How Many Watch Lists Fit on the Head of a Pin?
Posted on Apr 7, 2014
By Peter Van Buren, TomDispatch
This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.
Rahinah Ibrahim is a slight Malaysian woman who attended Stanford University on a U.S. student visa, majoring in architecture. She was not a political person. Despite this, as part of a post-9/11 sweep directed against Muslims, she was investigated by the FBI. In 2004, while she was still in the U.S. but unbeknownst to her, the FBI sent her name to the no-fly list.
Ibrahim was no threat to anyone, innocent of everything, and ended up on that list only due to a government mistake. Nonetheless, she was not allowed to reenter the U.S. to finish her studies or even attend her trial and speak in her own defense. Her life was derailed by the tangle of national security bureaucracy and pointless “anti-terror” measures that have come to define post-Constitutional America. Here’s what happened, and why it may matter to you.
The No-Fly List
On September 10, 2001, there was no formal no-fly list. Among the many changes pressed on a scared population starting that September 12th were the creation of two such lists: the no-fly list and the selectee list for travelers who were to undergo additional scrutiny when they sought to fly. If you were on the no-fly list itself, as its name indicated, you could not board a flight within the U.S. or one heading out of or into the country. As a flight-ban plan, it would come to extend far beyond America’s borders, since the list was shared with 22 other countries.
Square, Site wide
On January 2, 2005, unaware of her status as a threat to the United States, Ibrahim left Stanford for San Francisco International Airport to board a flight to Malaysia for an academic conference. A ticket agent saw her name flagged in the database and called the police.
Despite being wheelchair-bound due to complications from a medical procedure, Ibrahim was handcuffed, taken to a detention cell, and denied access to medication she had in hand. Without explanation, after extensive interrogation, she was allowed to board her flight. When she tried to return to America to resume her studies, however, she found herself banned as a terrorist.
Suing the United States
Stuck in Malaysia, though still in possession of a valid student visa, Ibrahim filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government, asking to be removed from the no-fly list and allowed back into the country to continue her architectural studies.
Over almost nine years, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) employed an arsenal of dodges and post-9/11 tricks to impede her lawsuit, including invoking the “state secrets doctrine” to ensure that she would never have access to the records she needed. “State secrets” is not a law in the U.S., as it is, for example, in Great Britain, where the monarch also retains “Crown Privilege,” the absolute right to refuse to share information with Parliament or the courts. Here, it is instead a kind of assumed privilege and the courts accept it as such. Based on it, the president can refuse to produce evidence in a court case on the grounds that its public disclosure might harm national security. The government has, in the past, successfully employed this “privilege” to withhold information and dead-end legal challenges. Once “state secrets” is in play, there is literally nothing left to talk about in court.
A related DOJ dodge was also brought to bear in an attempt to derail Ibrahim’s case: the use of made-up classification categories that dispatch even routine information into the black world of national security. Much of the information concerning her placement on the no-fly list, for instance, was labeled Security Sensitive Information (SSI) and so was unavailable to her. SSI is among hundreds of post-9/11 security categories created via memo by various federal agencies. These categories, too, have no true legal basis. Congress never passed a law establishing anything called SSI, nor is there any law prohibiting the disclosure of SSI information. The abuse of such pseudo-classifications has been common enough in the post-9/11 years and figured significantly in the ongoing case of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) whistleblower Robert MacLean.
Next in its end-run around Ibrahim’s lawsuit, the DOJ pulled “standing” out of its bag of tricks. Standing is a legal term that means a person filing a lawsuit has a right to do so. For example, in some states you must be a resident to sue. Seeking to have a case thrown out because the plaintiff does not have standing was a tactic used successfully by the government in other national security cases. The ACLU, for instance, sued the National Security Agency for Fourth Amendment violations in 2008. The Supreme Court rejected the case in 2013 for lack of standing, claiming that unless the ACLU could conclusively prove it had been spied upon, it could not sue. In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations showing that the NSA indeed spied widely on American citizens, the ACLU has revived the suit. It claims that the new documents provide clear evidence of broad-based surveillance and so now give it standing.
Standing was also used by the DOJ in the case of American citizen and purported al-Qaeda member Anwar al-Awlaki, whom the U.S. murdered by drone in Yemen. Prior to his son’s death, attorneys for al-Awlaki’s father tried to persuade a U.S. District Court to issue an injunction preventing the government from killing him. A judge dismissed the case, ruling that the father did not have standing to sue.
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