By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
OTTAWA–Foreign Affairs and Department of Justice bureaucrats advised U.S. officials on how to skirt privacy laws to get information on whether a businessman and politician intimately linked to the Syrian ruling regime was a Canadian citizen, according to a “secret” U.S. diplomatic cable obtained by APTN National News.
The 2009 cable, originating from the U.S. State Department and signed off by then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, contained a request for Canadian officials to disclose whether a Syrian businessman and politician identified as Muhammad Hamshu had any legal status as a citizen or “resident alien” in Canada. The cable also listed several different spellings for his name.
Foreign Affairs and Justice bureaucrats told U.S. officials that Canada’s privacy laws prevented the disclosure of that type of information, but suggested a way around the Privacy Act by making the request through “law enforcement channels,” the Jan. 7, 2009, cable said.
University of Ottawa law professor Amir Attaran said department officials were essentially giving advice on how to break Canadian law and those involved should be reprimanded.
“Whoever gave this advice was certainly conspiring to defeat the privacy law and that person should be severely reprimanded and probably fired,” said Attaran. “You are conspiring with a foreign government to violate Canada’s laws as a Canadian public servant.”
If Canadian law enforcement agencies, like the RCMP or the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, provided the information to the U.S., they would have broken the law, said Attaran.
“If the police disclosed it would have been illegal,” said Attaran. “I think the Privacy Commissioner should be looking at this.”
The cable was among a batch of confidential and secret cables originating from or sent to the U.S. embassy and consulates in Canada obtained by APTN National News from whistleblower website WikiLeaks.
CBC-Radio Canada also obtained the same batch of cables.
Over 2,000 cables dealing with Canada have already been released.
The cable, which was sent to the U.S. embassies in Damascus and Ottawa, contained a text specifically for Canadian officials outlining why the U.S. wanted the information.
The cable said the U.S. wanted to add Hamshu to a black-list of Syrian individuals blocked from doing business with the U.S.
“The United States intends to designate Muhammad Hamshu under Executive Order 13460 for being responsible for, having engaged in, having facilitated or having secured improper advantage as a result of, public corruption by senior officials within the Government of Syria,” said the text prepared for Canadian officials that was contained in the cable.
Hamshu is a Syrian legislator and a businessman heading the sprawling firm Hamsho Group International and other businesses with interests in everything from construction to telecommunications and a satellite television station.
Hamshu was also among 25 individuals black-listed by Canada as part of its recently announced sanctions against Syria for its brutal repression of its citizens involved in pro-democracy demonstrations. His name is spelled Mohamed Hamcho on the list, but an employee at one of his Canadian subsidiaries, who requested anonymity, confirmed it was the same individual.
A similar spelling of the name also appears on another one of his company’s websites.
The cable said the U.S. believed that Hamshu “may have legal status in Canada” and wanted the Canadian government to “determine his status if any” and provide “any supporting documentation.”
Canadian officials at Foreign Affairs and the Department of Justice told
U.S. officials they could not provide information on Hamshu’s legal status in Canada, but they suggested making the request through law enforcement channels under the “mutual legal assistance treaty” between both countries.
“A Canadian DFAIT official informed Embassy Ottawa that Canadian privacy laws prevent the government of Canada from disclosing information regarding Muhammad Hamshu’s legal status in Canada, including whether he is a Canadian citizen,” the cable said. “DFAIT and the Canadian Department of Justice advised Embassy Ottawa to request this information through Canadian law enforcement channels under the terms of the mutual legal assistance treaty (MLAT).”
The cable also said the U.S. planned to publicly identify Hamshu with his Canadian legal status if Canada agreed.
It’s unclear whether Canadian authorities provided the information.
A spokesperson for Foreign Affairs said the department wouldn’t comment on “leaked information.”
The Department of Justice was provided the section of the cable, but had issued no comment by late Wednesday afternoon.
NDP MP Charlie Angus, the party’s critic on ethics and privacy issues, said he found the cable’s revelation “disturbing” and would bring up the issue during an upcoming planned meeting with Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart.
Angus said the mutual assistance treaty wouldn’t allow for a circumvention of privacy laws.
“I think we need to know what is going on in terms of how this government is handling Canadians’ private information,” said Angus. “We need to be wondering if this was a one-off, or if this is a pattern. We are going to ask a few questions.”
A spokeswoman for the Office of the Privacy Commission said they did not have enough information to comment specifically on the cable.
“The Privacy Act has provisions to permit disclosures and, just on the surface of it, we cannot say whether or not this is the case, in these circumstances,” said Anne-Marie Hayden. “Our office has argued for several years that provisions in the Privacy Act governing the disclosure of personal information by the Canadian government to foreign states should be strengthened.”
An employee at PISC Canada Inc., a small, Hamshu-owned Canadian firmed in Mississauga, Ont., said he was not a Canadian citizen, but had obtained permanent residence status in Canada “a long time ago.”
Samer Abboud, a history and international studies professor at Aracadia University in Pennsylvania, said Hamshu is a member of Syria’s ruling inner circle. Abboud said Hamshu inherited his business empire from his father and made his fortune off government contracts.
“Once you achieve a certain kind of level (in Syria) you come in the orbit of the security complex,” said Abboud, who grew up in Ottawa. “There is nobody who is independently wealthy in Syria who is not deeply connected to the security apparatus.”
Abboud said it was curious the U.S. would say Hamshu was involved in corrupting public officials since there is no line between the business and political elite in the country.
“That is the way in which the economic networks in that country operate,” he said.
Abboud said he doubted that Hamshu was a Canadian citizen or had any major financial interests in Canada, since most of his business would come through the Syrian government.
Abboud said it was surprising that the U.S. would need to ask Canada to confirm Hamshu’s citizenship and it showed how weak American intelligence was on Syria. He said the U.S. was probably fed Hamshu’s name by opponents of the regime.
“You would think the State Department would have a big file on this guy,” he said.