How CBP abuses US citizens at (and near) borders

March 4th, 2014

NPR’s “On The Media” has been reporting on a variety of abuses of US citizens by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “one of the least transparent federal agencies.” This week’s show, “Secrecy At The Border,” is a particularly moving hour-long compilation of personal stories from the CBP’s victims and their families.

You should listen to these interviews if you think you have nothing to fear from the CBP because:

  1. “I’m a US citizen.” Everyone interviewed on the show is a US citizen.
  2. “I’m not doing anything wrong.” None of those interviewed was charged with any violation of the law.
  3. “I don’t travel abroad, and I’m not trying to cross the US border.” Those interviewed include people detained while traveling within the US, up to 100 miles away form any border or coastline, and families of US citizens killed by CBP on the US side of the border.

The litany of CBP abuses includes warrantless hours-long detention and interrogation (if anything like this has happened to you, here’s how to request CBP’s files about your international travel and border crossings), intrusive searches of electronic devices and data, forcible body-cavity searches amounting to rape, and use of deadly force. A members of Congress who tried to find out when CBP claims the authority to kill US citizens on US soil describes being told that if there are any CBP guidelines for use of deadly force against citizens, they are a secret that the agency won’t divulge even to Congress.

DHS uses email intercepts to question US citizen about her sex life

February 25th, 2014

At first blush, a lawsuit filed last week by the ACLU on behalf of a sociology professor at Indiana University wrongly detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection seems to be about whether CBP is exceeding the limitations on its police powers, and detaining US citizens for purposes unrelated to customs and borders.

That’s bad, but unsurprising in light of the history of abuse of limited administrative search powers as a pretext for unrelated police purposes by CBP and other DHS components, notably the TSA.

What’s more unusual, however, is the complaint that the DHS is using email messages, presumably obtained from the NSA (unless the DHS has some email interception program of its own) as the basis for detention and interrogation of US citizens who aren’t trying to travel or ship any goods across US borders.

And what was the subject of this warrantless custodial interrogation of a non-traveling US citizen by armed “Customs and Border Protection” officers, based on email intercepts? Her sex life.

No, we’re not making this up.

Professor Christine Von Der Haar of Indiana University tells the story in her complaint, in an interview with the Bloomington Herald-Times in 2012 at the time of the bizarre CBP doings that led to her lawsuit, and in a video interview with the Indianapolis Star last week when the lawsuit was filed.

A few years ago, Dr. Von Der Haar, a US citizen, reconnected online with Dimitris Papatheodoropoulos, a Greek freelance transport and logistics manager and consultant who she had been friends with as a teenager, 40 years earlier, at an international school they both attended in Switzerland.  After a year’s exchange of email, some of which Dr. Von Der Haar says was “flirtatious and romantic in nature”, Mr. Papatheodoropoulos arranged for a visit to Dr. Von Der Haar in Bloomington during her summer break from university teaching.

Von Der Haar believes her friend is a victim of a cultural misunderstanding. His emails signed off “I love you. I miss you. I kiss you.” Marriage, though, was beyond the pale for two adults in their mid-50s who hadn’t seen each other for decades, they say.

Sure, his language is flowery, but Von Der Haar laughs about it, slightly embarrassed: “We’re silly. He’s a Greek man. What can I say?.”

Mr. Papatheodoropoulos obtained a 10-year, multiple entry B1/B2 business and tourism visa to the US, allowing him to consult with business associates and negotiate contracts as well as visit friends. Since he works as a freelancer, and wasn’t sure how long he would be staying in the US, he shipped a computer and some other electronic equipment by air freight, but removed the hard drive with his data and carried it with him.

On arrival, Mr. Papatheodoropoulos cleared US customs and immigration and was admitted to the US without incident. But when Dr. Von Der Haar took him back to the Indianapolis airport a few days later to pick up the items he had shipped by air freight, they were referred to the CBP office at the airport.

According to Dr. Von Der Haar’s complaint, armed CBP officers detained both her and Mr. Papatheodoropoulos, took them into separate rooms, and stood blocking the exit door while they interrogated Dr. Von Der Haar about, “the nature of her relationship with Mr. Papatheodoropoulos … the contents of email messages that Dr. Von Der Haar and Mr. Papatheodoropoulos had sent each other … [and] if she and Mr. Papatheodoropoulos were having sexual relations.”

