This story comes courtesy of California Watch.
Three California residents are among 15 plaintiffs preparing a renewed challenge to the nation's secretive no-fly list, created after the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings to keep suspected terrorists off commercial airliners.
Maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center and overseen by the FBI, the no-fly list reportedly contains some 20,000 names, among them about 500 U.S. citizens. As many as 800 changes, such as removing or adding names, are made to the list each day.
A much larger terrorism watchlist of a half-million people across the globe that contains the names of those barred from flying also includes individuals subjected to heightened security screenings. Because the no-fly list is classified, no one can be sure whether he or she will be prevented from flying until after arriving at the airport with a purchased ticket.
The plaintiffs say they've been unfairly denied the convenience of air travel and must spend days on trains and in cars in order to cross the country. Civil libertarians argue that the list withholds the due process rights of travelers. There's no meaningful way to dispute one's inclusion on the list and determine if the status is based on mistakes or flawed intelligence.
"They have no real chance of clearing their names," said Nusrat Choudhury, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is involved in the case. "All they can do is try again and have the same thing happen - going to the airport, spending money on tickets, and in a very humiliating and public way being turned away from boarding a plane, (while) never getting a chance before a neutral decision maker to just explain why they don't pose whatever kind of a threat the government may perceive them as posing."
Choudhury and her legal team plan to argue before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on May 11 in Portland, Ore., that a lower court judge should not have dismissed the case on technical grounds. They say only the FBI, not the Transportation Security Administration, can grant the relief sought by removing people from the no-fly list. The complaint [PDF] was first submitted in 2010, but the plaintiffs presented a new filing to the court in February.
The plaintiffs include Nagib Ali Ghaleb, a native of Yemen who today is a naturalized U.S. citizen and works as a janitor in San Francisco. While returning from Yemen in 2010, authorities allegedly stopped him in Germany and began describing details about his life, such as what mosques he attended in the Bay Area. They attempted to enlist him as a spy to provide information on the Yemeni community in the United States, the suit claims.
Another is Irvine resident and registered nurse Stephen Durga Persaud, who claims he was stopped from boarding a flight in the U.S. Virgin Islands as his family tried to make their way back to California. His wife and son were permitted to leave, but according to the suit, FBI agents told Persaud he was on the no-fly list and cooperating with the bureau would be the only way for him to get off it.
The government said in its own October filing that the Department of Homeland Security had created a formal process for people to seek redress if they've been wrongly placed on the no-fly list. Lawyers described elaborate procedures in the filing that are used to determine when someone should be on the list. That process involves nominations from the FBI, which handles domestic terrorism cases, and the National Counterterrorism Center, responsible for information about international threats.
"Even if plaintiffs were to eventually succeed on the merits of their claims," the government's filing stated, "the proper relief would not be removal of their names that are allegedly on the no-fly list, but an order concluding that (the process for redress) is inadequate and requiring the formulation of new policies and procedures to provide redress."
California Watch reported in February on a Stanford University Ph.D. graduate, Rahinah Ibrahim, who has now spent years fighting her inclusion on the no-fly list. In 2005, authorities allowed her to board a plane for Malaysia, where she intended to present her research at an event sponsored by Stanford, but San Francisco police officers first placed her in handcuffs.
She later was blocked from re-entering the country and has since been forced to stay in Malaysia, despite continuing to work with Stanford. Ibrahim recently cleared a procedural hurdle at the 9th Circuit that allows her to continue to challenge the no-fly list.
G.W. Schulz joined the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008 and covers homeland security for CIR and California Watch. To read more California Watch stories, click here.