Tech Dirt
Mike Masnick
April 24, 2014

Over the past few months, we’ve covered the bizarre trial of Rahinah Ibrahim, who was incorrectly placed on the no fly list, leading to a series of other problems, meaning that the Stanford PhD grad student was unable to fly back into the US for the past ten years. When the unredacted ruling in that case was finally released last week, we discovered that Ibrahim is still in the “terrorist screening database” (TSDB), though not on the no fly list, and barred from getting a visa to travel back to the US, even though the US admits she’s no threat, because of a “secret exception” to the “reasonable suspicion” standard. And, given that the exception is secret, we may never know what it is.

However, perhaps it has something to do with “when the FBI wants to intimidate you into becoming an informant,” as a new lawsuit suggests. (And because none of the news sources reporting on this seemed willing to put the actual legal filing online, here it is.) The lawsuit was filed on behalf of four different men, who all had similar experiences with the FBI threatening to put them on the no fly list if they didn’t become informants, reporting back on what others in their Muslim communities were up to — and then finding themselves on the list after refusing.

Plaintiff Muhammad Tanvir is a lawful permanent resident of the United States whose most recent residence in the United States was in Corona, Queens, New York. Mr. Tanvir is Muslim. Mr. Tanvir was placed on the No Fly List after he declined multiple requests by FBI agents to serve as an informant in his Muslim community. He declined to do so because it would have violated his sincerely held religious beliefs. He also felt that he had no relevant information to share. After he learned that he had been placed on the No Fly List, he was told to contact the same FBI agents to clear up what he presumed was an error that led to his placement on the No Fly List. Instead, the FBI agents offered to help him get off the List—but only in exchange for relaying information about his community. Mr. Tanvir again refused. Mr. Tanvir does not pose, has never posed, and has never been accused of posing, a threat to aviation safety.

Plaintiff Jameel Algibhah is a United States citizen who resides in the Bronx, New York. Mr. Algibhah is a Muslim. Mr. Algibhah was placed on the No Fly List after he declined a request from FBI agents to attend certain mosques, to act “extremist,” and to participate in online Islamic forums and report back to the FBI agents. After Mr. Algibhah learned that he was on the No Fly List, the same FBI agents again visited him, telling him that only they could remove his name from the No Fly List if he agreed to act as an informant. Mr. Algibhah again exercised his constitutional right to refuse to become an informant and he remains on the No Fly List. Because of his placement on the No Fly List, Mr. Algibhah has been unable to visit his wife and three young daughters in Yemen since 2009. Mr. Algibhah does not pose, has never posed, and has never been accused of posing, a threat to aviation safety….

Plaintiff Naveed Shinwari is a lawful permanent resident of the United States who resides in West Haven, Connecticut. Mr. Shinwari is a Muslim. Mr. Shinwari was placed or maintained on the No Fly List after he refused a request from FBI agents to be an informant on his Muslim community. Subsequently, he was prevented from boarding a flight to Orlando, Florida, where he had found work. Following his placement on the No Fly List, the same FBI agents approached Mr. Shinwari, told him they were aware of his inability to board his flight, and again asked him to work as an informant. Mr. Shinwari again refused. Because of his placement on the No Fly List, Mr. Shinwari’s work has been disrupted and he has been unable to visit his wife and family in Afghanistan since 2012. Mr. Shinwari does not pose, has never posed, and has never been accused of posing, a threat to aviation safety….

Plaintiff Awais Sajjad is a lawful permanent resident of the United States who resides in Jersey City, New Jersey. Mr. Sajjad is a Muslim. Mr. Sajjad was prevented from flying because he was on the No Fly List. After he sought to be removed from the List, he was approached by FBI agents and subjected to extensive interrogation, including a polygraph test, after which he was asked to work as an informant for the FBI. Mr. Sajjad had no relevant information to share, so he refused. Because of his placement on the No Fly List, Mr. Sajjad has been unable to visit his family in Pakistan, including his ailing 93- year old grandmother, since February 2012. Mr. Sajjad does not pose, has never posed, and has never been accused of posing, a threat to aviation safety

Note how these are all US citizens or lawful permanent residents. The filing notes that while the FBI has used a number of other threats to turn Muslims into informants — including threatening their immigration status or trying to prosecute them for minor crimes — at least in those cases, the victims know what’s happening. Since the no fly list is totally opaque, the FBI can abuse it widely, with almost no recourse.

Withholding immigration benefits or bringing criminal charges against American Muslims can be challenged and resolved under known legal standards through procedurally adequate administrative or judicial proceedings. Unlike those situations, the No Fly List operates under unknown standards and a vague set of criteria with a process that provides no opportunity to learn of the purported bases for placement on the List or to respond to such claims. This secretive process is conducted with no impartial determination on the merits, and without regard to the possibly retaliatory or unduly coercive motives of the field agents who place people on the No Fly List.

The full filing goes into a lot more detail on the four cases above, showing just how far the FBI is willing to go to try to intimidate people into becoming informants. They’re not just asking them to provide information, but often asking them to travel to foreign countries, infiltrate various groups, and send back information. For a whole variety of reasons, the individuals found this to be completely unacceptable, and were subsequently punished by the FBI. The stories are rather heart-wrenching, as these individuals are bullied (sometimes to the point of breaking down and crying), as the FBI threatens all sorts of punishment if they don’t do what the FBI wants, which often involves putting themselves in very dangerous positions.

Of course, this is exactly what happens when you allow for secret “lists” like this to proliferate, and give the FBI nearly unlimited power to spy on Americans. I’m assuming that, as in previous no fly list cases, the US government will freak out and claim all sorts of “national security” reasons why the entire case should be dropped. Hopefully, the courts will not allow such games.


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