Federal Judge None Too Impressed With Government's Defense Of Its 'No Fly' List
by Tim Cushing
The top secret "No-Fly" list has been problematic since day one. The DHS and FBI apparently believe over 20,000 people are too dangerous to allow to board a plane but not dangerous enough to arrest.
This is the process the government follows to place would-be travelers on the no-fly list.
1. The government places a person on the no-fly list. That's all there is to it. The list is too "sensitive" to publish and exposing its methodology would apparently result in airliners raining down around us.
If you're a lucky recipient of the "no-fly" designation, here's how you're informed of your new status.
1. Purchase a ticket and attempt to travel. 2. Be rebuffed by TSA personnel. This process can sometimes be applied with more flexibility.
1. Purchase a roundtrip ticket and fly to a foreign destination. 2. Attempt to return home. 3. Be rebuffed by local customs/security officials. You won't know you're on The List until the list is triggered, which could happen when you're a few thousand miles from home. And if you think you're boarding the next boat back to the US, think again. The list is also "no-sail," meaning passenger ships are out of the question.
Now, if you're on the list and wish to be removed or, at the very least, informed of why you've been banned from commercial airline travel, there's no reason to panic. The DHS has a resolution process that relies very heavily on "process" and skips the "resolution" completely.
Their only recourse is to file a request with the Department of Homeland Security's "Traveler Redress Inquiry Program," after which DHS responds with a letter that does not explain why they were denied boarding. The letter does not confirm or deny whether their names remain on the No Fly List, and does not indicate whether they can fly. The only way for a person to find out if his or her name was removed from the No Fly List is to buy a plane ticket, go to the airport, see if he or she can get on the flight – taking the risk of being denied boarding and marked as a suspected terrorist, and losing the cost of the airline ticket. One wonders what a letter that answers no questions and explains nothing is supposed to "redress."
Dear Sir/Madam No Fly, This decade-long lack of specifics or actual redress has led to the ACLU suing the federal government on the behalf of thirteen no-fly list members.
Thank you for expressing an interest in our Traveler Redress Inquiry Program. The Department of Homeland Security works in conjunction with all domestic airports, as well as those in 22 other nations worldwide, in order to provide you with a safe traveling experience. We hope that you will continue to make use of our products and services.
Thank you again for your support.
If you have additional comments or questions, please dial (202) 282-8495.
Sincerely, The Department of Homeland Security
Thirteen people on the no-fly list have sued the U.S. government, arguing that their placement deprives them of due process and smears their reputation by branding them as terrorists. Several of the men who filed suit have been surrounded at airport security areas, detained and interrogated. Government attorney Scott Risner addressed these complaints by arguing that air travel is not a "right" but a "convenience."
The suit seeks to either remove the plaintiffs from the no-fly list or tell them why they are on it.
Risner said placement on the list doesn't stop people from traveling, and stopping people from using one mode of travel doesn't deprive them of their liberty. That's a key question in determining whether the government must ensure due process and one that's at the heart of the constitutionality of being placed on the list.
"We're not suggesting that there's not a convenience in air travel," Risner said. "(But) there's no right to travel without impediments. That's what's happening here. Risner went so far as to point out that those stranded by sudden inclusion on the no fly list had made it back to the US via alternate forms of travel, thus "proving" a lack of air travel isn't preventing traveling.
Unfortunately for Risner, Judge Anna J. Brown wasn't buying it.
"To call it 'convenience' is marginalizing their argument," Brown said. [She] said alternatives to flying are significantly more expensive. "It's hugely time-consuming, and who knows what impediments there are between the Port of Portland and other countries." She also pointed out that sea and land travel options aren't suitable replacements for flying, especially when time is of the essence and that the government's argument "fails to take into account the realities of modern life."
The DHS and FBI would obviously like everything to proceed the way it has for years, which means convincing the judge that flying isn't a fundamental right. This removes the question of constitutionality, as least as far as flight restrictions go.
The ACLU has gone further, though, declaring the entire system to be screwed up.
"We're asking the court to finally put a check on the government's use of a blacklist that denies Americans the ability to fly without giving them the explanation or fair hearing that the Constitution requires. It's a question of basic fairness," said ACLU Staff Attorney Nusrat Choudhury, one of the ACLU attorneys who will argue the case Friday in Portland. "It does not make our country safer to ban people from flying without giving them an after-the-fact redress process that allows them to correct the errors that led to their mistaken inclusion on the list." It also points out that issuance of notice and due process are required for much less far-reaching actions.
The ACLU argues that this system violates the Fifth Amendment's command that the government cannot deprive a person of liberty "without due process of law." Courts have ruled that the Constitution requires some kind of notice and hearing for far less severe actions, such as losing state assistance for utility bills or being suspended from school for 10 days. Judge Brown hasn't said when she'll issue a ruling, but so far she seems less than impressed with the government's arguments. In the meantime, 20,000 people, including the 13 US citizens represented here (four of which are military veterans), are still stuck in War on Terror limbo -- unofficially "detained" in the US by secretive travel restrictions.
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