Given that Mr. Papatheodoropoulos had retained his hard drive that contained the emails, the only way that the Customs and Border Protection Agents could have reviewed the emails is for someone to have surreptitiously monitored the communications between Dr. Von Der Haar and Mr. Papatheodoropoulos and reported those communications to the agents questioning her. Defendant Lieba admitted that employees of the United States had read email communications between Dr. Von Der Haar and Mr. Papatheodoropoulos.

Dr. Von Der Haar was taken into the back room of the CBP office for questioning twice, for a total of about half an hour, while Mr. Papatheodoropoulos was questioned for “approximately 4 1/2 - 5 hours” before he emerged and was allowed to leave. His Greek passport (property of the Greek government) was confiscated without warrant, leaving him unable to leave the US even had he decided to cut his visit short, and he was “served with notice that a proceeding was initiated against him for removal from the United States” on the basis that:

You obtained your B1/B2 visa by misrepresenting your intentions to come to the United States to wit; It is your intention to immigrate to the United States, you abandoned your foreign residence, you intend to overstay your admission to the United States.

“None of this was true” according to the complaint. Mr. Papatheodoropoulos requested an expedited trial on these allegations, but “the removal action did not proceed. His passport was returned to him and he left the United States at the end of August of 2012 and has not returned.”

What are we to make of this episode?

First, CBP officers grossly exceeded their jurisdiction. Dr. Dr. Von Der Haar’s US citizenship was never questioned; she wasn’t trying to enter, leave, or ship and goods in or out of the country; and she was never accused of any crime.  In general, immigration (as distinct from customs) offenses are handled by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Border Patrol, not CBP. We’re curious what basis CBP will claim for its officers’ authority to detain and interrogate Dr. Dr. Von Der Haar or obtain her email.

Second, unless this incident has exposed some previously unsuspected DHS email interception program, it seems likely that CBP obtained copies of email between Dr. Dr. Von Der Haar and Mr. Papatheodoropoulos from the NSA.  We know that the NSA is copying and archiving as much email as it can get its hands on.  But was this email traffic flagged by the NSA as being of interest, and brought to the attention of the DHS? Or did the DHS ask the NSA to retrieve these email messages from the NSA archives, and provide them to the CBP? When, how, and on what basis, does the NSA “share” its email intercepts with the DHS?

We look forward to learning more. We won’t be surprised, though, if the government claims that intercepting email messages on grounds of “national security” and then handing them over to another government department in order to detain and interrogate an innocent US citizen about her sex life is a “state secret”.

What’s wrong with mass surveillance of travel metadata?

February 24th, 2014

In a live online question-and-answer session last month, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden gave this explanation of what’s wrong with pervasive, suspicionless tracking and logging of our activities:

What’s the worst and most realistic harm from bulk collection of data?…

The worst and happening-right-now harm of bulk collection — which again, is a euphemism for mass surveillance — is two-fold.

The first is the chilling effect, which is well-understood. Study after study has show that human behavior changes when we know we’re being watched. Under observation, we act less free, which means we effectively *are* less free.

The second, less understood but far more sinister effect of these classified programs, is that they effectively create “permanent records” of our daily activities, even in the absence of any wrongdoing on our part. This enables a capability called “retroactive investigation,” where once you come to the government’s attention, they’ve got a very complete record of your daily activity going back, under current law, often as far as five years. You might not remember where you went to dinner on June 12th 2009, but the government does.

The power these records represent can’t be overstated. In fact, researchers have referred to this sort of data gathering as resulting in “databases of ruin,” where harmful and embarrassing details exist about even the most innocent individuals. The fact that these records are gathered without the government having any reasonable suspicion or probable cause justifying the seizure of data is so divorced from the domain of reason as to be incapable of ever being made lawful at all, and this view was endorsed as recently as today by the federal government’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight board.

Fundamentally, a society in which the pervasive monitoring of the sum of civil activity becomes routine is turning from the traditions of liberty toward what is an inherently illiberal infrastructure of preemptive investigation, a sort of quantified state where the least of actions are measured for propriety. I don’t seek to pass judgment in favor or against such a state in the short time I have here, only to declare that it is not the one we inherited, and should we as a society embrace it, it should be the result of public decision rather than closed conference.

