At a Glance
Plaintiffs were notified they have been taken off the No-Fly List and are currently able to fly. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled on May 2, 2018, that the RFRA does authorize damages against individual agents. The government sought review in the Supreme Court, which announced on November 22, 2019, that it would hear the case. Oral argument was scheduled for March 24, 2020 but has been indefinitely popstponed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Debevoise & Plimpton LLP
Tanvir v. Lynch (formerly Tanvir v. Holder) is a federal lawsuit filed against the FBI, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Homeland Security that challenges the FBI’s abuse of the No-Fly List to coerce law-abiding American Muslims into spying on their religious communities. 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. The plaintiffs in the case are four American Muslim men with no criminal records who were approached by the FBI in an effort to recruit them as informants. As a result of their placement on the No-Fly List and the FBI’s unwarranted scrutiny, some of the men were not able to see family members overseas for years. One was not able to visit his gravely ill 93-year-old grandmother; another was separated from his wife and three young daughters for roughly five years; a third was unable to see his wife for nearly two years. The case is part of CCR’s broader effort to end warrantless government surveillance of civilians, particularly those who are being targeted on the basis of their Muslim identity or activism.
The original complaint, on behalf of plaintiff Muhammad Tanvir, was filed by the CLEAR project of CUNY School of Law and later joined by CCR. The lawsuit seeks to remove our clients from the No-Fly List and establish a new legal mechanism to challenge placement on it. At the moment, the only process available for relief is the TRIP program, whereby travelers who encounter problems may file an inquiry with the Department of Homeland Security, but never receive any confirmation or denial that they were on the list or that any change in status has taken place in response. 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.
“I do not want to become an informant, but the government says I must in order to be taken off the No-Fly List. 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?” said Awais Sajjad, a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also seeks declaratory and injunctive relief stating that our clients were kept on the list without cause and in retaliation for their assertion of constitutional rights in refusing to serve as informants. The men have lost jobs, been stigmatized within their communities, and suffered severe financial and emotional distress as a result of their placement on the list. The lawsuit asks for monetary relief for damages they suffered.
The complete lack of transparency and accountability with which the government operates the No-Fly List makes it ripe for abuse by FBI field agents who, in the post-9/11 environment, often face pressure from their superiors to recruit human sources and have a great deal of individual discretion to nominate individuals to the list with only the most minimal oversight from superiors. As of 2012, the No-Fly List contained over 21,000 names. A 2007 audit found that more than half of the 71,000 names then on the list were wrongly included. It is an open question how many people today are on the list, like our clients, because they refuse to spy on their communities. The fact that our clients were told they could fly again if they agreed to work as informants for the FBI begs the question of how, if they were truly so dangerous to begin with, the FBI could risk enlisting them as informants and allowing them to fly.
“I have no words. This is very big news for me,” said Awais Sajjad. “I hope next month I will travel to visit my grandmother in Pakistan. I miss my grandmother who is very sick and over 90 years old now. She raised me after my mother’s death.”
“They have done a lot of damage to me and to my life. They messed up my life,” said Jameel Algibhah, another plaintiff. “I haven’t seen my family in a long time. My youngest daughter doesn’t even know me. I want to continue this lawsuit.”