A Fly in the Government Ointment

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Rahinah Ibrahim was a Stanford doctoral candidate on her way to Hawaii for a conference in 2005 when she was stopped at San Francisco airport by federal agents, handcuffed and detained because her name was on the no-fly watchlist. Ibrahim contested her inclusion on the list in federal court and her legal fight has taken eight years to finally result in a decision. In a pared down version of the ruling, kept under seal until April 15th, Judge Alsup, a San Francisco Federal Judge, ordered Ibrahim’s name stricken from the list on January 14, 2014.

This is a landmark ruling and of particular importance to the South Asian community. Many of our men and women are pulled out of lines at airports across the country and subjected to intensive screening measures.

The post 9-11 compass precludes examination of how any individual is put on the list, even though it is evident that race, religion and country of origin are possibly the main or only parameters for inclusion.

The no-fly list, which contained 16 names pre-9/11 had about 21,000 names in early 2012, according to the New York Times.

The government admittedly was wrong in Ibrahim’s case. “FBI Agent Kelley Kelly named her to the wrong watchlist, and did not fill out the form correctly,” testified Debra Lubman, the former director of the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC).

Shirin Sannar, a Stanford Law Professor who specializes in National Security and Counter Terrorism Law and who was an expert witness on behalf of Ibrahim’s team, declared that “current procedures to get off the list violates due process.”

As recently as 2008, Nelson Mandela was on a United States terrorist watchlist and his name was removed from the list only through a bill signed into law by President Bush.

It is no doubt a tough balancing act to ensure the safety of the country while not encroaching on the civil liberties of its people. However, in the face of obvious errors, it should not be the case that the only escape clause is a long drawn out legal battle at taxpayer expense.

When it comes to matters of national security the no-fly dragnet has had wider scope and freer range. As Judge Alsup’s ruling makes clear, there needs to be more accountability in the process and a clear engagement with democracy and diversity.

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