Is it possible the United States sent an innocent man out of the country to be tortured?
That's the disturbing question at the heart of a case that may reveal a secret side of the war on terrorism -- one that the government does not want to talk about.
It involves an accusation that the justice department sent a man from the U.S. to Syria to be interrogated and tortured.
The man making the claim is a Syrian-born Canadian citizen who was taken into custody, under suspicion of being connected with al Qaeda, while changing planes in New York.
Now, Maher Arar tells Correspondent Vicki Mabrey about what became his year in hell, which began when federal agents stopped him for questioning at JFK International Airport.
"I cooperated with them 100 percent. And they always kept telling me, 'We'll let you go on the next plane,'" says Arar. "They did not."
It would be more than a year before Arar would see his family again. In September 2002, he'd taken his wife and two children on a beach vacation in Tunisia. But he flew home alone early for his job as a software engineer.
What he didn't know is that he'd been placed on the U.S. immigration watch list. So when the agents began questioning him, he tells 60 Minutes II that he wasn't concerned – at least not at first.
"The interrogation lasted about seven or eight hours, and then they came, and shackled me and chained me," recalls Arar. "I said, 'What's happening here?' And they would not tell me. They said, 'You are gonna know tomorrow.'"
He spent the night in a holding cell. The next day, he was shackled, driven to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn and locked in solitary confinement. Agents told him they had evidence that he'd been seen in the company of terrorist suspects in Canada.
"What they accused me of being is very serious. Being a member of al Qaeda," says Arar, who denies any involvement with the organization.
Arar wasn't allowed to make a phone call, so when his wife, Monia, didn't hear from him, she called the Canadian embassy.
"Nobody knew at that time where he was. He vanished," says Monia, who didn't hear from him for six days. Then, American officials acknowledged they were holding Arar in Brooklyn. A Canadian consular official visited and assured Arar he'd be deported home to Canada.
But the justice department had a different plan. After two weeks in U.S.custody, Arar was taken from his cell by federal agents in the middle of the night.
"They read me the document. They say, 'The INS director decided to deport you to Syria,'" recalls Arar. "And of course, the first thing I did was I started crying, because everyone knows that Syria practices torture."
Arar says he knows because he was born in Syria. He emigrated to Canada with his parents as a teenager. But, returning to Syria as an accused terrorist, he had good reason to be afraid.
Torture in Syrian prisons is well-documented. The state department's own report cites an array of gruesome tortures routinely used in Syrian jails. And in a speech last fall, President Bush condemned Syria, alongside Iraq, for what he called the country's "legacy of torture and oppression."
Nevertheless, deportation agents flew Arar on a specially chartered jet to Jordan, and the Jordanians drove him to Syria.
"When I arrived there, I saw the photos of the Syrian president, and that's why I realized I was indeed in Syria," says Arar. "I wished I had a knife in my hand to kill myself."
The next morning, Arar says a Syrian intelligence officer arrived carrying a black electrical cable, two inches thick and about two feet long.
"He said, 'Do you know what this is?' I said, I was crying, you know, 'Yes, I know what it is. It's a cable.' And he said, 'Open your right hand.' I opened my right hand … and he beat me very strongly," says Arar. "He said, 'Open your left hand.' And I opened my left hand. And he beat me on my palm, on my left palm. And then he stopped, and he asked me questions. And I said to him, 'I have nothing to hide.'"
Arar says the physical torture took place during the first two weeks, but he says he also went through psychological and mental torture: "They would take me back to a room, they call it the waiting room. And I hear people screaming. And they, I mean, people, they're being tortured. And I felt my heart was going to go out of my chest."
But Imad Moustapha, Syria's highest-ranking diplomat in Washington, says Arar was treated well. He also told Mabrey that Syrian intelligence had never heard of Arar before the U.S. government asked Syria to take him.
Did the U.S. give them any evidence to back up the claim that Arar was a suspected al Qaeda terrorist?
"No. But we did our investigations. We traced links. We traced relations. We tried to find anything. We couldn't," says Moustapha, who adds that they shared their reports with the U.S. "We always share information with anybody alleged to be in close contact with al Qaeda with the United States."