Most of the reporting on Mr. Snowden’s revelations has focused on the NSA’s collection and use of communications “metadata”:  not the content of our phone calls and email messages, but information about the movements of those messages, such as from whom, to whom, and when they were sent.

But communications (message movement) metadata isn’t the only category of movement metadata being collected by the NSA.  Documents leaked by Mr. Snowden reveal that the NSA is also hacking into airline reservation systems to collect what we would call, “travel metadata”: information about the movements of our physical bodies, such as from where, to where, and when we traveled. And of course, the DHS is also collecting this sort of data, and compiling it into lifetime “personal travel history” files.

Do you want the government to be able to demand an explanation, years later, of every trip you have taken, when, where, why, and with whom, even if at the time it was a perfectly legal journey and you were under no suspicion?  We’ve been questioned by US border guards about innocuous years-old entries in our Automated Targeting System files, and it’s a disturbing experience. (It would have been even more creepy if we hadn’t previously requested and obtained our files, so we knew at least part of what was in the records about which we were being questioned.) That potential is inherent in any collection and retention of travel metadata.

Both message movement metadata and personal movement metadata are important, and neither should be the subject of government surveillance without a warrant supported by probable cause.

You might think that information about the movements of our physical bodies would be considered more intimate, and subject to greater protection, than information about the movements of our messages. In the US, however, none of the limited protections against communications surveillance apply to travel surveillance, except to the very limited extent that reservation messages are protected by wiretapping laws.

We’ll be in Geneva next month talking to the UN Human Rights Committee about how US government surveillance and control of travel violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Other human rights organizations including Privacy Internatrional and Human Rights Watch will be talking to the Human Rights Committee about  NSA surveillance of communications metadata. We think the same International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance should be applied to travel surveillance and travel metadata collection.

DHS use of license-plate readers and vehicle location data

February 20th, 2014

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson has cancelled a request for proposals for a contract for the DHS to get access to  vehicle location logs compiled by a commercial data aggregator from automated (optical character recognition) license-plate readers. The solicitation for bids was cancelled less than 24 hours after the first reports on the plan by mainstream news media, which prompted immediate public outrage.  The DHS now claims that the RFP was issued without the awareness of agency “leadership”.

We’re pleased to see the DHS forced by public pressure to suspend, at least for now, even this small part of its plans to expand the suspicionless surveillance and logging of of our movements throughout the country.

At the same time, it’s critical for the public to understand that while the DHS has (at least for the time being) withdrawn its proposal to pay a contractor use commercial vehicle location logs for DHS purposes, the DHS itself continues to compile and maintain its own secret database of vehicle location logs compiled from its own license-plate scanners.

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Blacklists and controls on the movement of goods and money

February 18th, 2014

We’ve focused mostly on the “no-fly” list and other government blacklists and “watchlists” restricting the movement of people. But the latest administrative injustice involving an innocent British philosopher reminds us that government blacklists also restrict the movement of information, goods, and money — sometimes with serious negative effects on innocent people’s lives.

How the US Treasury imposes sanctions on me and every other “Stephen Law” on the planet - my letter to OFAC

My name is “Stephen Law“. The name “Stephen Law” appear on OFAC’s “specially designated nationals” list….

I have discovered that, as a result of this listing, US Customs block shipments of goods to me here in the UK. Also when people try to wire me money from abroad (not just from the US, but from anywhere), for e.g. occasional travel expenses for academic conference attendance, the payment is interrupted and various checks are made before the funds are released. This became so bad during one period (a series of payments every single one of which triggered a block) that I had to switch to a different bank account. At no point was I told why this was happening (i.e. that you, OFAC, are responsible). The banks concerned believe they must keep this information from me (I was told this by my bank branch). Hence it took me many months to figure out what the source of the problem was: OFAC/US Treasury.

It appears any “Stephen Law” anywhere in the world will suffer this same treatment, as indeed will anyone who merely happens to have the same name or alias as one of your “specially designated nationals”. This has proved frustrating, time-consuming and also costly to me personally. E.g. I have  paid US$77 postage for goods it turns out I can never receive because they are returned by US customs to the US vendor because my name is listed. As a result of the OFAC listing, I cannot now order goods from - or receive gifts from friends and relatives in - the United States….

OFAC-caused delays to payments to me can run into weeks. On one occasion I ran up overdraft charges as a result of not receiving funds blocked by OFAC….

