How do FBI agents decide who to put on the “no-fly” list?

Dr. Rahinah Ibrahim still doesn’t know why she was placed on the “no-fly” list, even after the trial of her lawsuit against the US government and US District Judge William Alsup’s finding that Dr. Ibrahim was denied the due process of law which was her right.

At trial, the government admitted that back in 2004, FBI agent Kevin Kelly — fresh off a stint on the FBI’s mosque-watching detail — mistakenly left blank a negative check-off box on an internal form and thereby “nominated” Dr. Ibrahim for the no-fly list. By admitting that this was a “mistake”, the government successfully evaded having the court reach or review either (a) the criteria (if any) for “no-fly” decisions or (b) the factual basis (if any) for any of the government’s other decisions or actions with respect to Dr. Ibrahim.

Judicial review of the factual basis and legal criteria for a “no-fly” order remains for future no-fly cases, with that of Gulet Mohamed likely to be the next to go to trial.

Contrary to some reports, Judge Alsup didn’t order the government to take Dr. Ibrahim’s name off the no-fly list or tell her why it put her on multiple other “watchlists” including the “selectee” list to which Agent Kelly intended to nominate her.  Despite previous claims that government agencies and agents only put people on the “no-fly” list if they are able to articulate some reasonable basis for a suspicion of terrorism, we now know that there is a secret exception to this (non-binding) watchlisting criterion, pursuant to which Dr. Ibrahim and other non-suspects are also watchlisted.

Nor does Judge Alsup’s decision mean that Dr. Ibrahim is now free to travel. The US still won’t give her a visa to return to the US, on the basis of secret allegations that she “has engaged in terrorist activity” (contrary to the government’s admission and Judge Alsup’s finding to the contrary) and on the basis of a “guilt by family association” law and some other  secret allegations that apparently relate to her husband.

Judge Alsup ordered the government to tell Dr. Ibrahim her status on the “no-fly” list, which it did. As of April 15, 2014, Dr. Ibrahim wasn’t on the “no-fly” list. And the government was ordered to correct the consequences of the one specific mistake it had admitted, FBI Agent Kelly’s failure to check the “not nominated for the no-fly list” box on the form.

But Judge Alsup’s decision leaves the government free to leave Dr. Ibrahim on any other “watchlists” (including those which function as de facto secondary no-fly lists), and/or put Dr. Ibrahim back on the “no-fly” list itself, at any time, for any reason or no reason, as long as those actions aren’t a direct result of Agent Kelly’s mistaken failure to check the right box on the nomination form nine years ago.

Visa denials aren’t normally subject to review by US courts. Neither Dr. Ibrahim’s placement on watchlists other than the no-fly list, nor the de facto banishment from the US of her US-citizen daughter, were raised in the complaint in this case, or addressed in Judge Alsup’s decision.  Nor could they have been, since they only occurred or became known later.

Judge Alsup’s finding that the “no-fly” system lacks due process is a step forward, but far from a happy ending or one that redresses the grievances of Dr. Ibrahim or her family.

What we did learn from this case is that the real decision to prevent Dr. Ibrahim from traveling was made by a single FBI agent. No matter how obvious Agent Kelly’s “mistake” was, nobody reviewed or corrected it.

So in practice, “no-fly” decisions are made by individual FBI field agents. How do FBI agents use their power to decide who is and who isn’t given government permission to fly?

Since 9/11, one of the FBI’s highest priorities has been to recruit Islamic-American informers. Not surprisingly, FBI agents have repeatedly used or threatened to use their “no-fly” nomination authority to coerce American Muslims into becoming FBI informers.

In 2010, FBI agents tried to persuade US citizen Yonas Fikre to become an FBI informer. After Mr. Fikre refused to “cooperate” with the FBI agents, they put him on the “no-fly” list while he was visiting relatives overseas, consigning him to detention and torture in the UAE when his visa expired. In 2012, after being allowed to leave the UAE (but not to return home to the US, since he was still on the US “no-fly” list)  Mr. Fikre applied for political asylum in Sweden.  Shortly thereafter, in further retaliation (and/or to make sure he never tries to come home to the US, even if his asylum request is eventually denied), the US indicted Mr. Fikre for failing to report routine money transfers from the US to family members in the UAE and Sudan. Mr. Fikre is also pursuing a civil lawsuit in the US against those US government officials complicit in his no-fly listing, arrest, and torture.

Was this an isolated case? No. Last year, Muhammad Tanvir filed a lawsuit against the FBI and other government agencies and agents for putting him on the “no-fly” list in retaliation for declining to become an FBI informer. Mr. Tanvir is a Muslim, a permanent US resident (green-card holder), and a shopkeeper in New York City.  On April 22nd, 2014, an amended compliant was filed in the case (Tanvir et al. v. Holder et al.). Three other Muslims from the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, one a US citizen and two others lawful permanent residents,  have joined Mr. Tanvir in making similar claims.

These abuses are an inevitable result of having decisions about whether we are allowed to exercise our rights be made in secret at the discretion of law enforcement officers or administrative officials. Decisions on whether to restrict the exercise of rights, including the right to travel, should be made by judges, not cops, through existing legal procedures for the issuance of injunctions or temporary restraining orders.

One Response to “How do FBI agents decide who to put on the “no-fly” list?”

  1. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » Judge insists on right to review “no-fly” order Says:

    [...] prison, where between sessions of torture he was interrogated by FBI agents who told him (as they have told other US citizens on the US no-fly list) that he would be allowed to go home to the US only if he became an FBI [...]

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