the first leak undercutting Arar’s character from unnamed Canadian and American sources. Sallot’s sources were anonymous, but their charges were clear: Arar was a longtime target of a joint security investigation that resulted in his being placed on an anti-terrorism watchlist. Sallot buried the information in his piece; nevertheless it does represent the first of a series of leaks damning Arar.
Some reporters did not rely on leaks to label Arar a terrorist. On July 4, 2003, Sheldon Alberts, a former parliamentary reporter with CanWest News Service, wrote a story published in the Ottawa Citizen under the headline “‘Canada’s al-Qaeda’ still behind bars: Only five of seven alleged suspects known to the public.” Quoting Reynald Doiron, a Foreign Affairs spokesman, Alberts’ piece dealt with seven Canadians, including Arar, who were being held overseas because of “alleged links to terrorism.” Alberts then added the accusatory phrase, “Collectively, they are known as ‘Canada’s al-Qaeda.’” Who, apart from Alberts, had anointed the seven Canadians, including Arar, as “Canada’s al-Qaeda” is unclear from the story.
By the summer of 2003, Monia Mazigh’s campaign to get Chrétien to secure the release of her husband gathered momentum. According to Justice O’Connor, it was in this context that the first major and damaging leak concerning Arar occurred. The recipient of the leak was CanWest News correspondent Robert Fife, a former Canadian Press and Sun Media parliamentary reporter (now ctv News’s Ottawa bureau chief ), who quoted an anonymous official describing Arar as a “‘very bad guy’ who had apparently received military training at an al-Qaeda base.” Citing a New Yorker story by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, Fife also wrote that Syrian intelligence had helped US authorities thwart a terrorist attack against an American target in Ottawa. In his July 24 piece—which appeared on the Citizen’s front page and inside the Post—Fife added that it was unknown whether the “al-Qaeda conspiracy” was “related to the activities of two Ottawa men” now in Syrian jails. Arar was one of those men.
Fife’s rendering of Hersh’s story was telling in a number of respects. First, Fife seemed to have accepted the alleged plot as the truth despite the fact that Hersh devoted a solitary sentence of his lengthy piece to the scheme. Second, Arar’s nefarious-sounding activities were still a mystery. As it turned out, a year-and-a-half later, at an October 2005 intelligence conference in Montreal, Hersh conceded to reporters that the Ottawa plot story might not have been true.
Still, the question remains, why did Fife’s story appear when it did? According to Justice O’Connor, the purpose of the leak was to “influence public opinion against Mr. Arar at a time when his release from imprisonment in Syria was being sought by the Government of Canada, including the Prime Minister.” In other words, whoever was leaking falsehoods about Arar wanted him to remain trapped in a Syrian jail. Given rcmp Commissioner Zaccardelli’s September 28, 2006, admission that he knew Arar was innocent but chose to convey that exculpatory news only to the Americans, what other conclusion can be drawn? Zaccardelli’s admission revealed the dimensions of the cover-up that the rcmp had been engaged in since Arar’s deportation in September 2002. The rcmp, it appears, was content to sacrifice the freedom and safety of a Canadian citizen in order to protect itself from scrutiny and sanction.
On July 26, 2003, the Post published a letter from Monia Mazigh with the headline “Where’s the evidence? ” She denounced Fife’s use of “unnamed sources… [who were] making unsubstantiated claims” and suggested that his story was intended to justify Arar’s imprisonment and torture by labelling him a terrorist. Her effort to clear her husband was followed by a stream of leaks published and broadcast by major Canadian media outlets suggesting that Arar-the-terrorist deserved his fate.
That ugly refrain was compounded by opinion pieces and letters to the editor from government officials published in the National Post that lambasted the Chrétien government for working to free a Canadian citizen held incommunicado in a foreign jail without charge. “If Canadians require further evidence why our allies in the war against terrorism no longer trust us, they need look no further than the Maher Arar case,” wrote James Bissett, a retired diplomat and senior immigration official on July 31, 2003. “Despite . . . allegations that [Arar] is a terrorist, our government has gone to extraordinary lengths to demand Mr. Arar’s release and return to Canada.” That same day, the Post published a letter by former csis and rcmp officer Peter Marwitz, who found it “offensive that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien is tampering with security matters . . . regarding the accused al- Qaeda member, Maher Arar.”
