Two leading U.S. peace activists were denied entry into Canada on Wednesday after their names appeared on an FBI criminal database that the Canadian government is using at its borders. Ann Wright, a retired Army colonel and former diplomat, and Medea Benjamin, co-founder of women’s peace group CODEPINK, were headed to Toronto to appear at an antiwar event. We speak to Ann Wright about her entry denial and its implications on civil liberties. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Two leading U.S. peace activists were denied entry into Canada Wednesday after their names appeared on an FBI criminal database that the Canadian government is using at its borders. Ann Wright, a retired Army colonel and former diplomat, and Medea Benjamin, co-founder of women’s peace group CODEPINK, were headed to Toronto to discuss peace and security issues at the invitation of the Toronto Stop the War Coalition. Canadian authorities detained and questioned them for several hours at the border crossing between Buffalo and Niagara Falls.
The two women were apparently denied entry into Canada because their names appeared on an FBI-run international criminal database. Ann Wright and Medea Benjamin do have nine convictions between them, but all involving civil disobedience committed while protesting the Iraq War.
On Thursday, they met with immigration officials at the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C., and held a news conference outside.
Ann Wright joins me now from Washington, D.C. She’s a retired Army colonel, former diplomat, who quit a 16-year State Department career following the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Ann.
ANN WRIGHT: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Explain exactly what happened.
ANN WRIGHT: Well, Medea and I had gone up to Buffalo, New York, going across the border on the Rainbow Bridge to go on up to Toronto for a peace conference, and we were stopped by the immigration authorities and said that our names appeared on the National Crime Information Center database furnished by the FBI and that we had been convicted of offenses, and those offenses meant that we were now ineligible to enter Canada.
AMY GOODMAN: And did they go further?
ANN WRIGHT: Well, they said, yes, in order to ever be eligible to go to Canada, we would have to fill out a criminal rehabilitation packet, 18 pages worth of all of your history. We also can’t have an arrest within five years of submitting that package. So, for Medea and myself and many other peace activists who consider civil disobedience as a part of a technique to bring light to what’s going on, particularly on ending this war in Iraq, we can never be criminally rehabilitated, nor do we want to be, from standing up for truth and justice and stopping an illegal war on Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Ann, you were turned back at the border. You go back to Washington, D.C. You meet with Canadian officials at the embassy. What did they tell you?
ANN WRIGHT: Well, they told us that any time that the FBI puts people on this NCIC list, they just accept it at face value, that they don’t really investigate things. And we kept saying, "Well, you ought to, because a lot of these things appear to be going onto this list because of political intimidation," because, indeed, the list itself for the database says that people like foreign fugitives, people on the 10 most-wanted list or 100 most-wanted list, people that are part of violent gangs and terrorist organizations, are supposed to go on that NCIC list. It didn’t seem like that we were a part of — we haven’t done anything to be on the list.
And since this thing is just now — we are the first ones that we know of that have been formally stopped from going into Canada. In fact, it happened to me in August, when I went up to Canada to participate in the Security and Prosperity Partnership. I had to buy my way in, $200 for a three-day temporary resident permit. "If I’m so dangerous, why would they even give me that permit?" I asked the immigration officer in the Canadian embassy.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to say that we also called the Canadian border agents, we called the Canadian embassy in Washington, we called the Canadian consulate in New York. We got no response back. We wanted to have them on.
But, Ann, I wanted to talk about your background. Ann Wright, you’re a retired Army colonel. You earned a master’s degree in national security affairs from the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, later participated in the reconstruction efforts of U.S. military actions in Grenada and Somalia. You went on to serve 13 years in active duty in the U.S. Army, 16 years in the Army Reserve at the rank of colonel. You went on to work at the State Department. You served as chief of mission at the U.S. embassies in Afghanistan, which to voluntarily helped open, the embassy there, after the U.S. attacked Afghanistan in 2001, served in Sierra Leone, Micronesia, Mongolia, Uzbekistan. You got a State Department award for heroism for helping evacuate 2,500 people from the civil war in Sierra Leone.
Is the U.S. government or the Canadian government — how have they responded to your background? And also, elaborate further on the FBI database.
ANN WRIGHT: Well, they don’t consider my background at all, that I have had extensive experience, that the reason that I feel it is very important for me to be protesting is that I do bring both the military and a diplomatic background to my concerns about what’s going on in Iraq and potentially in Iran and certainly in Afghanistan, where I did serve in December of 2001. They don’t — although I would say that the immigration officer at the Canadian embassy found it very interesting that I had had all of this experience, but as he said, "It really doesn’t matter to us what your background is. As long as you arrive on that database, we really don’t question it."
But what we’re asking the — we’re asking Canadian members of Parliament to question whether or not their government should be — pardon me — just following wholesale anything the U.S. government tells them to do. In fact, we have a letter from Olivia Chow, one of the members of Congress, that says in Canada, peaceful activity — "peaceful protest is not criminal activity, despite how some U.S. agencies may regard it. In the future, I trust that people like Ms. Wright and Ms. Benjamin will be welcomed into Canada based on appropriate standards decided by the Canadian government and not by any other foreign body."
