Flight Club: The No-Fly List and the Authoritarian Theater of the Absurd
[I]t is an essential part of the justice dispensed here that you should be condemned not only in innocence but also in ignorance.
-- Franz Kafka, The Trial
A recent segment on Chris Hayes’s show Up (embedded below), following on a column by Glenn Greenwald, recounts the outrageous story of Saadiq Long, a 43-year-old African-American Muslim and ten-year US Air Force veteran, and his Kafkaesque journey through the no-fly wringer. Last year, Long, who lives in with his wife and children in Qatar, where he teaches English, bought a ticket on KLM to visit his mother in Oklahoma, who was suffering from worsening congestive heart failure. He was surprised when KLM refused to allow him to board his flight back to his own country because the US government had placed him on it “no-fly list.” Never convicted or even charged with any crime, Long spent over six months trying to figure out why his name was on the list and what he could do to have it removed.
(The answers, of course, are that he will never know why, nor will his name (since it may not be his name) likely ever be taken off the list. As this AP story by Eileen Sullivan points out: “The government will not disclose who is on its list or why someone might have been placed on it.”)
After a months-long campaign by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and (according to this local news article) “several legislators,” and two weeks after Greenwald published a column on Long’s plight in The Guardian November, 2012, Long was finally allowed to fly home to see his ailing mother. Problem solved, right?
Only in your American dream. Just in case (i.e., having read his Kafka), a week before Saadiq’s planned flight back to his wife, children, and job, his lawyer wrote a letter to the FBI notifying them of Saadiq’s flight plans, and expressing “Mr. Long’s sincere hope that, by informing the FBI in advance of his departure from the US, he will avoid the travel difficulties that have caused his family so much hardship already,” and his request “that he be accorded the same right given to millions of American citizen travelers every day: the right to board a plane.” Just in case.
Yup, unbelievably and inevitably (in this version of The Trial), when Saadiq’s arrived at Will Rogers airport with his lawyer, he was met by three local cops and a TSA agent who, according to the AP report, “told Long he couldn't board a plane but did not give him a specific reason.” A TSA spokesman later said: "It's my understanding this individual was denied a boarding pass by the airline because he was on a no-fly list. The TSA does not confirm whether someone is or is not on the no-fly list."
Kafka (“My guiding principle is this: Guilt is never to be doubted.”) meets the Red Queen (“Sentence first--verdict afterwards.”). For the full head-spinning qualities of the no-fly list policies, see this attempt to parse them out by Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic. As he cites J.D. Tucille: "Invoking Kafka tends to draw the oh-so-jaded cliché police, but it seems appropriate enough here."
Hayes’s and Greenwald’s coverage of this case provides an excellent exposé of the infuriating irrationality of the no-fly list policies. As Greenwald says:
“The sense of humiliation and outrage should not be hard to fathom. Just imagine being a US citizen, denied the right to travel home - first to your own country, then back to your family - by a government that has never charged you with any crime or indicated you have engaged in wrongdoing of any sort. …’I don't understand [Long says] how the government can take away my right to travel without even telling me….If the US government wanted me to question or arrest or prosecute me, they could have had me in a minute. But there are no charges, no accusations, nothing.’ …. The reality is that they could have arrested him at any time over the last decade because he has lived in three countries with highly US-loyal autocracies: Egypt, the UAE and Qatar. But he was never arrested, never charged with anything - just denied the basic right to travel.”
And, as CAIR's Gadeir Abbas pointed out to Greenwald:
"It is not as if the FBI actually thinks Saadiq is a threat. If it did - and it had actual evidence - the FBI would simply arrest him. … And because we told the FBI ahead of time when Saadiq would be flying, hardly the behavior of a criminal, they could have stuck an air marshal right next to him. They could have subjected his person and luggage to extra scrutiny. But the FBI does not do these things because the No Fly List is not used to protect aircraft. This watchlist - and the many others like it - is a means by which the FBI metes out extra-judicial punishment."
Greenwald is also surely right to point out that: “Plainly, air travel safety is not what any of this is about. It is about inventing ways to punish US Muslims and deprive them of the most basic rights without so much as providing any notice, let alone any due process that would enable the secret, unknown accusations to be discovered and rebutted.” The no-fly list is certainly part of "what's essentially a separate justice system for Muslims" that I talked about in a previous post.
But it’s even crazier than that. Though Muslims will surely be the prime targets of the no-fly list’s “extra-judicial punishment,” no one is immune. Not, for example, Wade Hicks, the husband of a Naval officer, who was kicked off a military flight last October, because his name (with Social Security number and date of birth) was on the no-fly list, even though he “didn’t have a criminal record, had worked in the past for a military contractor, has high-level security clearances and had recently passed an extensive FBI background check in Mississippi in order to obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon.”
