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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show with the story of four American Muslims who say they were placed on the U.S. no-fly list by the FBI after they refused to become government informants. They say they were barred from flying, not because they were accused of any crime, but because they refused government requests to spy on their own communities. On Tuesday night, the men filed a lawsuit seeking their removal from the no-fly list, as well as a new legal mechanism to challenge placement on it.
The New York Times reports the list, officially called the Terrorist Screening Database, has grown to at least 700,000 people. The government refuses to reveal who is on the list, how one can get off it, and what criteria are used to place someone on it in the first place.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by Naveed Shinwari, one of the four American Muslims filing a lawsuit accusing the FBI of unjustly placing them on the no-fly list and trying to coerce them to spy on their community. Also with us is Shayana Kadidal, senior managing attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. CCR is representing the four men, along with the City University of New York’s Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility program, or CLEAR.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Naveed, let’s begin with you. Tell us your story. What happened?
NAVEED SHINWARI: Thank you, first of all, for having us. I’ve been a big fan of the show since college days.
Well, in October 2011, I went on a Hajj pilgrimage, religious pilgrimage, with my mother. And after that, we went to Afghanistan, and that’s where I got married, too. On the way coming back, late February of 2012, I got—I was trying to obtain a boarding pass in Dubai. My flight was from Kabul to Dubai and then to Houston. And I was denied boarding pass in Dubai. I was told that I had to go outside and meet with the immigration, U.S. immigrations, or the embassy, consulate. I had to obtain a temporary visa. And my mother and I, we went out, out of the airport.
And then I was interrogated by two FBI agents for roughly about four hours, and I was told to—I was pressured to give them everything that I knew in order to go back home. And then they will—the more that I give them, the better chances of me coming back home that I had. I was told to take a lie detector test, and they wanted to take photos with their phone of mine, and which, both of them, I refused, because I was very truthful to them from the beginning.
Finally, after five days, we were able to—we had to buy new tickets, and we were able to come to the U.S. Then I was interrogated at the airport in Washington by a couple of FBI agents. And then I had several visits in my house. In March of 2012, I found out that I was on the no-fly list, when I had a flight to Orlando for a job. And in the airport, I was escorted by police officers telling me that I could not fly anymore. That’s the first time I found out.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: When you say they interrogated you the first time around, what kinds of questions were they asking you?
NAVEED SHINWARI: They told me to "tell us everything. And where did you been—where have you been? And have you attended any training camps in Afghanistan, or even to Pakistan?" And to all of those questions, my answer was negative. If you met individuals that pose a threat to national security, and my answer was negative, of course.
AMY GOODMAN: What are your feelings about being on the no-fly list? How has it affected your life? Where is your wife now, by the way?
NAVEED SHINWARI: She’s in Afghanistan, and it’s been 26 months, counting, that I have not seen her.
AMY GOODMAN: For more than two years.
NAVEED SHINWARI: That’s correct. I spent a month with her, and then I had to leave. And then, ever since, I haven’t been able to go back.
AMY GOODMAN: Shayana Kadidal, what is the legality of this?
SHAYANA KADIDAL: Well, I think it’s completely illegal. You know, most people find out that they’re on the list the same way Naveed did. They try to fly, and then they’re denied boarding, and sometimes a gate agent will tell them, "Well, you’re on this list."
Now, there’s a process to challenge it, nominally, through the Department of Homeland Security, but when you file a complaint, you never get told whether or not you’re on the list or whether you’ve been removed from the list. The government never tells us what the criteria for being on the list is. We think it has something to do with whether you’re a threat to civil aviation, whatever that means, but they’ve never sort of published a definition, and they never tell you what evidence, you know, they’ve used to put you on there, right?
And a lot of times, I don’t think the government knows what evidence they’ve used to put you on there, because a field-level FBI agent, for all practical purposes, can nominate someone like Naveed. Those guys who interviewed him in Dubai could do it on their own discretion, just as if a New York City beat cop could put you on the no-fly list. And it’s basically a rubber stamp, the level of review that it gets once it goes into the Terrorist Screening Center that runs the list.
So, you know, you get this situation that’s ripe for abuse. And Naveed, like our other clients, you know, I think the FBI put him on the list basically because they knew there was no process where he could challenge it, where he could get off, other than coming to court, like we have now, and therefore they could use it very effectively to twist their arms to work and spy on completely innocent members of their Muslim community.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Right, and this issue of some of your clients being—or your clients being asked to spy on their communities, could you elaborate on that?
SHAYANA KADIDAL: Sure. Well, so you see Naveed, you know, answered all those questions negatively and was still—and still ended up on the list, right? They are asking people not to spy on friends and family and acquaintances who the government suspects of involvement in crime or terrorism; they’re asking them to troll the Muslim community for information. You know, it’s the same mentality as underlies the NSA surveillance programs, right? Gather every bit of information on civil society, and then we’ll figure out why we wanted it later.
AMY GOODMAN: Aviation security specialist Glenn Winn told San Diego news station 6 that people are not put on the no-fly list arbitrarily.
GLENN WINN: There’s something has arisen in his background, and it has restricted his movement on a U.S. carrier of the United States, i.e. a threat.
AMY GOODMAN: Shayana Kadidal, your response?
SHAYANA KADIDAL: I mean, I think, you know, the most obvious response to that is to look at the Rahinah Ibrahim case that was just litigated out on the West Coast and where the government for eight years fought, you know, invoking every secrecy doctrine you can imagine, to resist telling a former Stanford Ph.D. student whether or not she was on the list. Turned out they had accidentally put her on the list because an FBI agent had kind of incompetently checked the "yes" box instead of not checking it as he intended to. They took her off the list in 2005, and yet they fought for eight years in court to avoid having to tell her that and to really avoid telling the public that they made a spectacular mistake.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in December, we spoke about the hidden cost of being placed on the no-fly list with the lawyer for Stanford University student Rahinah Ibrahim. Ibrahim sued the U.S. government after her name was placed on the no-fly list and she was barred from flying back from Malaysia to the United States in 2005 to complete her studies at Stanford. This is her attorney, Anya Bernstein.