And I think the Canadians are absolutely right. I think the Bush administration is really pushing down the throats of a lot of countries methods to control dissent here in the United States of America, and those countries ought to say to the Bush administration, "Stop this. We can determine who ought to be coming into our country and who should not, and not based on what you think they are doing in your country."
AMY GOODMAN: Colonel Ann Wright, I wanted to ask you about the issue of torture, something you have protested against many times. On Thursday, The New York Times revealed the Justice Department, under former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, issued a series of secret legal opinions effectively sanctioning the use of torture. These are excerpts from the Thursday White House press briefing with Dana Perino.
REPORTER: Well, just generally, does the administration — does the president believe that head slapping and simulated drowning are necessary tactics to use against suspected terrorists to keep America safe?
DANA PERINO: I am not going to comment on any specific alleged techniques. It is not appropriate for me to do so. And to do so would provide the enemy with more information for how to train against these techniques. And so, I am going to decline to comment on those, but I will reiterate to you once again that we do not torture. We want to make sure that we keep this country safe.
REPORTER: In September of last year, the president told the country about what had been a classified program of CIA prisons in other countries around the world. At that time, he said all the terrorists who were held — or alleged terrorists — who were held in those sites were no longer there. Today, do those prisons still exist? And are there alleged terrorists being held?
DANA PERINO: I’m not going to comment on that. If the CIA decides to comment, I’ll let them. What I can tell is that any procedures that they use are tough, safe, necessary and lawful.
REPORTER: Is it reasonable to assume if those prisons were closed, that the president would have deemed that something to tell the country, and, in the absence of that, we should assume they are still working?
DANA PERINO: No, no, that’s a nice — I’m not going to comment.
REPORTER: In a conference call in July, a senior administration official said that they would no longer — or wouldn’t use extreme temperatures of heat and cold. Is that true?
DANA PERINO: I don’t know. I don’t — I wasn’t on the — I don’t recall.
REPORTER: I guess the point is that if the senior administration official told us on a conference call that these methods wouldn’t be used, why won’t you say whether or not head slapping, waterboarding, would be used?
DANA PERINO: I don’t believe that I — I’m not in a position to be able to do that. I am not going to comment on specific techniques. […]
Now, if there were an attack on this country, all of the questions in here would be very different. You would be asking me, "How did you allow this to happen?" And what I am telling you is that, within the law, we are making sure that we are doing everything we can to prevent it from happening again.
REPORTER: But what’s to stop another country from then taking their own definition and interpretation based on the administration’s —
DANA PERINO: As I understand it, under the Geneva Conventions, every country was supposed to interpret it for themselves, and now we have.
As I understand it, I believe that the Geneva Conventions, that every country could interpret for themselves what those — what that language meant. I’m recalling that from the debate that we had in this country from a year and a half ago.
REPORTER: Paraphrasing what the Geneva Conventions said, it said that —
DANA PERINO: Not paraphrasing, but —
REPORTER: No, I’m —
DANA PERINO: You’re going to paraphrase?
DANA PERINO: OK.
REPORTER: Paraphrasing what it said, it basically says that if there is some kind of a problem with clarity, it is supposed to be taken to an international crimes court. So —
DANA PERINO: Which we are not going to do.
REPORTER: Why not?
DANA PERINO: I don’t think it’s necessary.
AMY GOODMAN: Dana Perino, White House press secretary, being grilled by the press. Retired Army Colonel Ann Wright, you have protested torture. Your response?
ANN WRIGHT: Well, I think Dana Perino needs to have a little counseling on how you answer these questions. What she has done is created a lot more people who hate America. I mean, this whole issue that we are still debating or that the administration is still doing secret memos that show that we indeed are torturing people, I mean, that’s creating more people that hate America. The attacks that possibly could come on America would happen exactly because of what the Bush administration is doing.
Torture techniques don’t get you any more information; it just gets you bad information. I’m very concerned that the CIA still has this authority to do those types of techniques that are truly torture. Our military has been told not to do them, but many times the military and CIA are together in same areas, and our military will start seeing that they’ll start doing the same old thing they were doing in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. So Dana Perino has — continues to muddy the waters about torture. We should be saying we don’t torture, and we should not be torturing. It is just creating more enemies for the United States, that we don’t need to be doing this sort of thing.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Ann Wright, this weekend is the anniversary of the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan. You went to Afghanistan voluntarily to reopen the mission, as you were working for the State Department. What are your thoughts today?
ANN WRIGHT: Well, here it is almost six years later, and I would say that we — probably a better response would have not been the military response. A beefed-up, strong, very strong international law response probably would have had more results on going after al-Qaeda than what six years of, in many ways, a limited military response has done. I think the Bush administration has been — what has happened in Afghanistan has really sunk the country into a big morass that’s getting deeper and deeper now. The potential for real help to the people of Afghanistan — I think the window of opportunity is closing tragically very fast.
AMY GOODMAN: Retired Colonel Ann Wright, I want to thank you for being with us, refused entry into Canada, along with CODEPINK founder Medea Benjamin, because Canadian authorities said her name appeared on a criminal FBI database. For our radio listeners who can’t see what Ann is wearing, her black T-shirt has white letters across the front that says, "We will not be silent."