First person successfully sues to be removed from the U.S. no-fly list

BY Jaywon Choe  March 28, 2014 at 2:47 PM EDT
Photo by Flickr user ATOMIC Hot Links

Photo by Flickr user ATOMIC Hot Links

After nearly eight years of lengthy court battles, it appears that a Malaysian woman mistakenly put on the federal government’s no-fly list will become the first person to be taken off of it.

On Tuesday, a lawyer from the Justice Department said it would not appeal a federal judge’s decision to remove 46-year-old Rahinah Ibrahim from the terrorist watch list. The judge ruled the agency violated Ibarhim’s right to due process by putting her on the list without telling her why.

The government admitted Ibrahim ended up on the list only after an FBI agent checked the wrong box on some paperwork.

The announcement caps off a saga that began in 2005, when Ibrahim, then a doctoral candidate at Stanford University, was prevented from getting on a flight to Malaysia. She was then allowed to leave, only to have her U.S. visa revoked. At the time she was given no other explanation than that she had been put on the no-fly list, so she sued the Justice Department in 2006 to find out why.

Shrin Sinnar, a professor at Stanford Law School who testified in the case, told Reuters that the ruling was the first time a judge has ordered the government to fix mistakes it has made in a case involving the no-fly list; something he says will now be the precedent.

But critics of the program say Ibrahim’s story may be difficult to repeat. The American Civil Liberties Union recently released a scathing report on the program and said it is virtually impossible for those who say they have been wrong accused to find recourse:

The ‘redress’ procedures the US government provides for those who have been wrongly or mistakenly included on a watchlist are wholly inadequate. Even after people know the government has placed them on a watchlist… the government’s official policy is to refuse to confirm or deny watchlist status. Nor is there any meaningful way to contest one’s designation as a potential terrorist and ensure that the US government… removes or corrects inadequate records. The result is that innocent people can languish on the watchlists indefinitely, without real recourse.

For its part, the government has said the no-fly list prevents terrorist acts and that providing classified information in cases like Ibrahim’s could harm national security. “Even if the subjects have no terrorist intentions,” Attorney General Eric Holder wrote during the trial, “disclosure of the reasons they came under investigation may reveal sensitive intelligence information about them, their associates, or a particular threat that would harm other investigations.”