In early August 2003, the Arar story took a particularly disturbing turn. The London-based Syrian Human Rights Committee reported that Arar was beaten severely and subjected to electric shocks. The report made the Globe and Citizen’s front pages, but it was consigned to page five in the Post.
The torture allegations triggered another wave of editorials imploring Ottawa to step up the pressure on Syria to release Arar. “Get tough with Syria” was the blunt headline of an August 8, 2003, Toronto Star editorial. But little changed. Indeed, Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham insisted that Canadian consular officials had met with Arar and that “he personally totally rejects all allegations of torture.” Graham also assured the public that the imprisoned Canadian would receive an open trial, even though Arar had not been charged. Graham’s nonsensical comments were greeted with skepticism by some reporters and by a posse of angry Liberal backbenchers who demanded to know more about the troubling case.
The Arar affair was beginning to shake official Ottawa. Late September 2003 marked the first anniversary of his deportation, and it offered media outlets an opportunity to resurrect his story. Monia Mazigh appeared again on ctv’s Canada AM. She implored Canadians to join her crusade to free her husband. On October 1, 2003, the Globe’s Paul Knox, a veteran correspondent who is now the chair of the Ryerson School of Journalism, took up Mazigh’s call in a column that bluntly stated, “A Canadian citizen was detained by a foreign power, delivered into the custody of a repressive dictatorship, and left to rot in jail without charge. He has been denied the most elementary rights. There are alarming reports of torture. The suspicion lingers that Canadian authorities were complicit in this travesty. Where is the loud, sustained, all-party, cross-country outrage? What has become of us? ”
Five days later, Arar was freed. He arrived home in Canada on October 6, 2003.
Knox was among the first reporters to call for a public inquiry. Among the questions that required answers, he wrote on October 7, were, “Why was Arar of interest to the rcmp? ” and “Who in Canadian law enforcement said what to which US counterpart about him, and when? ” That day, the Star also demanded to know “if the Mounties had Arar shipped to Syria where he faced torture by a despotic regime.” The Montreal Gazette insisted the prime minister “order an immediate, thorough, open, and independent investigation into this matter.” Then Solicitor General Wayne Easter dismissed the growing demands for an inquiry, arguing that the recently repatriated Canadian might be the subject of an internal investigation by a federal police force that was now facing a probe by its own watchdog over its role and conduct in the case.
The stakes were rising for the rcmp and the Liberal government. As the Arar controversy began to envelop powerful institutions and politicians in Ottawa, leaks began to drop like carefully aligned dominos. The first came on October 9, 2003—it tied Arar to terrorism, undermined the evidence that he had been tortured, and suggested that responsibility lay with him.
In a rare front-page story on Arar by the Toronto Star, parliamentary reporter Graham Fraser quoted an anonymous source “closely involved in the case” as saying that Arar had been arrested in New York because Canadian officials told US authorities that he had been to Afghanistan several times, but they did not have enough evidence to charge him. Fraser’s story echoed Fife’s July piece insofar as an unnamed source implied that Arar had been to Afghani- stan to train at al-Qaeda camps.
The next domino fell a day later. Quoting anonymous “Canadian government sources,” the Globe’s Sallot report-ed that Arar had complained of being “roughed up” and “slapped around” by Jordanian officials during a brief stopover before being “held in appalling physical conditions in a Syrian jail, but not physically tortured.” As Justice O’Connor noted in his report, the cynical aim of the “roughed up” but “not tortured” description was to “downplay the seriousness of the ordeal [Arar] had endured in Syria” in order to protect officials who might be ensnared by the burgeoning scandal. (Shortly after the release of O’Connor’s report, Arar’s lawyer, Lorne Waldman, told Ottawa’s Hill Times newspaper that sources were “shopping” misinformation about his client to reporters. On October 9, 2006, the Hill Times reported that both Fraser and Sallot responded that they had sought out the sources in their stories.)
Through a spokesperson, Arar—who had kept silent since his return to Canada—demanded a public inquiry. The Post chimed in with an editorial on October 11 calling for an inquiry to clear the air.