ANYA BERNSTEIN: People are harmed by being on these watch lists. They’re harmed by being not allowed to fly. They’re also harmed by being subject to a lot more scrutiny from law enforcement officers every time they run into them. So if you’re on a watch list like this and you are stopped for speeding, the officer runs your license through a computer system, and he’s informed that you’re on the watch list. And then, naturally, he’s going to be paying a lot more attention to you; you’re much more likely to be arrested and to receive a certain kind of treatment. So, those are—those are more due process rights that may be infringed, and those are kind of the obvious costs of the terrorist watch lists.
The hidden costs are the systemic costs that people don’t really talk about as much, such as the effects on policy. So, one of the striking things about these watch lists is that, as far as we know, there is absolutely no mechanism for the agencies who run them to assess how well they’re doing. There’s nothing built into the system for people to review and say, "10 years ago we thought this was a bad guy. How did that turn out? How did our prediction pan out? And if it didn’t pan out, maybe we’re doing something wrong. What should we change?" So, one of the hidden costs is the bloating of the watch list with lots and lots of people who are most likely or even definitely not harmful and don’t pose a threat, and yet give us the impression that the main danger we face today is terrorism.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Anya Bernstein, attorney for the only person who has been able to successfully challenge being on the no-fly list. The impact on you and other people that you personally have been acquainted with who might have also been placed on the no-fly list?
NAVEED SHINWARI: It’s very frustrating, and you feel helpless. No one will tell you how you can get off of it, how you got on it. And it has a profound impact on people’s lives, and it has had a big impact on my life and on my family. And so, this is one of the reasons that I wanted to come out, was to—that there might be a lot of people that are afraid to speak up. And I wanted to—you know, I wanted to come out and show to everyone that, you know what, you don’t have to be afraid in this country, and you can come out and speak your mind, and we have to come together in order to resolve these kind of programs and these sort of issues.
AMY GOODMAN: Shayana, can you describe the other men who are suing?
SHAYANA KADIDAL: Sure. Well, you know, so Naveed hasn’t seen his wife in 26 months, right? We have another plaintiff who hasn’t seen his wife and his three small daughters for five years because he’s on the no-fly list. You know, all of our clients have family overseas. Two are Pakistani-American. Naveed’s Afghan-American. One’s Yemeni-American. And, you know, another client has a 93-year-old grandmother in Pakistan who’s begging to see him, because she’s gravely ill, she can’t travel here. You know, this woman raised him, and he can’t fly back there because he’s on this list. It’s devastating, you know, and there’s a stigmatic element to it, too. You know, there are people in the community who have turned away from some of our clients, because they wonder, you know, why did the government put them on this list. Surely there must be some reason, right?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about this in the context of the other instances of surveillance of the Muslim community in the United States? Obviously, in New York City we had the notorious example, now stopped by the de Blasio administration, of conducting random surveillances of the Muslim community.
SHAYANA KADIDAL: Mm-hmm, right. Well, I think, you know, we have—you know, after 12 years since 9/11, 13 years, we have a huge, very well-financed infrastructure for counterterrorism, and it—you know, it generates a need, pressure to produce, quote-unquote, "results," right? So FBI agents feel pressure to hit numerical quotas to produce a certain number of, quote-unquote, "informers." Doesn’t matter whether the, you know, quote-unquote, "informers" have any tie to crime or terrorism or whether the people they know do, either, right? It’s, again, part of this program of just surveilling the community for surveillance’s sake.
AMY GOODMAN: A pro-Palestinian activist named Kevin Iraniha said he was mysteriously questioned by the FBI after a trip he took to the Middle East. He later found himself on a no-fly list while trying to fly to San Diego from Costa Rica. The law student reportedly returned to California by flying to Mexico and then walking across the border. He addressed supporters after returning home.
KEVIN IRANIHA: I’m happy to be home, finally, in my own hometown, you know, where I was born and raised. You see my bloodshot eyes. I’m still—I’m still going through it. It’s very tiring, and it was very depressing. This is very disappointing for anybody—to happen to anybody, you know, especially if they were born and raised here, or anybody on—outside also, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Kevin is a U.S. citizen, and so he holds this news conference. Naveed, you’re here talking publicly. What about the repercussions for you? Are you concerned about any, about how people will view you?
NAVEED SHINWARI: Yes. Even within my household, there were—they were not in favor of me coming out. And they thought that this might make your situation difficult in bringing your wife here in the future. So that’s even within my house. Outside, many friends and family were against this, as well, too. But in every civil rights case, or whenever civil rights are violated or abused, people have to speak out. And if I don’t do it, who else will do it? So there are 16,000 to 21,000 people on this list, and the majority of them are innocent people, and they don’t know what they have done wrong. And I think we—it’s about time we need some openness to this program.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Naveed, we want to thank you for coming to Democracy Now! and telling your story. Naveed Shinwari is one of four American Muslims who filed a lawsuit accusing the FBI of unjustly placing them on the no-fly list and trying to coerce them to spy on their community. He has not seen his new wife in more than two years. Shayana Kadidal is senior managing attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a federal court has ruled that a memo must be released that explains the rationale for killing the Awlakis, Anwar al-Awlaki and his son Abdulrahman, as well as other American citizen, Samir Khan. Stay with us.