Sunday, January 24, 2010

"Rip Van Winkle"

That would be Mohamed Harkat, Ottawa resident and bailed security certificate detainee, who CSIS stubbornly insists is a "sleeper" agent for the bin Laden network. Given the length of time that his client has been in the country, and his apparent lack of suspicious activity for many years, lawyer Matt Webber was being forgiveably sarcastic.

All week, at a hearing to determine whether the security certificate against Harkat should be quashed, a federal court has heard testimony from John the Agent (his identity is protected).

John read books on the subject of terrorism to prepare him for what has been a gruelling cross-examination. He has reviewed what must be at least a five-foot shelf of documentary material. He's bright, and has been careful on the stand. But I suspect the outcome of this hearing is not in doubt, despite an interesting comment from the bench by the judge hearing the case, Simon Noël.

The judge seems to be scrupulously fair, and he has been scathing in the past about the reliability of CSIS. I suspect that he was sending that signal (about secret evidence concerning Harkat's time in Pakistan) to the defence team, to allow it to prepare a response.

In any case, this is how John's testimony has come under question during the past week:

  • Meeting with Ahmed Said Khadr:

    John agreed there was no public information linking Khadr to terrorism at the time, and he was known to be a man who ran a legitimate charity once supported by the Canadian International Development Agency. John acknowledged that the meeting could have been an innocent one. Khadr's arrest for terrorism came much later. [emphasis added]

  • Links with another figure, Ibn Khattab, in Pakistan:

    When he lived in Pakistan, Harkat is alleged by CSIS to have worked for Kattab. But, whatever the truth of this allegation, another judge, Richard Mosely, has already rejected CSIS' contention that Khattab was a terrorist in any case.

  • Harkat's possession of a fake passport when entering Canada:

    Harkat, an Algerian national seeking refugee status, declared to immigration officials upon entry that his Saudi passport was a fake. As the defence points out, this is odd behaviour indeed for a sleeper.

  • Harkat's behaviour in Ottawa:

    In the course of his work at a gas station and then as a pizza deliveryman, Harkat had several encounters with the Ottawa police, to whom he reported a robbery, thefts and one assault. The defence argues that sleepers, by virtue of their profession, lie low rather than making their presence continually known to local law enforcement.

    CSIS declares that Harkat carried out one mission as a sleeper, allegedly on behalf of Abu Zubaydah, described as a senior al-Qaeda lieutenant: he paid $1000 towards the immigration legal fees of Abu Messab Al Shehre, a man later deported to Saudi Arabia as a security risk. Harkat visited Al Shehre in the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre. As the defence notes, visitors there are logged in and out, and their actions monitored--again, such a visit was atypical for a sleeper.

  • CSIS' use of questionable sources:

    Zubaydah, whose alleged importance to al-Qaeda is now in some dispute, was waterboarded 83 times by US officials. The suspect validity of his evidence had, I thought, already been acknowledged by Canadian officials. Judge Noël has stated, in any case, that he will not accept evidence obtained through torture.

    CSIS' own informants, meanwhile, seem to escape close scrutiny by the agency that utilizes them:

    Boxhall [a lawyer for Harkat] then pointed out that a critical source in the agency's case against Harkat had failed "all relevent questions" when issued the polygraph in 2002. [emphasis added]

    "You place great weight on the polygraph," Boxall suggested, asking how such a fact could be left out of the report that led to Harkat being arrested in 2002. He was released in 2006, but faced the most stringent bail conditions in Canadian history.

    "It should not have happened," the agent replied.

  • Muddled timelines:

    Boxall zeroed in on a 2005 letter the Algerian government sent to Canada's foreign affairs department, detailing an alleged sojourn by Harkat in Afghanistan in 1991 -- information John acknowledged was inaccurate.


    Earlier in the day, "John" acknowledged he "muddled up" a timeline in previous testimony that put Harkat on a Toronto-bound road trip with high-profile Canadian al-Qaida operative Ahmed Said Khadr.

    "It’s not that I didn’t know the details. I simply muddled it when I was testifying on the stand," said the agent about incorrectly testifying in November 2008 that Khadr had already been arrested on terrorism charges when he took the van trip with Harkat.

    "John" said his error occurred to him a few days after his testimony but he didn't inform lawyers representing the federal immigration ministry, which is seeking Harkat’s deportation to his native Algeria.

    "It didn’t occur to me that anything else was required," "John" told Webber of correcting his testimony.
Whether Harkat is a sleeper, John conceded, is "a judgment call." "I could see there would be a difference of opinion," he said.

Indeed so. But Harkat himself awaits the opinion of the judge--for him, and for his spouse Sophie Lamarche, the only opinion that really counts.

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