Even establishment journalists have noticed the problem here. 60 Minutes did an excellent story on the no-fly list in 2006 (updated in 2007). They found not only the usual Muslim suspects, including Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, but also a rainbow slew of unexpected characters, like the President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, whose name is listed in three variations, all with a matching date of birth.
60 Minutes also found 12 American citizens named Robert Johnson who are pulled aside and interrogated for hours, and sometimes strip-searched: “’Oh, at least - at least 15 to 20 times. At least," one of the Robert Johnsons [says]…. ‘Probably for close to 100 segments, every time I would go to get onto an airplane, I would have to go through the process,’ another says. …’I had my military ID and you know, I go on military bases all the time,’ [another] Robert Johnson says. ‘So I can get on any base in the country, but I can't fly on a plane, because I am on the No Fly List.’"
All these people were guilty of was having the same name as the alias of a 62-year-old black man who had been convicted more than 12 years earlier of plotting to plant bombs in Toronto. As Steve Kroft pointed out in the segment, what is on the list is often not an identity, but just a name : "What you are saying is that you have no information that this person is alive and poses a threat. It's just a name in the database." And, if you happen to share what may be a very common name, like “Robert Johnson,” it’s off to the interrogation room, and maybe off the flight altogether, that you go.
I think Kroft got it just about right, when he said: "We've been told by a number of different people that what happened under the tight deadlines was that the CIA and various agencies just took all the names that they had floating around for one reason or another and just dumped 'em into your computer."
I had my own run-in with the list a few years ago, when I was travelling on a domestic flight with a friend who was Muslim, and a foreigner to boot. I had made the reservations, but was not being allowed to check in before the flight. When I went to the ticket desk at the airport to check in, the agent told me that we had not been allowed to check in online because a name had been flagged as on the “no-fly” list. I immediately turned around to my friend, and said: “That’s because you have a Muslim name.” “No,” the ticket agent said, “It’s not his name that was flagged. It’s yours.” She suggested that perhaps my Irish(-American) name was the same as that of some IRA bomber. (It seems the IRA directory has a lot of names in common with Irish-American travelers – like, oh, Ted Kennedy.)
The no-fly thing, you see, is not just one list, but a system of lists. It turned out not-my name, like not-Ted Kennedy’s, was not really on the specific “no-fly” list, but on a kind of backup watch list, officially known as the Secondary Security Screening Selection, which engenders some extra screening but does not prevent one from flying. The whole complicated apparatus of acronyms includes the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) and the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB). (Datamart! You can’t make this stuff up.)
(My wife, too, was given special questioning a couple of years ago on an internal flight in South Africa, where she was working with a television crew. I can only surmise that South African Airways is also subscribed to the American no-fly list, which includes someone with the same Italian name as she. Maybe, along with Saddam, they're still looking for Sacco and Vanzetti.)
Crazier still, as 60 Minutes discovered, is that “some of the most dangerous terrorists never even end up on the No Fly List, because the intelligence agencies that supply the names don't want them circulated to airport employees in foreign countries for fear that they could end up in the hands of the terrorists.” You read that right: The no-fly list does not include – it deliberately excludes – the very people for whom the no-fly list was designed. Uh, then, what’s the point?
The point is, as Greenwald suggests above, not to protect flight safety, but to “mete out extrajudicial punishment” – to Muslims first and foremost, but really to everyone. The point of these lists and policies is to make everyone – and especially all Americans, who may retain quaint notions of inalienable rights and all that – submit to a panoply of new practices of surveillance, interrogation, search, and general life disruption. The point is precisely that you have to submit to these intrusive and authoritarian practices no matter how contradictory, arbitrary, or lacking in rhyme, reason or due process they seem. The point is to train the populace to comply, in ignorance, with whatever version of justice is dispensed, to accept their roles in the new American theater of discipline. (Including, you know, the scene where your crotch is fondled by the TSA agent.)
Let’s recognize without equivocation that this production is being enthusiastically staged and promoted by the liberal Democratic Obama administration, which has more than doubled the no-fly list in the last year, while lowering the bar for being added to the list. There is an important ongoing case related to the list, in which the judge has castigated the administration for its "’persistent and stubborn refusal’ to follow the legal precedents for sharing evidence,” but I hold out no hope that America’s subservient judiciary will ultimately block the drive toward authoritarianism and a dictatorial presidency. This has been going on for over ten years, and the Democratic Party and its legislative leaders have been entirely complicit in it. It will not be blocked or reversed by any Democratic or Republican president. It will take a determined movement of a kind we have yet to see arise.
Segment from Up. (It plays in three parts.):