How could this happen?

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Lessons from the first “no-fly” trial

February 14th, 2014

Information about what happened in Ibrahim v. DHS - the first “no-fly” case to make it to trial — has trickled out gradually, making it hard to get a clear picture of what has happened.

The court was cleared at least ten times during the week-long trial for testimony, introduction of evidence, and legal arguments that the government claimed had to be kept secret.  Many of the documents, exhibits, declarations, legal briefs, and even the judge’s opinion remain sealed, in whole or in part.  Key information has to be pieced together by reading between the redactions, or from passing mentions in open court, the meaning of which only becomes clear in light of other fragmentary revelations.

Most mainstream media didn’t cover the trial, covered it only from the written record, or attended only small portions of the proceedings.  We attended and reported on as much of the trial as was open to the public, but at times, we were the only reporter or member of the public in the courtroom.

The government still has until March 14th to decide whether to appeal, and the remaining sealed portions of the judge’s opinion aren’t scheduled to be released until April 15th. Key portions of Judge Alsup’s findings including what happened to Dr. Ibrahim’s US-citizen daughter are still secret. But in the meantime, what are our key takeaways from this trial?

(1) Congress needs to close the loopholes in the Privacy Act, which was enacted in 1974 to prevent exactly this sort of injustice, and would have done so but for its exemptions, exceptions, and lack of enforcement.

The purpose of the Privacy Act was to prohibit the government from using secret files as the basis for decisions about individuals, without allowing the subjects of those files to inspect and correct them. But agencies are allowed to exempt entire systems of records from these requirements. The DHS and the FBI (keeper of the Terrorist Screening Database which includes the “no-fly” list) have exempted their watchlists and blacklists and the allegedly derogatory information on which watchlisting and blacklisting decisions are based. In addition, although privacy is a human right protected by international treaty, the Privacy Act only protects U.S. citizens and residents. Other foreigners have no rights under this law, even when the U.S. government is using secret files to make decisions about their exercise of their rights.

(2) The watchlisting form and process incorporates presumptions in favor of surveillance and restrictions on travel, rather than presumptions of innocence and of travel as a right.

As was made clear in the latest redacted version of Judge Alsup’s findings, Dr. Ibrahim was placed on the “no-fly” list because FBI Agent Kelley left the box on the “nomination” form for “no-fly list ” blank:

This negative check-off form might look like poor user-interface design, but it actually exposes the real mindset of those who believe that travel is a privilege for which the traveler bears the burden of justification: “Better to restrict the rights of innocent people than to leave anyone off the watchlist.”  Once the threshhold decision to place a name on a “watchlist” is made, the default is a categorical ban on all air travel and the widest possible dissemination of the blacklist information to other agencies and other countries’ governments (TUSCAN to Canada and TACTICS to Australia).

(3) There are no meaningful internal or administrative safeguards on no-fly and watchlist decisions. Administrative agencies cannot police their own secret internal actions. Transparency and independent judicial review are the only way to safeguard rights.

The DHS and FBI have claimed that internal administrative reviews of watchlist “nominations” are adequate safeguards against wrongful agency actions, and make judicial review unnecessary.  In this case, Agent Kelley’s mistake was obvious on inspection, and would have been detected as soon as anyone checked whether the action ordered by the form was supported by the rest of the file.  Nobody did so until after Dr. Ibrahim had been arrested and further mistreated when she tried to check in for her flight.  If anyone “reviewed” or approved Agent Kelley’s nomination of Dr. Ibrahim to the no-fly list, they rubber-stamped the form without ever looking at the rest of the file, much less making an independent assessment of the factual basis for the decisions. This was the essence of Judge Alsup’s due process findings.

(4) The problem is not limited to the “no-fly list”, and there is no clear line between a “watchlist” and a blacklist. You can’t build a system of surveillance and individualized dossiers without it inevitably having consequences for people’s lives. The travel dataveillance system needs to be dismantled, and the whole database needs to be purged.

In the portion of her closing arguments conducted in open court, Dr. Ibrahim’s attorney, Ms. Elizabeth Pipkin, stated that Dr. Ibrahim and her daughter, Ms. Raihan Mustafa Kamal, had “the same status on the no-fly list”.

