WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey said on Wednesday he had rejected a request from lawmakers that an outside special counsel investigate the case of a Canadian taken off a plane in New York and sent to Syria, where he says he was tortured.
Mukasey said under questioning at a House of Representatives Judiciary Committee hearing that he did not believe that a special counsel was warranted "at this time."
Maher Arar, a Syrian-born software engineer, was taken into custody by U.S. officials during a 2002 stopover in New York while on his way home to Canada and then deported to Syria because of suspected links to al Qaeda.
Arar says he was imprisoned in Syria for a year and tortured. His case has become a sore spot in U.S.-Canada relations.
Three committee Democrats sent a letter on July 10 asking Mukasey to appoint an outside special counsel to investigate and prosecute any violations of federal criminal laws.
They said a special counsel would ensure the investigation is thorough, impartial and independent, and would show the U.S. government was willing to conduct a fair investigation into serious allegations of wrongdoing.
Two lawmakers who sought the outside investigation, including committee chairman Rep. John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, criticized Mukasey's decision.
Conyers said Mukasey had continued the "unfortunate tradition" of refusing to appoint a special counsel not only in the Arar case, but also for President George W. Bush's warrantless surveillance program and for the CIA's use of waterboarding for terrorism suspects.
Rep. William Delahunt, a Democrat from Massachusetts, cited testimony last month that U.S. officials may have sent Arar to Syria, rather than Canada, because they knew of the likelihood of torture.
"If that doesn't trigger need for a special prosecutor, I can't imagine what would," he said.
Mukasey said U.S. officials received assurances from Syria that Arar would not be tortured. "Sending him to Canada could have posed a threat to our country," Mukasey said, adding that sending him to Syria was "safer."
Maria LaHood, an attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, which represents Arar in the United States, replied, "Sending Maher to Syria instead of home to Canada was certainly not safer for him, and did nothing to make the United States safer."
She said, "The tendency of the Department of Justice to cover up its crimes is exactly why an outside prosecutor is needed."
The department told committee members of Mukasey's decision in a letter sent on Tuesday, the day before his appearance.
It said the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general has reopened his investigation of the Arar case while the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility is reviewing the role of department lawyers in the case.
"We will carefully consider the results of these efforts in determining whether any further action is appropriate," a department official said in the letter.
The Canadian government has cleared Arar of any links to terrorist groups, has apologized and has paid him millions of dollars in compensation.
Editing by David Storey