Rahinah Ibrahim, a Malaysian mother of four and then a doctoral candidate at Stanford University, was waiting to board a flight from San Francisco to Hawaii en route to Malaysia nearly a decade ago when she was told she was on the no-fly list.
The 48-year-old woman was eventually cleared to fly to Malaysia but her U.S. visa was revoked, barring her from returning to Stanford. With no explanation as to why she was on the list that prohibits anyone with certain names from U.S. air travel, she decided to sue the government to find out. That was in 2006. Just a few months ago, a federal judge ruled that the government violated her due process rights by placing her on the list for no reason. It turns out, her status in travel limbo was blamed on a clerical error.
“The no-fly list can destroy your life because someone makes a typo,” Bruce Schneier, a security expert and chief technology officer of Co3 Systems Inc., a crisis response company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, told International Business Times. “Basically it is a piece of Soviet era Kafkaesque pseudo-law. You get on it through ways that you have no idea, you never know how you got on it and you can’t get off it.”
Ibrahim is among hundreds if not thousands of individuals who don't pose a security threat, yet have been put on the no-fly list. The list was created and maintained by the U.S. government's Terrorist Screening Center -- an FBI division created after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. On Tuesday, a federal judge ruled that the procedure to remove a person’s name from the no-fly list was unconstitutional and that a new system must be established so U.S. citizens can challenge their designation if they are a member of the list.
"Without proper notice and an opportunity to be heard, an individual could be doomed to indefinite placement on the no-fly list," U.S. District Judge Anna J. Brown said in her ruling. She added that there was nothing in the administrative or judicial-review procedures "that remedies this fundamental deficiency."
The no-fly list is kept secret. No one knows they are on it until they try to check-in at the airport and are barred from doing so. How their names landed on the list is a mystery, too. And once you know you're on the no-fly list, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get your name removed.
Before 9/11 there were 16 individuals that the government deemed an aviation threat. In December 2001, the no-fly list was formally created with 594 names on it. The two primary criteria for names to be included were whether the individual posed a threat to civil aviation and if there were “sufficient unclassified biographical data to ensure proper identification.”
Both guidelines have been shown to have their flaws. Some terrorists have fallen through the cracks. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “underwear bomber,” who was accused of trying to bomb Northwest Airlines Flight 253, and Faisal Shahzad, who was convicted of planting a car bomb in Times Square in 2010, were both on the no-fly list and allowed to board planes.
Then there’s the plethora of false positives the no-fly list brings. When an individual makes an airline reservation, the system cross-references it with the no-fly list. If the name matches or resembles one on the list, that individual will have a hard time boarding their flight. They can be pulled aside and interrogated for hours or prohibited from boarding altogether. This has been true for children, members of the U.S. military, American politicians and professors -- all of whom have been among those who faced difficulties boarding flights.
For individuals who feel they have been wrongly placed on the no-fly list, there's a mechanism that doesn’t necessarily remove their name but allows them to fly. Those who contest their place on the no-fly list are issued a redress number by the Department of Homeland Security. A passenger includes this number in their airline reservation. While they may still be interviewed at the airport by the Transportation Security Administration, they most likely will be allowed to fly.
Robert Mann, a veteran airline industry analyst, saw this firsthand with his neighbor who shares a similar name to an Irish Republican Army sympathizer. Both the man and his son, who is a high school junior, have experienced delays at airports for questioning.
“It’s clearly a name-based system and it’s imperfect,” Mann told IBTimes. He noted how infants who share the same name as a suspected terrorist on the no-fly list may have problems. “It is a wide net that snags you.”
Mann said the no-fly list has been subject to “mission creep” -- that the list’s intentions may have bled into other areas that aren’t related to terrorism. For instance, Walter F. Murphy, a former McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University in New Jersey, was denied a boarding pass at Newark International Airport. Recounting the 2007 incident, he said the airline employee asked whether he participated in any peace marches.
"I explained," Murphy told the UK Guardian, "that I had not so marched but had, in September 2006, given a lecture at Princeton, televised and put on the Web, highly critical of George Bush for his many violations of the constitution."
"That'll do it," the man said.
A "60 Minutes" report interviewed 12 men named Robert Johnson -- each had been pulled aside and interrogated multiple times before boarding planes. The piece suggested the name was intended for a Robert Johnson that had been convicted of plotting to bomb a movie theater and Hindu temple in Toronto.
That 2006 report was the first to obtain a copy of the no-fly list. At the time, it was 540 pages long and contained 44,000 names.
Government officials themselves have openly criticized the list. Former FBI agent Jack Cloonan was retiring from the bureau's al Qaeda task force just as the list was being created. According to Cloonan, the document was intended to list serious security threats but soon transformed into a “cover your rear end” document to protect bureaucrats and combat public fear in the wake of terrorist attacks.
"I know in our particular case they basically did a massive data dump and said, 'OK, anybody that's got a nexus to terrorism, let's make sure they get on the list,'" Cloonan told 60 Minutes. "And once that train left the station ... there was no calling it back. And that is where we are."
For Schneier, the no-fly list is a baseless document grounded in the public’s fear of terrorist attacks. “It’s a list of people so dangerous they are not allowed to fly, yet they are so innocent they can’t be arrested,” he said. While he's happy with the recent court ruling, Schneier predicts it will take an entire generation before the no-fly list is abolished altogether.
“The fact is that there’s this mythical list of terrorists -- bad or good -- is farcical," he said. "There have been a whole lot of courts blindly accepting what the government says. Sooner or later judges will decide, when the public is less scared, that this is crazy.”