The Syrians allowed Canadian officials six short visits with Arar. But Arar says he was warned not to tell them about the torture or how he was being held – in an underground cell 3 feet wide, 6 feet long and 7 feet high. It was his home for a full 10 months.
"It's a grave. It's the same size of a grave. It's a dark place. It's underground," says Arar.
He says the Syrians were pressing him to confess he'd been to an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan: "They just wanted to find something that the Americans did not find -- and that's when they asked me about Afghanistan. They said, 'You've been to Afghanistan,' so they would hit me three, four times. And, if I hesitate, they would hit me again."
Arar says he signed a confession because he was "ready to do anything to stop the torture." But he claims that he had never been to Afghanistan, or trained at a terrorist camp. "Just one hit of this cable, it's like you just forget everything in your life. Everything," he says.
Back in Canada, Monia was fighting for her husband's life. She marched in front of parliament, and protested in front of the U.S. embassy.
Eventually, she got the ear of then-Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien. On the floor of parliament, Chretian voiced mounting frustration with the U.S. The job eventually went to Gar Pardy, then one of Canada's top diplomats, to get answers from the Americans.
"The American authorities acknowledged this was a Canadian citizen that they were dealing with. He was traveling on a Canadian passport. There was no ambiguity about any of these issues," says Pardy, who believes he should have been sent to Canada, or dealt with under American law in the United States. But not sent to Syria.
But while Canadian diplomats were demanding answers from the U.S., it turns out that it was the Royal Canadian mounted police who had been passing U.S. intelligence the information about Arar's alleged terrorist associations.
However, U.S. government officials we spoke to say they told Canadian intelligence that they were sending Arar to Syria – and the Canadians signed off on the decision.
Pardy says if that's true, it would have been wrong all around: "I would dispute that the people who were making any statements in this context were speaking for the Canadian government. A policeman talking to a policeman in this context is not necessarily speaking for the Canadian government.
And the Canadian government wanted Arar back. It took a year and a week from the time Arar was detained in New York for Arar to be released. He arrived home in Canada dazed and exhausted.
Why did Syrian officials let him go? "Why shouldn't we leave him to go? We thought that would be a gesture of good will towards Canada, which is a friendly nation. For Syria, second, we could not substantiate any of the allegations against him," says Moustapha.
He added that the Syrian government now considers Arar completely innocent. But does he feel any remorse about taking a year out of Arar's life?
"If this was the case, it's not our problem," says Arar. "We did not create this problem."
60 Minutes II has learned that the decision to deport Arar was made at the highest levels of the U.S. justice department, with a special removal order signed by John Ashcroft's former deputy, Larry Thompson.
Ashcroft made his only public statement about the case in November. He said the U.S. deported Arar to protect Americans –- and had every right to do so.
"I consider that really an utter fabrication and a lie," says Michael Rather, Arar's attorney and head of the Center For Constitutional Rights. He plans to file a lawsuit against Ashcroft and several other American officials.
"They knew, when they were sending him to Syria, that Syria would use certain kinds of information-gathering techniques, including torture, on him. They knew it," says Ratner. "That's why he was sent there. That's why he wasn't sent to Canada."
Before deporting Arar to Syria, American officials involved in the case told 60 Minutes II they had obtained assurances from the Syrian government that Arar would not be tortured –- that he would "be treated humanely"
"The fact that you went looking for assurances, which is reflected here, tells you that even in the minds of people who made this decision," says Pardy. "I mean, there were some second thoughts."
No one at the justice department would talk to 60 Minutes II on camera about Arar, but they sent us this statement saying:
"The facts underlying Arar's case…[are]classified and cannot be released publicly."
"We have information indicating that Mr. Arar is a member of al Qaeda and, therefore, remains a threat to U.S. national security."
Despite the American accusations, Arar has never been charged with a crime and, today, he's free in canada. He's afraid, though, that he might never be able to clear his name.
Arar's case is unusual because he was sent directly from U.S. soil to Syria. But intelligence sources tell 60 Minutes II that since 9/11, the U.S. has quietly transported hundreds of terror suspects captured in different parts of the world to Middle Eastern countries for tough interrogations.
Produced by Michael Bronner and Wayne Nelson
Copyright 2004 CBS. All rights reserved.