Using the no-fly list as a weapon of coercion

The Los Angeles Times published a grim tale of someone who got trapped in the Kafkaesque world occupied by those on the infamous ‘no fly list’.

For two weeks, Rehan Motiwala, a 29-year-old medical student from Pomona, sat stranded at the Bangkok airport, sleeping for 10 nights on a roach-infested mattress in a dank, windowless detention room reserved for deportees.
Motiwala, a U.S. citizen, wanted to return to his family in Southern California. But earlier this month, en route from Jakarta, Indonesia, to LAX, airline staff in Bangkok refused to issue him a boarding pass for his connecting flight. U.S. and Thai officials told him that he could not travel but offered no explanation, leading him to believe he’d been placed on the U.S. government’s secret no-fly list.

After dozing on benches and wandering the airport terminal for four nights, Motiwala was told that a Justice Department official had arrived from the United States to question him. When he declined to answer questions without a lawyer present, U.S. officials left him in the custody of Thai authorities, who tossed him into a detention center in the bowels of Suvarnabhumi Airport.

“They treat you like an animal,” Motiwala said in a phone interview.

As usual, the government is refusing to give out any information on the Motiwala case.

While travelers can petition to be removed from the no-fly list, civil liberties advocates say the Department of Homeland Security’s redress process is so opaque that the only way to know if you’ve been cleared is to attempt to fly again.

State and Justice Department officials in Washington offered no information about Motiwala’s status, saying they couldn’t discuss specific cases. The American Embassy in Bangkok, whose consular officers were in contact with Motiwala during his detention, declined to comment.

Government secrecy is now the default. They can do anything to you but they don’t have to say why.

What I didn’t understand is why, if they suspect someone of being a potential criminal, they don’t question them while they are here and even try to prevent them from leaving the US, rather than waiting until they leave and stopping them from coming back, leaving them trapped in a foreign country. Kevin Drum shares my puzzlement and comes up with a possible explanation.

If authorities wanted to question Motiwala, they obviously knew where he was. All they had to do was wait for him to disembark at LAX and take him into custody. So what’s the point? I guess the LAX option doesn’t give them the leverage of throwing him into a rat-infested hellhole if he doesn’t cooperate. Welcome to America.

I think Drum is right. People feel much more helpless when they are in a foreign country. If faced with the option of abandoning their rights and talking to a US official or being held indefinitely all alone in a foreign prison, people are likely to choose the former. What happened with Motiwala fuels that suspicion.

When he declined to talk with U.S. officials without a lawyer, they tried to bully him, Motiwala’s lawyers said. The officials told him that returning to the U.S. was a privilege, not a right. One sarcastically suggested traveling to Afghanistan instead. When they finally left, the legal attaché told Thai authorities: “We don’t care what happens. Do whatever you want to him.”

Really? US citizens do not have the right to enter their own country? Surely that can’t be right. But these days when the government feels that it has the right to ignore even those rights that are explicitly spelled out in the constitution, we should not be surprised that it views all other rights as also dispensable.


  1. says

    “Kafkaesque” doesn’t describe it as well as “orwellian” — Kafka was more into surrealism, whereas what’s going on with the no-fly list is straightforward intimidation and abuse of power; there’s no underlying humor in it at all.

  2. Aliasalpha says

    I reckon that if someone had a collection of soviet era propaganda stuff about america being a greedy fascist imperialistic power with no respect for the people, they could make a fucking fortune off that these days

  3. slc1 says

    This is a perfect example of the government overreacting to the 9/11 incidents. The argument goes, I ain’t going to allow such an attack to happen on my shift, therefore I will err on the side of caution.

    The big problem with the no fly list is not necessarily that there is such a list but that it is totally secret. It is subject to errors (the flying spaghetti monster help you if you happen to have the same name as a known terrorist) and one must move heaven and earth to be taken off the list (not counting the difficulty of finding out whether you are on the list). This latter issue turns the innocent until proven guilty requirement on its head. The government should have to prove that you belong on the list, not you prove that you don’t belong on the list. However, there is little chance of improving the system, just like there is little chance of improving the Patriot Act because any legislator advocating any such thing would be subject to charges of being soft on terrorism, just as those who objected to the government’s heavy handed anti-Communist programs in the 1950s and 1960s were accused of being soft on Communism.

  4. Nick Gotts says

    U.S. and Thai officials told him that he could not travel but offered no explanation, leading him to believe he’d been placed on the U.S. government’s secret no-fly list.

    So they don’t tell you you’re on the list? And I bet if you try to find out, that would be behaviour suspicious enough to get you put on it if you weren’t already! :-p

  5. lanir says

    Okay, so far I understand they can accuse at least some people of crimes which they don’t ever even disclose to them (one of the gitmo guys apparently has this fun thing going on – apparently his lawyer gets to be told what he’s charged with but the suspect will be tried for it in absentia because he’ll be removed from court while it’s debated). And they can randomly screw you over because some pissant no-account (or accountability) stuffed shirt decides to put your name on a list you can’t know about. We at least say we no longer torture people secretly. And they can pilfer (steal, theftify, and preuse to their voyeuristic heart’s content) effectively anything you do involving communication over a wire or over airwaves. They can decide to more heavily scrutinize some groups for tax purposes (I could volunteer a few, like anything with BANK or INVESTMENT in the name) without telling you, although this is by far the least of the concerns listed.

    Maybe we need to start a formal list of these police state qualities somewhere? It’s not readily obvious that any American citizen or documented foreigner should need to put up with any of these things. And honestly it’s not readily obvious why most of them exist as a recognized practice for any purpose. They are certainly not suitable for the purposes so often listed as justifications, which would not really justify them in the first place even if they weren’t wildly incorrect and/or blatantly dishonest.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *