The US government is notorious for its abuse of the so-called no-fly list. People find that they are suddenly refused to be boarded on to planes and are not told why. The government refuses to state who is on the list and what criteria are used to put people on it or even confirm to people denied boarding that it is because they are on the list. And once you are on it, it is almost impossible to get off it.
The government sometimes uses this as a weapon of coercion, allowing people to go abroad and then refusing to allow them to come back. Then because the person is stuck in a foreign country, they feel vulnerable and are more easily coerced.
Yesterday U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco slapped down the government in a case brought by a Malaysian woman Rahinah Ibrahim who had studied in the US and then suddenly found that she was denied re-entry.
Ibrahim attended Stanford University on a student visa, according to court filings. In early 2005, she was detained for two hours at San Francisco’s airport because authorities believed she was on the no-fly list.
Eventually, she was allowed to travel to Malaysia. However, her U.S. visa was revoked under a legal provision relating to suspected terrorist activities, though she was not told the specific factual basis for that action. She has not been allowed to return to the United States.
Ibrahim petitioned U.S. authorities to clear her name but received a letter that did not say whether she was still on the no-fly list. She filed a lawsuit, claiming that her inability to return to the United States damaged her professionally.
In Tuesday’s ruling, Alsup said the government has conceded that Ibrahim is not a national security threat. She is entitled to be informed whether she is still on the no-fly list, Alsup wrote, and for any mistaken information about her to be corrected.
Alsup denied the government’s claim that since she was not a US citizen, she had no standing to sue.
The use of secret no-fly lists based on secret criteria is eerily reminiscent of the infamous McCarthy-era blacklists. But what is still disturbing is that the government requested that the judge’s order be sealed, presumably so that others who have been placed on the list do not get to know of this case. So the judge issued a summary statement of the findings of fact and the conclusions of law instead, until April 15 when the full ruling will be released unless he is ordered by a higher court not to do so.