The Black Hole of Terrorism Watch Lists
In 2005, a Stanford doctoral student named Rahinah Ibrahim tried to check in at the San Francisco airport for a flight to a conference in Hawaii. She was traveling with her 14-year-old daughter. Authorities arrested Dr. Ibrahim, a Malaysian citizen, at the ticket counter and detained her in a holding cell for two hours. After she missed her flight, she was released and told that she had mistakenly been placed on the government’s no-fly list.
Dr. Ibrahim flew to Hawaii the next day, then on to Malaysia, but when she tried to return to the United States she learned her student visa had been revoked on unspecified grounds relating to terrorism.
On Dec. 2, nearly eight years after she sued the United States government for denying her the right to travel into this country without giving her the opportunity to be heard, Dr. Ibrahim finally got her day in court — except she wasn’t allowed to be there. Instead, in the first-ever trial to challenge the terrorist watch lists, Judge William Alsup of Federal District Court in San Francisco had to take Dr. Ibrahim’s testimony over a video link from Malaysia, where she finished her degree and is now a professor of architecture.
Dr. Ibrahim was not allowed to see much of the evidence against her, because it was classified as a state secret.
The government conceded that Dr. Ibrahim’s original inclusion on the no-fly list was a “regrettable mistake,” but insisted it was unrelated to her visa revocation.
However the judge rules, the trial has provided a window into the vast and secret world of terrorism watch lists, which currently contain almost 900,000 names scattered among as many as a dozen lists. The no-fly list, which consisted of 16 names before Sept. 11, 2001, had approximately 21,000 names as of early 2012. (Nelson Mandela remained on one terrorist watch list until 2008, when Congress removed him through special legislation.)
The government doesn’t reveal listing criteria or the evidence it relies on to put people on the lists. For those who believe they have been improperly added, removal is a long, obscure process that requires appealing to the authorities responsible for creating the list in the first place. “A lot of innocent people are wrongly listed and hurt by your system,” Judge Alsup told the government’s lawyers.
In such a shrouded and unaccountable system, trials can do only so much to limit both honest mistakes and unchecked abuse. A first step toward reform would be for Congress to make it easier for people to challenge their inclusion on a watch list and force the government to either defend its decision or correct the error.