Presumably that common status was that neither woman was on the no-fly list. The  government claimed that its “mistake” (in placing Dr. Ibrahim on the no-fly list) was corrected the same day as her arrest in 2005, and that it had not prevented Ms. Mustafa Kamal from flying to San Francisco to attend and testify at her mother’s trial.

Neither Dr. Ibrahim nor Ms. Mustafa Kamal are on the “no-fly” list. But when FBI Agent Kelley’s mistake in putting Dr. Ibrahim on the no-fly list was corrected, she was moved to, or left on, one or more watchlists — as Agent Kelley had intended.  At some point Ms. Mustafa Kamal was also placed on one or more watchlists. Agent Kelly’s reasons for his intended decision to place Dr. Ibrahim (and perhaps Ms. Mustafa Kamal — we don’t know if she was watchlisted at the same time or separately, by whom, or why) on one or more watchlists remain secret, and were never disclosed to Dr. Ibrahim or her attorneys or reviewed by the judge. Because the government admitted that the no-fly listing was unwarranted and a mistake, the court never reached the question of what to do if the government claims that a listing was justified.

The “no-fly” list and the government’s other “watchlists” aren’t actually separate lists. Both are contained in the consolidated Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB). The only difference between a “watchlist” entry and “no-fly” entry is a flag associated with an entry on the consolidated list.

According to a post-trial government filing, “Kelley designated Dr. Ibrahim as ‘handling code 3.’… The majority of individuals in the TSDB are assigned the lowest handling codes – codes 3 and 4.”  That same “status” — not flagged as a “no-fly” listing, and with one of the lowest “handling codes” — was sufficient to cause the DHS to send a message to the airline on which Ms. Mustafa Kamal had reservations. That message induced the airline (as it was intended to do) to refuse to fulfill its duty as a common carrier or allow Ms. Mustafa Kamal to exercise her right, as a U.S. citizen, to travel to the US.

A watchlist sounds like a list of people who are subject to passive monitoring.  In practice, “watching” or surveillance isn’t aimless. It’s for the purpose of making decisions affecting individuals. In the case of Ms. Mustafa Kamal, some other “watchlist” status had the same negative consequence, denial of boarding by an airline, as “no-fly” status. Dr. Ibrahim’s watchlist status (and perhaps the fact that she had once been on the no-fly list) led to her being unable to obtain a US visa, even lafter she was removed from the no-fly list.

In the future, “watchlist” needs to be understood as a euphemism for a de facto blacklisto that allows a level of deniability: “You’re not on the no-fly list. We just advised the airline not to let you fly.”

There’s no hard line between passive surveillance and active interference with individual’s activities. This lesson is well known to the FBI: Sending the FBI to question your employer can get you fired, even if the FBI is in theory merely collecting information and doesn’t order or explicitly recommend that you be fired.

Surveillance is itself stigmatizing, and stigma has consequences. During the Ibrahim trial, the government argued, verbally and in written pleadings, that it had not stigmatized Dr. Ibrahim because it “never” disclosed Dr. Ibrahim’s status on its lists to “anyone”. But in fact, the government disclosed Dr. Ibrahim’s status on the list, and later that of her daughter, to the airlines. These are precisely the entities to which it would be most damaging to have this stigma (suspicion of  posing a threat to aviation) disclosed.

(5) The US government is willing to lie to the courts to try to hide its mistakes and misconduct.

Before, during, and after the trial, officials including Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and lawyers for the government defendants claimed that to disclose anyone’s status on any watchlist, or the basis (if any) for assigning that status, would “cause significant harm to national security.”

This continued even after Judge Alsup and Dr. Ibrahim’s attorneys knew how Dr. Ibrahim had been placed on the no-fly list and that the government did not consider her to pose any threat to aviation.

Dr. Ibrahim’s lawyers sought to depose Attorney General Holder and DNI Clapper regarding their sworn declarations supporting the assertion of “state secrets” privilege by Holder and the other defendants. On motion of Holder and the defendants, Judge Alsup quashed the subpoenas for those depositions.

On its face, the government’s assertion amounts to a claim that to disclose to the public that Dr. Ibrahim was put on the no-fly list because an FBI agent failed to check a box on a form would harm national security.

Does the government really expect us to believe that would-be terrorists are deterred by their belief that the FBI is infallible, so that disclosing that the FBI once made a mistake would unleash the forces of terror?

