The following remarkable exchange took place at today's White House Press briefing. Scott McClellan had begun the session by explaining that the Treasury Department had just frozen the assets of a Syrian security chief whom the government believes has helped support terrorism. A few minutes later, he was questioned.
Q. There are allegations that we send people to Syria to be tortured.
MR. McCLELLAN: To Syria?
Q Yes. You've never heard of any allegation like that?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, I've never heard that one. That's a new one.
Q To Syria? You haven't heard that?
MR. McCLELLAN: That's a new one.
Q Well, I can assure you it's been well-publicized.
MR. McCLELLAN: By bloggers?
As a matter of fact, the New Yorker last February published the story of Maher Arar, a Canadian engineer of Syrian origin who was detained at a New York airport in 2002 and, he says, flown to Jordan and driven immediately to Syria, where he was tortured extensively, held for an entire year, and released after the Canadian government interceded on his behalf. The Syrian Ambassador announced in Washington that his government had found no link between Arar and terrorism. Arar has filed suit against the United States. (The original New YOrker article, which essentially broke the story of our rendition program, is at http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?050214fa_fact6.) And last March, the New York Times reported that the government claimed that Arar was deported to Syria, not rendered for torture, because of accusations that he was linked to Al-Queda. That McClellan could tell the White House press that he knows nothing about such an allegation seems rather extraordinary, and I hope that some reporter will raise the matter again soon.
On another front, in Britain, two men have been charged for leaking the memo of a conversation between President Bush and Tony Blair in 2004, in which the President allegedly suggested bombing the Al-Jazeera headquarters in Qatar. Al-Jazeera has filed a freedom of information suit in Britain asking for the relevant portion of the transript. The suit is not likely to be successful, but I am sad that they, rather than an American news organization, have had to file it. Even though the charges filed by the British government certainly tend to show that the story was true--since one cannot be charged under the Official Secrets Act unless one leaks secret information--the American press has essentially ignored the story, which, even if the President was speaking in jest, strikes me as worth pursuing. In Britain, the Guardian has published two stories (on January 10 and 11) indicating that the men who had the document gave it to John Kerry supporter during the 2004 campaign, but that no one dared publish it. The Guardian stories, including quotes from a solicitor who has now seen the document, suggest that the story was indeed correct, and that there is an excellent chance the document will be released as part of the proceedings. That would force American media to pay a little attention.