So what happens when the FBI is given full discretion to use one of the many ever-expanding government watchlists to coerce law-abiding people into spying in their communities? They use it, of course, and they do so with those they deem most vulnerable. At a time when Islamophobia is the political currency of Washington and standard law enforcement policy in many cities, American Muslims, particularly those with families overseas, are particularly vulnerable to FBI coercion through the use of the No-Fly List, a list of people banned from flying to and from the U.S. and over U.S. airspace. Those who have fallen victim to these abuses, like the four men we represent in Tanvir v. Lynch, have faced the dilemma of spying or not flying. Help us challenge this injustice by sharing these five facts about the No-Fly List.
1. Criteria for placement on the No-Fly List are purposefully vague.
The list, in theory, consists of individuals who are deemed risks to aviation security and who pose a threat of committing an act of terrorism. What constitutes a risk or a threat? As the Intercept revealed last year, the criteria are incredibly vague, relying on a concept of “reasonable suspicion” that could include anything from civil disobedience to social media postings… anywhere in the world.
2. Once you’re on the No-Fly List, it’s difficult to know why you’re there or how to get off.
Under the United States Constitution, individuals have a fundamental right to travel freely. When family and work require international travel, as in the case of our clients, flying is often the only option. If the government is seeking to deprive someone of that right, it must provide notice and a meaningful opportunity to challenge the decision. Not so with the No-Fly List…
When we filed our case in 2013, it was the government’s policy to neither confirm nor deny whether a person was on or off the list, not to tell a person the reasons they were banned from getting on a plane, and not to disclose any facts or evidence being used against them.
The only process available for relief was the TRIP program, whereby travelers unable to board a plane could file an inquiry with the Department of Homeland Security. Even after filing a TRIP complaint, generally the only way to tell whether one is still on the list is to buy a plane ticket and attempt to fly. Thanks to litigation like ours, some of these policies have changed, but not nearly enough. It remains far too easy for the government to place people on the No-Fly List and far too difficult for those people to challenge that decision.
3. The No-Fly List is ballooning in size.
In 2009, the AP reported there were 3,400 individuals on the No-Fly List. As of February 2012, that number had grown to 21,000, and by the summer of 2013 it was up to 48,000. This and other secret watch lists have grown astronomically under President Obama and, because of the lack of meaningful oversight, have ensnared thousands of innocent people.
4. The No-Fly List is used to coerce innocent people into spying on their Muslim communities.
Because all this secrecy makes it virtually impossible for a person to prove that they should not be on the No-Fly List, it gives the FBI enormous unchecked power to abuse the list and use it unlawfully as an extrajudicial tool to coerce and intimidate individuals – particularly those in the Muslim community whom the FBI targets in its counterterrorism efforts – into cooperating.
5. Civil rights litigation is placing a check on these abuses.
Just days before a major court hearing in our case Tanvir v. Lynch, all four of our clients finally received letters from the U.S. government notifying them that they are not on the list. The news simply confirmed what the men have always known: that they never posed a security threat of any kind and that the FBI only listed them to coerce them into spying on their friends and family in the Muslim community.
What happened to our clients was not a simple error, it was an abuse invited by a system that lacks transparency and accountability. That is why our lawsuit on their behalf continues. Our courts need to ensure that people placed on the list for no reason other than to force them to spy on their communities get justice for what they have suffered.