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What to Do if You Think You’re on the No-Fly List

It has come to this. There is a self-help guides from the ACLU on what to do if you think you are on the U.S. government’s no-fly list. Oh, and the TSA says 99 percent of the people who contact them about no-fly have been denied boarding only because their names are similar to a real bad guy. In most applications, a 99 percent failure rate is cause for alarm for an organization. In America, it is cause for alarm for us.

Background

On September 10, 2001, there wasn’t any formal no-fly list, though the FBI held a folder of 16 names of suspicious flyers. Among the many changes pressed on a scared population starting September 12 was the creation of two lists: the no-fly list and the selectee list. The latter was for person who would undergo additional scrutiny when they sought to fly. The former, like its name, meant if your name was on the list you simply could not board a flight inside the U.S., out of the U.S. or from some other country into the U.S.

The flight ban can also extend far outside of America’s borders. The no-fly list is shared with 22 other countries.

Names are nominated for no-fly or selectee by one of perhaps hundreds of thousands of government officials: an FBI agent, a CIA analyst, a State Department visa officer and so forth. Each nominating agency has its own criteria, standards and approval processes, some strict, some pretty sloppy. Your name may end up on the list based on scraps of online postings or as the result of a multi-year detailed investigation or because of a bureaucratic typo. The nominated name is sent to The Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), located in a classified location in suburban Northern Virginia. TSC is a multi-agency organization administered by the FBI, staffed by officials from the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, and all of the intel community.

A key issue is that people are never notified they are on the no-fly list. The only way to even get a hint is to buy an airplane ticket and be prevented from boarding once you arrive at the airport after at check-in the airline receives a “no-fly” message. Through the interrogation process you may (or you may not) learn you might live in the list. You will never have any idea why you are on the list; maybe you share a similar name with some real or imagined bad guy. Still on the list? The only way to tell is to buy another ticket and see if you can board. Repeat.

What Do You Do?

For the most part, once denied boarding, you are on your own to get home. It is a long walk home from L.A. if you live in New York. But, in the topsy-turvy post-9/11 world, though the U.S. will not let you on an airplane (Twin Towers!) you can, for now, as a suspected terrorist, travel by ship, train, bus, rental car, horseback, donkey cart, unicycle or other means. Of course none of those conveyances have even rudimentary screening or security.

One option if you find yourself denied boarding is to contact the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) via their TRIP Program and ask them to remove your name from the no-fly list. You might succeed just by asking nice; the TSA itself says that 99 percent of individuals who apply for redress are not on the terrorist watchlist, but are misidentified as people who are. To start, you simply use DHS’ online form. They strongly encourage an online submission, warning on their web site that “if documents are mailed, it may take 10-15 business days to receive your submission due to federal government mail screening requirements,” something left over from the very small and long ago anthrax powder letters mailed to a handful of people in 2001. Careful though– proving you are not a terrorist must be done in a 10 meg attachment or less or DHS will reject your request.

If DHS agrees you are not a terrorist, you get a redress number which you can use when booking a ticket. There is never an explanation, and DHS is not allowed to tell you you are still on the no-fly list, or ever were, or why they did or did not issue you a redress number. If you never hear back from DHS and wonder if you are allowed to fly, the only way to tell is to buy another ticket and see if you can board. Repeat. Even with a redress number, DHS advises arriving at the airport extra early in anticipation of extra screening and questioning.

What If You Stranded Overseas?

One popular trick the government likes to occasionally use is to wait for someone to depart the U.S., then slap him/her on the no-fly. The traveler, stuck abroad, clearly has fewer resources to challenge anything or file internet forms and wait by the post box.

A nice scheme, but since U.S. citizens have a right under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution to return to U.S. territory after traveling abroad, and lawful permanent residents (“green-card holders”) have a similar right to return under the Immigration and Nationality Act, in fact such a move by DHS is essentially unconstitutional and/or illegal.

So, as one part of the government says you are a terrorist and cannot fly to America, another part of the government is constitutionally obligated to get you back to America. Denied boarding overseas due to the no-fly? Someone in the U.S. (can be a lawyer) must call the State Department and ask that they help you. The ACLU has a handy cheat-sheet with all the details. At some point you will visit the American Embassy in your country of no-fly exile, and, after an average two week delay, re-book your ticket to return to the United States. The cost of all this is on you, and you can expect a detailed welcome from the FBI and others when you touch down in the Homeland. Coming “home” may then mean your mom’s place in Cleveland, or it can mean a jail cell near the airport in Cleveland.