The third domino fell on October 23, when ctv National News anchor Lloyd Robertson told viewers that the Arar saga had taken a “mysterious turn.” He introduced an “exclusive story” by parliamentary reporter Joy Malbon, who reported that “senior government sources in various departments” insisted that Arar had provided information to the Syrians about al-Qaeda and other radical Islamic groups linked to Osama bin Laden, as well as to terror cells operating in Canada. Malbon added that Arar had also provided information about four other Canadians allegedly involved in terrorist activities.
The detained Canadian was now reportedly implicating other Canadians in plotting mayhem in Canada and was therefore useful to anti-terrorism authorities. The suggestion in Malbon’s report that this information had been derived from transcripts of interviews conducted by Syrian interrogators who routinely use torture should have raised alarm bells. If Malbon or Robertson had reservations about this information, their doubts did not prevent them from presenting their incendiary story.
Arar and his family had had enough. Kerry Pither, an Arar family spokes- person, told the Canadian Press on October 24 that Arar was outraged by anonymous sources who were falsely accusing him of being an “al-Qaeda rat.” “I think it’s a smear campaign chipping away at his credibility before Mr. Arar goes public with his story because they know they are implicated in what happened to him,” she said.
On November 4, 2003, Arar finally spoke. At a press conference in Ottawa he insisted, “I am not a terrorist.” Arar described himself as a hard-working, Syrian-born Canadian who had been kidnapped, beaten, tortured, and held in a grave where rats roamed free. The Ottawa Citizen published the full text of Arar’s statement, beginning on the front page, and the Globe also published a lengthy excerpt. Arar’s powerful declaration provoked a new round of editorials and opinion pieces calling for a public inquiry, but the Chrétien government rejected those calls, and the leaks kept flowing. There were no demands for journalists to name their sources.
The next anonymous leak had a curious twist. According to Ottawa Citizen reporter Juliet O’Neill, it was proffered to explain the motivation behind the earlier leaks and in defence of the actions of police and spies against brewing accusations that they had bungled the Arar file. In a front-page story on November 8, O’Neill relied on a leaked intelligence “dossier” provided to her by an unnamed security source to report that Arar had come under suspi-cion while the rcmp was investigating the activities of members of an alleged al-Qaeda logistical support group in Ottawa. One of the leaked documents, O’Neill added, contained minute details of Arar’s “supposed training” at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, including training in military tactics and small-arms use. O’Neill’s source was quoted as saying that Ottawa was opposed to a public inquiry because it would compromise ongoing probes into alleged terror plots.
On the same day O’Neill’s story appeared, Adam Radwanski, a member of the National Post’s editorial board, penned a story about the media’s, and more particularly his own, culpability in Arar’s ordeal. Radwanski admitted that not once during the year that Arar had been incarcerated had he even suggested writing an editorial about the case. “I was part of the problem,” he acknowledged. Radwanski noted that Arar had publicly thanked journalists for their support. “He needn’t have,” Radwanski wrote. “Given what might have befallen him, we should be lucky we don’t have blood on our hands.”
On December 30, 2003, the most egregious of the “serial smears” (as the Globe’s Paul Knox called them) made its way onto the front pages of several newspapers. CanWest News’s Robert Fife reported that US authorities had an extensive and incriminating dossier on Arar. “If the Americans were ever to declassify the stuff, there would be some hair standing on end,” one unnamed Canadian source told Fife. That hair-raising information included, Fife reported, that US and Canadian intelligence officials were “100% sure” that Arar received training at the same al- Qaeda camp in Afghanistan as convicted terrorist Ahmed Ressam. Fife quoted a senior Canadian intelligence officer as saying that Arar was “not a virgin . . . . There is more than meets the eye here.” Fife included a denial from Kerry Pither, but the damage was done.
Not surprisingly, Fife’s story triggered an angry reaction from Arar. He reiterated his demand for a public inquiry and again insisted that he was the innocent victim of a smear campaign. On January 2, 2004, the Post published an editorial stating that the paper was “conflicted” about the Arar case. On the one hand, it was glad to see American and Canadian officials working together to investigate a possible terror suspect. On the other hand, it found Arar’s “trip” to Damascus “troubling.” The Post then lauded itself for its cautious approach to the Arar story, an approach that it claimed had not been duplicated by other media, which portrayed Arar as “an innocent victim of US mistreatment.” “We wonder, then, how these outlets feel about our report this week that Canadian and US officials are ‘100% sure’ that Arar spent time at al-Qaeda’s Khaldun terroristtraining camp,” the Post asked.
