April 23, 2014, New York – Late last night, the CLEAR project (Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility) and the Center for Constitutional Rights, along with co-counsel at the law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, filed a complaint, Tanvir v. Holder, in Federal District Court in Manhattan casting unprecedented light on the FBI’s abuse of the No Fly List to coerce law-abiding American Muslims into working as informants in their religious communities for the FBI, spying on their friends and neighbors.
The lawsuit is brought on behalf of four American Muslim men with no criminal records who were approached by the FBI in an effort to recruit them as informants. Some of our clients found themselves on the No Fly List after refusing to spy for the FBI, and were then told by the FBI that they could get off the List if they agreed to become informants. Our other clients were approached by the FBI shortly after finding themselves unable to fly and were told that they would be removed from the List if they consented to work for the FBI.
As a result of their placement on the No Fly List and the FBI’s unwarranted scrutiny, the plaintiffs have not been able to see wives, children, sick parents, and elderly grandparents overseas for years. They have lost jobs, been stigmatized within their communities, and suffered severe financial and emotional distress.
“I do not want to become an informant, but the government says I must in order to be taken off the No Fly List,” said Awais Sajjad, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “How can the government tell me that the only way I can see my family again is if I turn my back on my community?”
The government operates the No Fly List under near-total secrecy and never tells people on the List why they are listed or gives them a meaningful chance to dispute their placement. This lack of transparency and accountability makes the List ripe for abuse by FBI agents who often face pressure from their superiors to recruit human sources. As of 2012, the No Fly List contained over 21,000 names.
“The No Fly List is supposed to be about ensuring aviation safety but the FBI is using it to force innocent people to become informants,” said Professor Ramzi Kassem, supervising attorney at CLEAR. “The practice borders on extortion, but it should come as no surprise when the government is allowed to compile secret watchlists that strip away the freedom to travel without giving people any notice or hearing.”
“This is another example of how the U.S. government continues to disregard the law in a misdirected campaign to uncover ‘terrorists’ anywhere and everywhere, including among law-abiding members of the American Muslim community,” said Shayana Kadidal, senior staff attorney at CCR.
Plaintiffs all allege the government unlawfully placed them on the No Fly List in retaliation for their having exercised their First Amendment rights not to become informants. Plaintiffs also allege that the No Fly List violates the Due Process Clause of the Constitution because it fails to give plaintiffs any meaningful notice or opportunity to see or challenge the asserted reasons for their placement. The complaint amends claims previously advanced on behalf of one plaintiff and adds claims on behalf of three new plaintiffs.
The CLEAR project (Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility) is based out of Main Street Legal Services, Inc., the clinical arm of CUNY School of Law. CLEAR serves Arab, Muslim, South Asian and other communities that are disparately affected by post-9/11 law enforcement policies and practices. In the course of its work, CLEAR has come to represent many individuals who have been placed on various U.S. government watchlists or approached for interrogation or recruitment by law enforcement agencies.