Hundreds of thousands of people have been placed on the US government’s No Fly List since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 but it is believed that, until now, none have ever successfully convinced a court to force authorities to take them off.
The no-fly policy was created and is maintained by the federal government’s Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), which identifies Americans and international citizens that are considered too dangerous to fly on a commercial aircraft entering or within the US. The problem, according to civil liberties advocates, is that the policy frequently mischaracterizes who is a threat to an airliner and that once a person is on the list it is nearly impossible to get off.
Rahinah Ibrahim, a Malaysian architect and mother of four with a doctorate from Stanford University, first filed suit against the US in 2006 after she was denied a visa because of a listing on the No Fly List. After years of legal hurdles Ibrahim was eventually able to force officials to admit she had been placed on the list because an FBI agent had marked the wrong box on a form meant to explain if she was a national security threat.
The Department of Justice on Tuesday announced it does not plan to file an appeal.
Ibrahim’s case began when, despite being on a student visa for a graduate program in San Francisco, she was not allowed to board a plane bound for Hawaii. Already confined to a wheelchair, she was handcuffed, placed in a holding cell, and forced to endure hours of questioning from police officers who tried to forcibly remove her hijab. Upon being released, she was told she was removed from the No Fly List only to be denied entry again and have her visa revoked on the return trip.
It wasn’t until earlier this year when one US District Judge William Alsup wrote that an FBI agent “erroneously nominated” the Malaysian native to the list in 2004, according to Reuters.
“At long last, the government has conceded that plaintiff poses no threat to air safety or national security and should have never been placed on to no-fly list,” he wrote. “She got there by human error within the FBI…the FBI agent filled out the nomination 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.”
Ibrahim is reportedly the first person to ever have themselves removed from the No Fly List, although she was not allowed to be present for much of the proceeding because the government submitted classified evidence against her. Her pro-bono representation has requested the government pay more than $3.5 million to cover their expenses. Alsup did not rule on the fee, saying the decision as to whether the attorneys should expect such a payout is “not easy.”
Ibrahim was not seeking monetary damages, only to clear her name as a suspected criminal of any kind. Through the suit, she still referred to the US as her “second home.”
The Justice Department’s refusal to appeal comes after the American Civil Liberties Union issued a report this month calling on the government to review how difficult it is for the estimated 875,000 people to remove themselves from the list. The only way for an individual to find out if they are on the No Fly List at all is for them to arrive at the airport only to be told they are not permitted to board. However when a person takes it upon himself to correct the label, the ACLU wrote, the government fails.
“The ‘redress’ procedures on the US government provides for those who have been wrongly or mistakenly included on a watch list are wholly inadequate,” the group wrote. “Even after people know the government has placed them on a watchlist…the government’s official policy is to refuse to confirm or deny watchlist status. Nor is there any meaningful way to contest one’s designation as a potential terrorist and ensure that the US government…removes or corrects inadequate records. The result is that innocent people can languish on the watchlists indefinitely, without real recourse.”