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Is There Accountability in the War on Terror?

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With the Bush Administration coming to a close, the unanswered question in the war on terror is whether top government officials are responsible for approving or condoning policies that singled out Arab and Muslims in America and abroad for detention, interrogation, and torture.

Since 9/11, victims of the war on terror's policies have been denied justice due to legal barriers and guilt by association. More than 700 Muslim or Arab men were held in federal custody following the terrorist attacks, and although none were charged with terrorism many were found guilty of immigration offenses.

Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian software engineer, was picked up in September 2002 while in transit at JFK Airport on his way home to Canada from a family trip to Tunisia. He was arrested when his name matched an Al-Qaeda suspect list and was confined for nearly two weeks and given only minimal access to a lawyer and his family. Arar was later deported to Syria in an act of extraordinary rendition by the U.S.

Arar was held in captivity for ten months in Syria, during which he was interrogated and tortured. Upon his release, Arar was never charged with any crime by Canada or the United States. A Canadian commission ultimately found no evidence indicating that Arar had committed any offense or posed a threat to the country, and that it was likely that U.S. detention and rendition of Arar was based on inaccurate information provided by Canadian officials. The Canadian government has since apologized to Arar and awarded him $10 million in compensation, in addition to legal fees.

The U.S. government, however, refuses to clear Arar's name and has kept his name on a watch list. He has since launched a case, Arar v. Ashcroft, against the United States seeking compensatory damages and claiming that U.S. government violated his constitutional and international human rights, as well as the right to choose a country of removal as guaranteed by the Torture Victims Protection Act. The U.S. government, however, is fighting to keep Arar's case from being heard.

The latest challenge to the constitutionality of American efforts to deter and detain terrorists in its war on terror is Ashcroft v. Iqbal. This week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments from both sides about whether or not former Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller III, among others, should be subject to law suits filed by Arab Muslims who were imprisoned in the U.S. post-9/11 and who say they were targeted for such treatment because of their religion and ethnicity.

Javaid Iqbal, a Pakistani television cable installer, was arrested in New York weeks after September 11, 2001 and held in solitary confinement by U.S. authorities for a year. In his case, Iqbal argues that during his detention he was subject to body cavity searches and that his Qur'an was confiscated by prison authorities. Though he was never charged with terrorism offenses, Iqbal was deported to Pakistan after being convicted of document fraud.

Iqbal claims that Ashcroft and Mueller created policies that singled him out as a "high interest" suspect based only on his nationality and religion. A government attorney, however, argued that top government officials carry immunity while carrying out their responsibilities, and that their actions were a "perfectly lawful law enforcement response to the 9/11 attacks." If Ashcroft and Mueller are dismissed from the suit, Iqbal could proceed with his claims against lower-level officials -- prison guards, FBI agents, and the prison warden -- also named in the suit.

Such cases of harsh interrogation techniques and indefinite detention are among many within the Muslim and Arab communities domestically and abroad. The policies which allowed for Muslim and Arab men to be held in detention until they were somehow cleared contradicts the fundamental American principle of due process. In the spirit of looking forward, the incoming administration must reassess the harsh policies enacted after 9/11 which allowed for indefinite detention based on factors such as ethnicity and country of origin.

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