Homeland security

Are You on a Terrorist Watchlist Because of a Clerical Error? Good Luck Getting Off.


ACLU/Jen Sorensen

It would truly suck to end up on some mysterious government list for no clear reason, to be placed under scrutiny. lose freedom, job prospects, and mobility—with no clear process for getting yourself off the roster. Unfortunately, that's the situation in the United States today. Americans can end up on terrorism watchlists because they fit some unknown profile, or even because of malice, or mistake. That's happened to all too many people who, reports the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), subsequently found that it was damned near impossible to clear their names.

The no fly list, which bars people from commercial flights, is the most infamous of the watchlists which, together, contained about 875,000 people as of 2012. An ACLU report, U.S. Government Watchlisting: Unfair Process and Devastating Consequences (PDF), details some examples of people who have been listed:

  • Marine veteran Abe Mashal's inclusion on the no fly list made it impossible for him to work for clients of his specialized dog training business who lived beyond driving distance, resulting in the loss of significant business income. FBI agents told Mashal that he would be removed from the no fly list if he agreed to become an informant.
  • Steven Washburn, an Air Force veteran and New Mexico resident, was prevented for years from being with his wife—a Spanish citizen who was unable to secure a visa to travel to the United States—because of his status on the no fly list.
  • Kevin Iraniha, an Iranian-American peace activist, was barred from flying home to San Diego from Costa Rica, where he was studying at the United Nations accredited University for Peace. Iraniha and his father, both of whom were told they had been placed on the no fly list, endured hours of interrogation on their religion, Iraniha's travel to Muslim countries, and his views on Palestine and U.S. foreign policy.
  • In April 2012, inclusion on the no fly list prevented Air Force veteran Saadiq Long from flying from Qatar to his childhood home in Oklahoma to visit his mother, whose health had been deteriorating due to congestive heart failure.

How did they get on the no fly list? That's not always clear. But Reason has covered the case of Rahinah Ibrahim, who was listed because an FBI agent filled out a form incorrectly. She then spent years battling in court to clear her name, with federal officials resisting and even lying to the judge in the case every step of the way.

Watch lists aren't just about air travel, either. They can mean scrutiny, civil liberties violations, and constrained options in wide areas of life.

Being placed on a U.S. government watchlist can mean an inability to travel by air or sea; invasive screening at airports; denial of a U.S. visa or permission to enter to the United States; and detention and questioning by U.S. or foreign authorities—to say nothing of shame, fear, uncertainty, and denigration as a terrorism suspect. Watchlisting can prevent disabled military veterans from obtaining needed benefits, separate family members for months or years, ruin employment prospects, and isolate an individual from friends and associates.

That's not to say there are no dangerous peoplle in the world, worthy of scrutiny. But as the report reveals, the federal government "has refused to disclose the standards by which it places individuals" on the list. Perhaps more important, "nor is there any meaningful way to contest one's designation as a potential terrorist and ensure that the U.S. government, and all other users of the information, removes or corrects inaccurate records."

Since we already know that a place on a list can come courtesy of an official's inability to read paperwork directions, that's a bit of a problem.

ACLU/Jen Sorensen

More fun with watchlists can be found here.

ACLU attorneys go back to court on Monday to argue against the no fly list in the case of Latif v. Holder.

NEXT: NSA Plan: Pretend To Be Facebook To Spread Malware To Millions

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  1. “I’m sorry, sir, but I’m afraid you can’t board this flight. You’re on the list.”

    “What list am I on?”

    “It’s a secret.”

    “Why am I on the list?”

    “We can’t tell you.”

    1. Its just an updated version of my “Before the Law”

      /Ghost of Franz Kafka

  2. The place where you find redress for this particular grievance is on an island only accessible by commercial airline. GOOD LUCK!

    1. actually, i wonder if you could use a private bill to get off the list.

      1. That’s how Nelson Mandella got off the list.

    2. Surrounded by the Sea of Shrieking Eels and sharks with lasers…so don’t even think of trying to swim there.

  3. Oh, good. Brazil is now a documentary. FMLWAP.

    1. FMLWAP?

      Fuck My Life With A Python?