Bad Guys?

We’ll admit that there probably are some really bad people out there who’d we would just prefer not sitting next to us on a flight. But who ends up on the no-fly instead?

The Associated Press reported in 2012 that the federal no-fly list had “more than doubled in the past year” and had grown to about 21,000 people, including some 500 Americans. CBS’ news show, 60 Minutes, states the no-fly list actually has 44,000 names on it. A CBS reporter claims to have seen a portion of the names on no-fly in 2007, and noted Saddam Hussein was on the list, as well as 14 of the 19 September 11th hijackers, all of whom were very dead at the time. Osama bin Laden was also on the list on the off-chance he would have decided to fly to the U.S. under his real name for some reason.

Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, a group of thirteen Americans who were barred from boarding domestic flights or planes leaving or bound for the U.S. between June 2009 and November 2012 is suing. One of the plaintiffs in that case is Army veteran Raymond Earl Knaeble, who found himself unable to fly coincidentally after converting to Islam. Four others in the no-fly lawsuit are also military veterans. One was forced to return to the U.S. from Columbia by bus, a long and dangerous trip. Another plaintiff was placed on the list only after he flew from California to the U.S. Virgin Islands. He was forced to take a five-day boat trip and a four-day train ride home.

How Can This Be Legal?

Like much of the (known) legislation passed after 9/11, it has been very hard to challenge the no-fly in courts. One significant issue is standing, the right to sue. Persons typically never know for certain they are on the no-fly list, the government will never confirm or deny someone is on the list, and so, absent proof, one may not be able to sue the government. The government has and likely will also continue to cite national security and classified information to block cases from even entering the court system.

In the lawsuit noted above, the ACLU is arguing that the no-fly list is a violation of the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. The Fifth Amendment says to the federal government that no one shall be “deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” The meaning is that all levels of American government must operate within the law and provide fair procedures. For example, you cannot be arrested and tried without having legal counsel, being informed of the charges, having the chance to review the evidence against you and so forth. Creating a secret list without any clear means of challenging placement on that list, is, the ACLU contends, unconstitutional.

The government argues in return that national security prevents a more open system– we can’t tip off the terrorists– and that limited judicial review covers any due process requirement. No-fly list appeals may ultimately go to a federal appellate court, but that court makes decisions based only on government input. The person affected is not even present and will never know what evidence the government presented against him in this secret court.

The ACLU’s case against the no-fly list is currently being heard in U.S. District Court, in front of a judge who at least appears to be asking serious questions of the government, and who has stated she holds not being able to fly is indeed a case of the government depriving someone of their “liberty,” as stated in the Fifth Amendment. The outcome of the case is of course uncertain, and will no doubt be appealed as far as it can go.

Until then Americans, happy travels!

Crossposted at WeMeantWell.com

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Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren

Peter Van Buren has served with the Foreign Service for over 23 years. He received a Meritorious Honor Award for assistance to Americans following the Hanshin earthquake in Kobe, a Superior Honor Award for helping an American rape victim in Japan, and another award for work in the tsunami relief efforts in Thailand. Previous assignments include Taiwan, Japan, Korea, the UK and Hong Kong. He volunteered for Iraq service and was assigned to ePRT duty 2009-10. His tour extended past the withdrawal of the last combat troops.

Van Buren worked extensively with the military while overseeing evacuation planning in Japan and Korea. This experience included multiple field exercises, plus civil-military work in Seoul, Tokyo, Hawaii, and Sydney with allies from the UK, Australia, and elsewhere. The Marine Corps selected Van Buren to travel to Camp Lejeune in 2006 to participate in a field exercise that included simulated Iraqi conditions. Van Buren spent a year on the Hill in the Department of State’s Congressional Liaison Office.

Van Buren speaks Japanese, Chinese Mandarin, and some Korean (the book’s all in English, don’t worry). Born in New York City, he lives in Virginia with his spouse, two daughters, and a docile Rottweiler.

Though this is his first book, Peter’s commentary has been featured on TomDispatch, Salon, Huffington Post, The Nation, American Conservative Magazine, Mother Jones, Michael Moore.com, Le Monde, Daily Kos, Middle East Online, Guernica and others.

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