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Azadeh Shahshahani Headshot

TSA Clearance a Cloudy Process

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I first met Adnan Tikvesa back in December when I spoke at a symposium on human rights and Islam at the Al-Farooq mosque in Atlanta.

The focus of my talk was the fundamental rights and liberties enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, including every person's right to due process of law.

I was on my way out when I saw a young man, looking apprehensive, approach me and ask that I take a look at the document in his hand. It was a letter he had received from the Transportation Security Administration.

Adnan is a 25-year-old resident of Atlanta and an American citizen since 2003. He first arrived in America in 1994 as a 9-year-old refugee fleeing the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Mostar, a city in the former Yugoslavia.

Adnan has worked for Delta since October 2004. He was granted clearance in November 2004 for access to the secured areas of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. His security clearance was renewed in 2006 and again in 2008.

Adnan is part of a family that is proud to work for various employers in the Atlanta airport: his father works for Delta and his mother works for Delta Global Services; they both hold the security clearance. His sister works for the airport customer service.

Adnan has never been convicted of, or even charged with, any crime. He is well-respected by his co-workers and supervisors for the quality of his work.

So why was it that on Nov. 12, 2009, TSA suddenly decided to suspend Adnan's security clearance without telling him why? To this day, no one knows.

"I asked, but why, what have I done? But they just handed me the letter and said I can appeal if I so choose. I said but what can I appeal when I don't know what I have done?" He received no responses to this plea. His badge was also confiscated.

Adnan felt humiliated by this treatment, especially in front of his co-workers. He was also confused about what exactly was happening and why.

Adnan wrote to TSA a few days later to say that he was unaware of any reason for the suspension of his security clearance and to request any information as to why this decision was made.

In January, TSA issued a grossly inadequate response to Adnan's letter.

None of the documents produced provided any notice of the reasons underlying TSA's decision to revoke his security clearance. The 10 pages of documents that were provided were also heavily redacted.

As a result, TSA once again failed to provide notice or a meaningful opportunity for Adnan to correct any misinformation or to contest the basis for TSA's decision to revoke his security clearance.

TSA's action had a profound impact on Adnan's ability to earn his livelihood, as Delta placed him on immediate suspension without pay from his job as a baggage service worker.

None of this was easy on Adnan, who was used to living a busy life. It was not easy to have his parents and sister go to work every day and be faced with questions about when Adnan was coming back to work. Even more taxing for the family was facing the questions that were not asked: What was it exactly that Adnan had done?

For Adnan, the fight to gain his security clearance back became more than a battle to re-earn his job. It became a pursuit to redeem his name. In his words: "I'd just like to let everyone know that I'm innocent."

In March, the ACLU appealed TSA's decision to suspend Adnan's security clearance and called on the agency to tell Adnan the reasons for the decision and give him a real opportunity to respond.

In May, TSA notified Adnan that it had reversed its decision. But TSA still did not provide any explanation why it had decided to revoke Adnan's security clearance in the first place.

TSA's reversal is indeed good news for Adnan. But the fundamental problems with TSA's process of suspending security clearances have not gone away.

Since the letter from TSA gives no reason for the agency's initial decision to revoke Adnan's security clearance or for the reversal of this decision, Adnan remains confounded as to why TSA suspended the security clearance.

There is also no indication of any meaningful safeguards in place to keep TSA from doing this again to Adnan or other workers.

After eight months in limbo, Adnan returned to work last week. His co-workers greeted him enthusiastically and even threw him a welcome back party.

But the injustice faced by Adnan has not been erased. For a Muslim-American Delta worker and a refugee from systematic injustices abroad, due process of law, a fundamental tenet of the American justice system, was denied.

So long as TSA refuses to restore due process to this system, chances are that he will not be the last.

Azadeh Shahshahani is National Security/Immigrants' Rights Project Director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.

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