My mom was mistakenly placed on a no-fly list for almost 20 years. She had to sue the government to get her name back. Human error resulted in a Stanford University doctoral candidate being arbitrarily and erroneously placed on several terrorism watch lists within the past decade, newly released court documents show.
The court documents, made available without redactions for the first time last week, reveal Dr. Rahinah Ibrahim, a Malaysian citizen who studied in the United States in 2004, is still not allowed to enter the country even though the government admits putting her on a terrorism watch list was a mistake.
In January 2005, Ibrahim learned she had been placed on the government’s “no-fly” list when she attempted to board a plane at San Francisco International Airport bound for Hawaii. By her own account, she was handcuffed and detained for hours in a holding center at the airport and denied medication used to treat pain stemming from a recent hysterectomy.
Airport officials eventually released her from custody, promised her she had been removed from the list and allowed her to fly to Hawaii the following day. After her stay in Hawaii, she flew home to Malaysia.
Two months later, she decided to visit a colleague at Stanford who had fallen ill. When she arrived at the airport for her trip to California, she was told her student visa had been revoked. Without the visa, she was told she would not be allowed to fly to the United States.
Frustrated, Ibrahim decided to file suit against the government. She sought no compensation, just an assurance that her name would be deleted from whatever database was preventing her from entering the United States. The suit was initially tossed out by a federal judge before an appellate decision forced the case to be reopened in 2012.
For eight years, the federal government fought Ibrahim and her pro bono attorneys from learning the true reason why the woman had been denied entry to the United States and hassled when trying to fly. High-ranking officials with the Obama administration, including Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, asserted that explaining why Ibrahim had been singled out would raise national security issues.
But in January, the government gave up their fight and admitted the real reason Ibrahim had been targeted: a paperwork error made by a confused FBI agent.
The agent, identified in unsealed court documents as Kevin Kelley, was investigating Muslims in the San Francisco Bay Area in early 2004 when he checked off Ibrahim’s name on paperwork for the federal government’s Terrorism Screening Database (TSDB). At trial, Kelley admitted he meant to nominate Ibrahim for the TSA’s “selectee list,” a database that subjects certain passengers to additional pre-boarding security screening but doesn’t prevent them from flying altogether. But Kelley incorrectly filled out the form, nominating her for the “no-fly” list instead.
In January, a federal judge ruled in favor of Ibrahim and ordered the government to not only remove her name from the “no-fly” list, but explain to her why she had been placed on the list in the first place. Ibrahim became the first person to ever successfully challenge the government’s decision to place a name on a terrorism watch list.
A big win, but not the end of her troubles.
Complete court documents released last week show the same FBI agent that erroneously nominated Ibrahim for placement on the “no-fly” list also erroneously nominated her for placement on a separate watch list maintained by the Department of Homeland Security called the Interagency Border Inspection System. Shortly after her lawsuit against the government was filed on the “no-fly” list issue, court documents show that the government determined she did not meet the reasonable articulate suspicion standard for placement on the watch lists and removed her name.
But her name arbitrarily reappeared on the watch lists a few months later, and then disappeared without any reason. This pattern continued until October 2009 when court documents show she was placed back on the TSDB pursuant to a “secret exception” to the reasonable suspicion standard. The watch list was used as grounds for denying Ibrahim a visa to the United States in 2009; in a response to her application, a consulate officer wrote the word “terrorist” as the reason why her visa was denied.
Surprisingly, the judge upheld placement of Ibrahim’s name on that watch list, determining that the placement of her name was justified based on classified evidence that was reviewed behind closed doors and placed under seal. The judge found that the placement of her name on that list was separate from the issue that involved the FBI agent’s mistaken nomination five years prior. In his order, the judge denied Ibrahim’s challenge to her denied visa applications in 2009 and 2013 based on the government’s “state secrets privilege.”
On Monday, Ibrahim was denied a visa for the third time. Her attorneys have scorned the “secret law” that prevents Ibrahim from visiting the United States, but haven’t publicly said whether or not they intend to challenge the issue in court.