The new head of the Senate Judiciary Committee was angry. Sen. Patrick Leahy was questioning U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about a man named Maher Arar.
Arar is a Canadian citizen whom the United States detained without charge then sent to Syria in 2002. Leahy fumed: "We knew damn well, if he went to Canada, he wouldn't be tortured. He'd be held. He'd be investigated. We also knew damn well, if he went to Syria, he'd be tortured."
Leahy was responding to Alberto Gonzales' comments that "there were assurances sought that he would not be tortured from Syria." Assurances? From the country that President Bush recently described as the "crossroads for terrorism"? From the country that Bush has vilified and threatened to attack? But before we point the finger at other countries, we have to look here at home.
Gonzales knows about torture. Arar was detained less than two months after Gonzales' office produced the notorious "Torture Memo," which has served as the legal basis for the Bush administration's brutal torture methods like "waterboarding" (holding a victim's head underwater until unconscious) that are increasingly well-known and globally despised.
The U.S. government also engages in "extraordinary rendition." This Orwellian phrase describes how foreigners are grabbed off the street or from their home and secretly delivered to some other place, outside the United States, (in Arar's case, Syria), where illegal and brutal interrogations can take place beyond the reach of Congress and the courts.
Arar's Kafkaesque nightmare began on Sept. 26, 2002. He was returning to Canada from a family vacation, with a plane change at New York's JFK Airport. There he was pulled aside, searched, questioned and imprisoned. Two weeks later, U.S. authorities sent Arar to Syria.
Arar spent the next 10 months enduring brutal beatings and psychological torture, kept in a cell the size of a grave. Arar was accused of being connected to al-Qaeda, and of having been to a training camp in Afghanistan. Neither was true, but after weeks of beatings, he admitted to everything. Worse than the beatings, Arar said, was how he suffered while isolated in the dank, windowless cell:
"... the psychological torture that I endured during this 10-month period in the underground cell is really beyond human imagination. I was ready to confess to anything. I would just write anything so that they could only take me from that place and put me in a place where it is fit for a human being."
As inexplicably as Arar was kidnapped to Syria, he was released home to Canada, a broken man. Canada just finished a thorough inquiry that completely exonerated him and supported his request for financial damages. Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a Bush ally, has asked Bush to "come clean" on the Arar case.
Leahy is demanding action: "The Bush administration has yet to renounce the practice of sending detainees to countries that torture prisoners, and it has yet to offer even the hint of an apology to Mr. Arar for what he endured with our government's complicity."
The Bush policies of war, occupation, torture and rendition are having a cumulative effect on global opinion. A recent BBC poll of more than 26,000 people found that 75 percent oppose the U.S. role in Iraq, two-thirds oppose the handling of prisoners at Guantanamo, and 52 percent feel that the United States has an overall negative effect on the planet. Citizens just protested the fifth anniversary of the prison at Guantanamo. Legislators in North Carolina are demanding an investigation into Aero Contractors, a firm based there that supplies Gulf Stream jets to the CIA to execute these "extraordinary renditions." And tens of thousands were expected in Washington, D.C., and around the country on Jan. 27 to protest the war.
Democrats criticized the Republican-controlled "rubber stamp Congress," which failed to provide adequate oversight of the Bush administration. Now that the Democratic party has control of Congress, the onus is upon them to restore law and order, to investigate the use of torture and to demand prosecution of those who engaged in it.
Amy Goodman is the host of "Democracy Now!," a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on 500 stations in North America.