We don’t think so. The government lied to cover up its mistakes and to protect itself against deserved criticism, not to protect national security.

Remember that the next time the government claims that something must be kept secret “because terrorism”.

What’s it like to be a TSA checkpoint “officer”?

February 13th, 2014

For more than a year, an anonymous blog called Taking Sense Away has been reporting on what it’s like to work at a TSA checkpoint as a “Transportation Screening Officer”.

Now that he is no longer a TSA employee, the author of the blog has revealed himself in an article in Politico (“Dear America, I Saw You Naked”) as Jason E. Harrington, a graduate student (currently working on a novel based on his time at the TSA) who worked for the TSA at O’Hare Airport in Chicago from 2007 until May 2013.

Thank you, Mr. Harrington.  The TSA needs more whistleblowers, leakers, and honest story-tellers.

Sadly, there’s nothing really surprising in the Politico article, and we’ve been following the blog since its launch. We already knew this stuff was happening behind the scenes, such as TSA staff who know that what they are doing is security theater, and enjoy that theater by necking in the back room that’s deliberately designed to enable them to watch the naked images of passengers in private, assured that nobody can see them or catch them on camera while they are fooling around or laughing as passengers’ body-scans.

What we have now that’s different is someone with years of inside experience who who is prepared to put his name and stake his reputation on this testimony (and to provide a publication outlet for other TSA whistleblowers).  Read it all and weep, and keep following for more revelations.

Update: The U.S. is still violating travelers’ human rights

February 12th, 2014

The right to freedom of movement and travel is recognized in black-letter international human rights treaty law as Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Every five years, pursuant to the treaty itself, implementation of the ICCPR by each treaty party is reviewed by the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

The U.S. will be reviewed next month, with two days of public questioning of a high-level U.S. government delegation by the members of the Human Rights Committee at its 110th session in Geneva.

In preparation for that review, the Human Rights Committee has been consulting with human rights advocates in the U.S. and abroad, through written submissions and private face-to-face meetings.

The Identity Project has been an active participant in that process, as part of the U.S. Human Rights Network.

In December 2012, we reported to the Human Rights Committee that that the US has put in place systems of government surveillance and control of travel, enabled by technology to be more comprehensive than the Stasi could ever have imagined.  In March 2013, we traveled to Geneva to discuss our report with members of the Human Rights Committee.

This week, in preparation for another trip to Geneva and further meetings with the Human Rights Committee and the U.S. delegation to the U.N. next month, we submitted updates to the Human Rights Committee on how the US violations of the ICCPR have continued and worsened in the last year:

The US treats travel not as a right but as as a privilege that requires government permission; which can be restricted by secret extrajudicial “no-fly” orders; and which justifies intrusive searches and government monitoring and recording of each individual’s movements in a lifetime travel history, which is used to decide whether to give permission for future travels.

The US is now attempting to make these practices a new global norm, rolling back worldwide progress on freedom of movement. For this reason, it is important for the Human Rights Committee to question the US about its controls on travel.

And it is critical to freedom of movement worldwide for the Human Rights Committee, at the conclusion of its review of US implementation of the ICCPR,  to reject permission-based controls on free movement, and to reaffirm that the threat of terrorism does not eliminate the right to freedom of movement.

The questioning of the U.S. delegation by the Human Rights Committee will be webcast, and we’ll have a report form Geneva following the release of the Committee’s concluding observations.

U.S. Embassy in Sana’a seizing U.S. citizens’ passports

February 8th, 2014

Imagine that you are a US citizen living or traveling abroad.  Imagine that you go to the US Embassy to avail yourself of its “Consular Services” as a US citizen. Then imagine that embassy staff confiscate your US passport.

That’s what’s been happening to many, perhaps most, Yemeni-American US citizens who make the unwitting mistake (!) of showing their US passports at the entrance to the US Embassy in Sana’a, Yemen.

US citizens who have contacted us from Yemen for assistance have told us they believe that there are 500 or more US citizens now stranded in Sana’a, unable to leave Yemen or to return to the US without their passports.

One Yemeni-American who phoned us from Sana’a described going to the US Embassy to apply for a new US passport for his newborn child.  Any child of a US citizen is entitled by birth and parentage to US citizenship, and passports for children of US citizens born abroad are routinely issued by US embassies.

