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William Fisher Headshot

Something Obama Can Do

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President Obama apparently had a successful first meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper. Obviously, their main - perhaps only - subject was the current economic meltdown.

But event disappointed many of the president's supporters. These are the folks who are confused by what they see as the Administration's ambivalence about the nexus between national security and civil and human rights.

In his first week in office, the president signed executive orders to shut down Guantanamo within a year, review all the cases there within 120 days, ban "enhanced interrogation" techniques, and bring a new era of openness and transparency to his government.

Before his first month was out, Obama's Justice Department released some of those famous memos written by John Yoo and other Bush lawyers, justifying virtually infinite presidential power. And the CIA disclosed that it destroyed not two, but ninety-two, interrogation tapes.

But while all that was going on, Obama's DOJ lawyers were in court, twice choosing to follow the same tired road so frequently traveled by George W. Bush: Invoking the so-called "state secrets privilege" to keep cases from ever getting heard in court.

In one case, the government's lawyers used the "state secrets" defense to get a federal court to throw out a case against a Boeing subsidiary called Jeppesen Dataplan, in which four Guantanamo prisoners alleged that they were victims of "extraordinary rendition," and that Jeppesen provided the CIA with the logistical support for their flights into foreign torture chambers.

In another case, Obama's DOJ used "state secrets" in an attempt to halt a lawsuit charging that the government's evidence was obtained through Bush's warrantless wiretapping program.

Maybe most of us can accept that all governments have secrets and have to have a way to keep their secrets secret - although the two cases cited above would not seem to be particularly great candidates for that inclusion in that category. Unless these cases somehow make it to court, we'll never know. Unless someone leaks the facts to media.

But there's one case the government refuses to talk about, despite that fact that all the evidence has been public for years.

That, of course, is the case of Maher Arar. Arar is the Canadian citizen who was stopped by immigration authorities at Kennedy Airport in 2002, while he was in transit back to Canada. He was detained for two weeks, denied a lawyer, and then shipped off first to Jordan and then to Syria. In Syria, he was held incommunicado in a cell the size of a grave and tortured for ten months before the Syrians released him without charges.

The Canadian Government formed a special commission to review their citizen's "extraordinary rendition." After an exhaustive investigation, the body admitted that what happened to Arar was a result of faulty information the Canadian Royal Mounted Police gave to U.S. authorities. The head of the RCMP was forced to resign, and Canada gave Arar an official apology and ten million dollars.

This all happened on George Bush's watch. But after incessant stonewalling about the issue, all that Secretary of State Condi Rice would say was that she thought the affair was not handled very well. And Maher Arar, for reasons no one will discuss, is somehow still on the U.S. "no-fly" list.

Which brings me back to Obama's meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Harper.

Yes, the economic meltdown had to be top of both men's agendas. But how difficult would it have been for our new president raise the Arar issue with Harper? Or vice versa?

As far as we've been told, nothing like that ever happened. And that's an Obama opportunity lost.

But it's not too late. An honest statement from the Obama Administration - and an apology to Arar - could still be of enormous help in reassuring those of us who believe in the rule of law that our new president is really committed to justice and transparency.