      1. I meant “pineapple,” but I guess “python” works.

        1. There have been a lot of python stories lately…

          1. Fuck me hard in the head with a chainsaw

  4. She then spent years battling in court to clear her name, with federal officials resisting and even lying to the judge in the case every step of the way

    This is the kind of thing that reminds me of who tends to go into government. There’s absolutely no reason for them to do this–lying and resisting–but is anyone at all surprised that they did?

    Government is flypaper for the most venal and vicious among us.

    1. This one really gets me boiling – a simple “clerical error, sorry about that” and correct it…YOU SPENT 1000X THE EFFORT LYING AND COVERING UP YOU ASSHOLES!

      1. But that’s my point. There are people out there who would rather, as you say, spend a thousand times the effort and money lying about it and fucking someone’s life up completely. Those people are sociopaths. And they are drawn to government work. What does that tell us about government?

        1. As you say – fly paper for shitheels, sociopaths and weasels.

    2. I remember when “lying to the judge” was hazardous to your freedom.

      But I guess in these days of terrorism [redacted] National Security [redacted] is a trump card.

    3. There’s absolutely no reason for them to do this–lying and resisting–but is anyone at all surprised that they did?

      To play devil’s advocate: a lot of times those defending the DHS/NSA/etc claim that any transparency will help the terrorists. Lets assume that the people at the DHS actually believe this. In that case, the amount of effort they spent fighting this makes sense: any time an innocent person is taken off the no-fly list, some amount of information about how the list works will be leaked to the terrorists. And if innocent people can get their names taken off the list, there’ll have to be some system in place for doing it, and the system itself will leak information about the list.

      Of course, I’d find what I just said a lot easier to believe if the DHS had used what I’d just said as a justification. (Or maybe they have, and I just haven’t heard about it)

  5. Just go full-on Apartheid regime and institute banning orders.

    “The banning of individuals in South Africa was a practice virtually unique among nations with legal systems derived from Roman or common-law traditions. At the order of the minister, a person deemed a communist, a terrorist, a member of a banned organization, or otherwise a threat to the security and public order of the state could be confined to his home or immediate surroundings, prohibited from meeting with more than one person at a time (other than his family), forced to resign any offices in any organization, prohibited from speaking publicly or writing for any publication, and barred from certain areas, buildings, and institutions, such as law courts, schools, and newspaper offices. Moreover, the banned person could not be quoted in any publication.”


  6. Answer: ^THIS!

    Question: Why do you oppose keeping terrorists from buying guns by including the no-fly list on the NICS check?

  7. federal officials resisting and even lying to the judge in the case every step of the way

    If they admit to fallibility, the whole papier mache edifice will crumble.

  8. I’m pretty sure the problem for the guy in the picture is the goatee. Buy a razor. I have no beard and I’ve never been denied boarding.

  9. FBI agents told Mashal that he would be removed from the no fly list if he agreed to become an informant.

    So I guess the FBI would gladly put a potential bomber on a plane if they can get some information out of it. Nice.

  10. Oh, good. Instead of subjecting them to extra scrutiny and baggage search, they are simply told they can’t fly. But, if these folks are “dangerous,” why are they then being set loose to use a car, a van, a truck, a bus, or a train where little to no scrutiny is done??
    I know, I know: FUTW.

  11. FBI agents told Mashal that he would be removed from the no fly list if he agreed to become an informant.

    Makes me wonder if this scenario has ever happened:

    “We want John Doe to become an informant, but we don’t have any leverage on him. Wait, I know, we’ll put him on the no-fly list!”

  12. The no-fly list is only one facet of arbitrary state and federal banning. Other lists you can get on without a conviction or judge’s order include the “no-buy” list, the “sexual and violent offender” lists, the “you have been arrested” list and the “you can’t enter the country” list.

    It’s an interesting series of mechanisms designed to create a lower class with little to no means to recover any higher access to things like jobs, insurance, schooling, even access to housing, family, social media and so on.

    When SCOTUS ruled that being placed a list “isn’t punishment”, this scenario became inevitable. There are some hair-raising stories out there.

  13. Remember the Cold War, when the US rightly condemned Commie regimes* from forbidding their subjects from traveling abroad without special permission?

    Fighting monsters, becoming them.

    Time for a new version of the Helsinki Accords, to get the US to loosen travel restrictions?

    Kevin R

    *Yeah, DRNK still acts like Warsaw Pact Albania, and China and Viet Nam are still nominally Commie. But you get the point.

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