But instead of leaving the embassy with a new passport for his child, this Yemeni-American US citizen left the US Embassy without his own passport, which was confiscated without warning by embassy staff.  Other Yemeni-Americans have had their US passports seized when they visited the US Embassy in Sana’a for consular services in conjunction with Social Security or veterans’ benefits, visa or immigration applications for non-US citizen relatives, absentee voting in U.S. elections, or authentication of documents for other US government purposes.

A cable to Washington from the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a in 2009 released by Wikileaks (presumably among those leaked  by whistleblower Bradley Manning) revealed that the embassy in Sana’a was already treating all immigrant visa applications as “considered fraudulent until proven otherwise.” The current treatment of US passport holders suggests the embassy has expanded this presumption to US passports in Yemeni-American hands. It’s a clear-cut case of discrimination against certain US citizens on the basis of Yemeni national origin.

The seizure of passports from US citizens at the US Embassy in Sana’a was first reported last year in Yemeni expatriate publications, around the time we were first contacted from Yemen by one of the affected individuals.  But most of those affected were understandably unwilling to be identified publicly, lest it reduce their chances of getting out of limbo. It took some time for the scope of the problem to become apparent,  for the story to be picked up by mainstream media, and for some of those U.S. citizens stranded in Yemen to begin to begin to identify themselves and tell their stories publicly.

A coalition of civil liberties organizations has now launched a bilingual English and Arabic website, MyEmbassyRights.US, including information on legal assistance and a downloadable “Know Your Rights” informational pamphlet for US citizens preparing to deal with the US Embassy in Sana’a.

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More details of Judge Alsup’s decision in “no-fly” case

February 6th, 2014

More details of Judge William Alsup’s decision in Ibrahim v. DHS, the first case challenging the US government’s “no-fly” list to go to trial, were made public today in the form of a redacted version of Judge Alsup’s findings, conclusions, and order.

In deference to the government’s insistence that even his verdict would reveal “secrets“, Judge Alsup originally issued his opinion and order temporarily under seal (to give the government a chance to appeal), accompanied by an unusual Public Notice and Summary.

Judge Alsup ordered the parties to try to agree on a redacted version of his opinion that both would allow to be made public. But after government’s lawyers declined to tell Dr. Ibrahim’s lawyers what, if any, portions of Judge Alsup’s opinion they believed had to be kept secret, or why, Judge Alsup ordered the government to file a minimally redacted version of the judge’s opinion by noon today.

The version of Judge Alsup’s order that the government has now made public still contains substantial redactions.  Some are surreal, such as the government’s belief that the public cannot be allowed to know Judge Alsup’s reasons for describing the treatment imposed on Dr. Ibrahim as “surreal”. Others are more substantive, such as the redaction of all of Judge Alsup’s finding concerning Dr. Ibrahim’s US-citizen daughter, who was prevented from traveling to the US to attend and testify at her mother’s trial.

But the government has, reluctantly, allowed us to know much more about why Dr. Ibrahim was treated so badly and what remedies Judge Alsup has ordered:

At long last, the government has conceded that plaintiff poses no threat to air safety or national security and should never have been placed on the no-fly list. She got there by human error within the FBI. This too is conceded. This was no minor human error but an error with palpable impact, leading to the humiliation, cuffing, and incarceration of an innocent and incapacitated air traveler. That it was human error may seem hard to accept — the FBI agent filled out the nomination form in a way exactly opposite from the instructions on the form, a bureaucratic analogy to a surgeon amputating the wrong digit — human error, yes, but of considerable consequence. Nonetheless, this order accepts the agent’s testimony.

Since her erroneous placement on the no-fly list, plaintiff has endured a litany of troubles in getting back into the United States. Whether true or not, she reasonably suspects that those troubles are traceable to the original wrong that placed her on the no-fly list. Once derogatory information is posted to the TSDB, it can propagate extensively through the government’s interlocking complex of databases, like a bad credit report that will never go away. As a post-deprivation remedy, therefore, due process requires, and this order requires, that the government remediate its wrong by cleansing and/or correcting all of its lists and records of the mistaken 2004 derogatory designation and by certifying that such cleansing and/or correction has been accurately done as to every single government watchlist and database. This will not implicate classified information in any way but will give plaintiff assurance that, going forward, her troubles in returning to the United States, if they continue, are unaffected by the original wrong….

