German-Bulgarian author Ilija Trojanow, who has been highly critical of the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance apparatus, was blocked from taking an American Airlines flight from Salvador, Brazil, to a conference with German academics in Denver.
Trojanow approached a ticket counter and informed an American Airlines employee that he wanted to change his ticket to attend the conference in dinner on October 4. According to him, she entered his name and then stood up and disappeared. She returned with a higher-ranking person who rapidly spoke Portuguese and then English and informed him that a border security alert obliged them to notify US authorities immediately that he was at the airport.
“Your case is special,” the woman working the counter told Trojanow. Security spent more than twenty minutes looking over his passport and other personal information. She then asked for his Electronic System for Travel Authorization status, which is a system for determining if individuals are eligible to visit the US. Trojanow showed her some kind of document that he was approved and had paid an appropriate fee.
Forty-five minutes before his planned departure, he was told he was forbidden to travel to the US.
In his reaction to the incident, Trojanow wrote that “one of the most important and threatening aspects of the NSA scandal” was the secret nature of the system. Transparency is apparently the greatest enemy of anyone who allegedly defends freedom.” It is more than ironic for an author, who has raised his voice against the dangers of surveillance and the secret state within a state for years to be denied entry into the ‘land of the brave and the free,’ he added.
Trojanow had been in Rio de Janeiro to hear journalist Glenn Greenwald speak about the revelations he had been writing about for The Guardian.
He mentioned that within the last year he had problems getting a work visa for the purpose of serving as a visiting professor at Washington University in St. Louis. There was significant delay and no reason, comment or explanation was given. The university finally helped him secure the visa.
Trojanow was the co-author of an open letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel that was delivered in Berlin with 70,000 signatures and condemned the NSA.
More than forty years ago, when Trojanow was a child, the state security service in Bulgaria bugged his family’s home. The family did not learn until three decades later, when a file folder with call recordings was partially disclosed by the Archives of State Security, that they had been under intense surveillance.
This history makes him a dangerous voice to the United States government because he can speak with authority about what it means to live in a society under total surveillance.
PEN America, a chapter of the international literary and human rights organization, sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry expressing concern over the fact that Trojanow seemed to be another person barred from visiting the US because they have possessed and expressed “disfavored political positions and views.” They demanded that the decision to deny him entry be reviewed.
This development takes place as Pakistani human rights lawyer Shahzad Akbar continues to be denied entry to the US to participate in a hearing on drones organized by members of Congress and Brave New Foundation.
As he wrote for The Hill, “Rafiq ur Rehman, who lost his 67 year-old mother in a drone strike, and two of his children, Nabila and Zubair, who witnessed their grandmother’s death and sustained strike-related injuries themselves. Both Rafiq and the children were granted visas. But I was not. Instead, my application was again put into ‘administrative processing,’ where it remains to this day.”
In 2012, Pakistani student filmmaker Muhammad Danish Qasim and five others were denied a visa to attend a film festival in Seattle and accept an award for their short film on US drone attacks. Qasim surmised, “If we had got the visa, then it would have been easy for us to frame our point of view in front of the other selected youth filmmakers.” Which is why they were barred from entering the United States to accept the award.
There is a growing list of individuals, who are academics, human rights attorneys, prominent activists or outspoken artists, that are being blocked from entering the US because of the freethinking and freedom of speech they practice outside the US. Tariq Ramadan, Karim Meziane, Dora Maria Tellez, Vicente Verez-Bencomo, John Milios, Adam Habib, Riyadh Lafta and 61 Cuban scholars are all people, who in the past ten to fifteen years have been unable to travel to the US to share their work with Americans at conferences.
The State Department would likely condemn countries like China, Russia or Iran if they were denying academics or artists entry to their country because of their political views. Yet, when individuals who might undermine US policies are struggling to enter the US, there is nothing but silence as they futilely cry out in protest.