The Globe took the bait. The following day, it insisted that “If Maher Arar is known beyond doubt to be an alumnus of [an] al-Qaeda training camp . . . as anonymous parties within the federal government seem hell-bent on insinuating, why won’t they come out of the shadows and state their case publicly? ” The Globe editorial added that a public inquiry was “warranted in the light of an increasingly bizarre series of accusatory leaks about Mr. Arar from ‘official’ sources.” The piece failed to mention that the Globe was the recipient of one of those leaks. Still, we can now answer the Post’s query. The story was a lie plastered on the front page of a national newspaper.
On January 21, 2004, Juliet O’Neill was getting ready for work when the doorbell rang repeatedly at her Ottawa home. When she opened the door, twenty Mounties poured in. They began a five-hour search as part of a criminal investigation into leaks of a security dossier providing details of Arar’s alleged links to terrorism that O’Neill had written about two months earlier.
The raid on O’Neill’s home led to an avalanche of criticism and renewed calls for a public inquiry into the Arar affair. Much of the press rushed to O’Neill’s defence, charging that she was a victim of police-state tactics. Citizen editor-in-chief Scott Anderson described the raid as a “black day for freedom in this country” and said that the Liberal government “has a lot to answer for.” Writers who had not penned a word about Arar’s abduction and imprisonment were suddenly inspired to take up the scandal when one of their own was being threatened. Like Arar, O’Neill had not been charged.
O’Neill reluctantly assumed the role of martyr, but there were those who questioned that construction. The Globe’s Margaret Wente reminded her readers in a January 24 column that O’Neill’s November 8 story was littered with unsubstantiated information about Arar’s ties to al-Qaeda. She noted that O’Neill was not the only “leakee”—that other reporters were also members of that select group. Kenneth Beck, a Montreal Gazette reader, had a short letter published on January 31 that asked essential questions about journalistic responsibility. Beck wondered about the credibility of the information in the leaked document O’Neill had relied so heavily on for her story. He also wondered how O’Neill had allowed herself to be misled by the very powers the press was supposed to keep in check. And finally, Beck wrote: “Had O’Neill and her editors only been ‘doing their jobs’ . . . her story might well have deserved to be spiked.”
For her part, O’Neill has written a number of stories and given speeches recounting the raid and her visceral reaction to it. While she is clearly constrained in what she can say, what is noteworthy about these accounts is the absence of regret or contrition for reproducing falsehoods fed to O’Neill by anonymous sources.
The raid on O’Neill’s home had the salutary effect of undoing the careful spadework of anonymous government sources who had leaked disparaging stories about Arar to reporters to prevent a public inquiry. A week after the raid, then prime minister Paul Martin did a volte-face and ordered an inquiry. The result is Justice O’Connor’s exhaustive report.
On September 18, 2006, O’Connor averred that Maher Arar had been telling the truth all along. The Post reserved judgment. In a September 20 editorial, the newspaper wrote that Arar was an “apparently innocent Canadian.”
Justice O’Connor did his best to clinically dissect the anatomy of the Arar story. There are always two parties to a smear, he reasoned: those who initiate the falsehoods and those who perpetuate them. In Arar’s case, we know the identities of the reporters who gave sustenance to the lies, but the sources of the lies remain anonymous—safe, at least for now, from sanction.
In the accounting that must take place in the wake of Justice O’Connor’s report, the story will continue to move and new layers will be added. At a minimum, the reporters who were complicit in blackening Arar’s name and reputation should offer him a swift and unambiguous apology. They might also want to revisit the journalistic convention stipulating that promises of anonymity are voided when sources are revealed to have lied. In Arar’s case, if anonymous sources kept an innocent man imprisoned, separated from his wife and newborn child, and tortured, and then prevented the truth from emerging, all under false pretenses, then they must be outed.
The Globe’s Jeff Sallot recently told an online forum of the newspaper’s readers, “Somebody should be trying to find out who deliberately leaked misinformation to smear Mr. Arar.” He proceeded to admit that he knew some of their identities. “I had sources try to tell me that Mr. Arar was in fact a bad guy who confessed to training in Afghanistan. I never reported these allegations because . . . scoops are no substitute for the truth.”
To this, it must be added that protecting scoundrels is no substitute for journalism.