People on the government’s no-fly list are denied their constitutional right to due process, because the government’s procedures to challenge inclusion on the secretive roster are “wholly ineffective,” U.S. District Judge Anna Brown declared in a case brought by thirteen American citizens and supported by the ACLU.
Important: The court did not declare the no-fly list itself unconstitutional per se, but did say that the lack of any effective system for knowing you are on the list (absent showing up at the airport and being denied boarding) and especially the lack of any real procedure for trying to clear your name and get off the list, are unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment, as they deny people the Constitutional right to due process. Due process basically means the government cannot punish you, or take something away from you, without giving you the right to challenge that decision, typically in court with a lawyer.
Specifically, in a 65-page opinion, the Oregon judge ordered the government to come up with a new way for the thirteen plaintiffs to contest their inclusion on the no-fly list that prohibits them from flying in or through U.S. airspace. The government must provide notice to the plaintiffs that they are on the list and give the reasons for their inclusion. The judge also ordered that the government allow the plaintiffs to submit evidence to refute the government’s suspicions.
There is nothing, however, in the judge’s decision that negates or otherwise does away with the no-fly list. Because her decision took place only in a District Court, the government may appeal the case, perhaps as far as the Supreme Court.
What is the Current Appeals Process Like for the No-Fly List?
Understanding the importance of the judge’s decision requires understanding how the no-fly List “appeals” process works currently.
If you find yourself denied boarding, you must contact the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) via their TRIP Program and ask them to remove your name from the no-fly list. You might succeed just by asking nice; the TSA itself says that 99 percent of individuals who apply for redress are not on the terrorist watchlist, but are misidentified as people who are. To start, you use DHS’ online form. They strongly encourage an online submission, warning on their web site that “if documents are mailed, it may take 10-15 business days to receive your submission due to federal government mail screening requirements,” something left over from the very small and long ago anthrax powder letters mailed to a handful of people in 2001. Careful though– proving you are not a terrorist must be done in a 10 meg attachment or less or DHS will reject your request.
You are not currently allowed to know why, or based on what information, you are on the no-fly list. You just are. While you can ask a lawyer to help you prepare whatever you submit to DHS, you cannot be represented because you cannot otherwise interact with DHS.
The government argues in return that national security prevents a more open system– they can’t tip off the terrorists– and that limited judicial review covers any due process requirement. No-fly list appeals may ultimately go to a federal appellate court, but that court makes decisions based only on government input. The person affected is not even present and will never know what evidence the government presented against him in this secret court.
What if You’re Not a Terrorist?
If DHS agrees you are not a terrorist, you get a redress number which you can use when booking a ticket. There is never an explanation, and DHS is not allowed to tell you you are still on the no-fly list, or ever were, or why they did or did not issue you a redress number. If you never hear back from DHS and wonder if you are allowed to fly, the only way to tell is to buy another ticket and see if you can board. Repeat. Even with a redress number that clears your name in theory, DHS advises arriving at the airport extra early in anticipation of extra screening and questioning.
There are no deadlines for an answer from DHS. They may take weeks, months or forever to reply to you. Meanwhile, you, as an official dangerous person, will be able to travel by ship, train, bus, rental car, horseback, donkey cart, ferry, private rented plane, unicycle or other means. Of course none of those conveyances have TSA screening or security.
How Do You Get on No-Fly in the First Place?
On September 10, 2001, there wasn’t any formal no-fly list, though the FBI held a folder of 16 names of suspicious flyers. Among the many changes pressed on a scared population starting September 12 was the creation of two lists: the no-fly list and the selectee list. The latter was for person who would undergo additional scrutiny when they sought to fly. The former, like its name, meant if your name was on the list you simply could not board a flight inside the U.S., out of the U.S. or from some other country into the U.S.
The flight ban can also extend far outside of America’s borders. The no-fly list is shared with 22 other countries.
Names are nominated for no-fly or selectee by one of perhaps hundreds of thousands of government officials: an FBI agent, a CIA analyst, a State Department visa officer and so forth. Each nominating agency has its own criteria, standards and approval processes, some strict, some pretty sloppy. Your name may end up on the list based on scraps of online postings or as the result of a multi-year detailed investigation or because of a bureaucratic typo. The nominated name is sent to The Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), located in a classified location in suburban Northern Virginia. TSC is a multi-agency organization administered by the FBI, staffed by officials from the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, and all of the intel community.
A key issue is that people are never notified they are on the no-fly list. The only way to even get a hint is to buy an airplane ticket and be prevented from boarding once you arrive at the airport after at check-in the airline receives a “no-fly” message. Through the interrogation process you may (or you may not) learn you might live in the list. You will never have any idea why you are on the list; maybe you share a similar name with some real or imagined bad guy. Still on the list? The only way to tell is to buy another ticket and see if you can board. Repeat.
Want to read about the ultimate No-Fly list nightmare?