FBI Agent Kelley made a plain, old-fashioned, monumental error in filling out the VGTOF nomination form for Dr. Ibrahim. He checked the boxes in exactly the opposite way from the instructions on the form, thus nominating Dr. Ibrahim to the no-fly list (against his intention). This was the start of all problems in Dr. Ibrahim’s case. Surprisingly, Agent Kelley first learned of this mistake eight years later at his deposition.

Significantly, therefore, our case involves a conceded, proven, undeniable, and serious error by the government — not merely a risk of error. Consequently, this order holds that due process entitles Dr. Ibrahim to a correction in the government’s records to prevent the 2004 error from further propagating through the various agency databases and from causing further injury to Dr. Ibrahim. By this order, all defendants shall specifically and thoroughly query the databases maintained by them, such as the TSDB, TIDE, CLASS, KSTF, TECS, IBIS, TUSCAN, TACTICS, and the no-fly and selectee lists, and to remove all references to the designations made by the defective 2004 nomination form or, if left in place, to add a correction in the same paragraph that the designations were erroneous and should not be relied upon for any purpose. To be clear, no agency should even rely on Agent Kelley’s actual unexpressed intention to nominate to certain lists in 2004, for the form instructions were not properly followed. The designations in the November 2004 form should be disregarded for all purposes…. A deadline will be set for defendants to file declarations under oath attesting to compliance.

This order finds that suspicious adverse effects continued to haunt Dr. Ibrahim in 2005 and 2006, even though the government claims to have learned of and corrected the mistake. For example, after her name was removed from the no-fly list, the next day, Dr. Ibrahim was issued a bright red “SSSS” pass. Less than a month after she was removed from the no-fly list, her visa was “prudentially” revoked. In March 2005, she was not permitted to fly to the United States. Her daughter was not allowed to fly to the United States even to attend this trial despite the fact that her daughter is a United States citizen. After so much gnashing of teeth and so much on-the-list-off-the-list machinations, the government is ordered to provide the foregoing relief to remediate its wrong. If the government has already cleansed its records, then no harm will be done in making sure again and so certifying to the Court.

With respect to the government’s TRIP program, which does provide a measure of post-deprivation relief, this order holds that it is inadequate, at least on this record.

Judge Alsup castigated the government for promising explicitly not to rely on alleged “state secrets” in its defense, and then trying to do so during and after the trial.

In the end, Judge Alsup found it unnecessary to rely on any “secrets” because the government conceded that Dr. Ibrahim did not and does not pose any threat and that her name had been placed on the “no-fly” list by “mistake”.  While Judge Alsup was able to find that Dr. Ibrahim was denied due process of law, his discussion of what due process might require if the government claimed (perhaps on the basis of “secret” information) that a “no-fly” listing was justified was consigned to a footnote:

In the instant case, the nomination in 2004 to the no-fly list was conceded at trial to have been a mistake. In this sense, this is an easier case to resolve. Harder no-fly cases surely exist. For example, the government uses “derogatory” information to place individuals on the no-fly list. When an individual is refused boarding, does he or she have a right to know the specific information that led to the listing? Certainly in some (but not all) cases, providing the specifics would reveal sources and methods used in our counterterrorism defense program and disclosure would unreasonably jeopardize our national security. Possibly, instead, a general summary might provide a degree of due process, allowing the nominee an opportunity to refute the charge. Or, agents might interview the nominee in such a way as to address the points of concern without revealing the specifics. Possibly (or possibly not), even that much process would betray our defense systems to our enemies. This order need not and does not reach this tougher, broader issue, for, again, the listing of Dr. Ibrahim was concededly based on human error. Revealing this error could not and has not betrayed any worthwhile methods or sources.

We think that the proper basis for inclusion of a name on a no-fly list is a no-fly injunction or restraining order, issued by a judge, with its attendant due process. No other no-fly case has yet made it to trial, but sooner or later the courts will have to address the hypothetical situation described by Judge Alsup in this  footnote.

The government has not yet given notice of its intent to appeal Judge Alsup’s decision. (When, as in this case, one of the parties to the case is a federal agency, the deadline for filing a notice of appeal is 60 days after the judgement or order appealed. Judge Alsup’s decision was issued on January 14th, so the government has until March 14th to decide whether to appeal.) Unless the government appeals, the decision will become final and will be made public in its entirety, unredacted, on April 15, 2014.