Tag: Aviation security

Covering Up Incompetence

A while back, I blogged about the Rahinah Ibrahim case. In short, a Stanford University Ph.D. student found herself barred from flying into the United States because she was on a no-fly list. She challenged this and tried to find out why she was on the list. The Feds refused to divulge this information and even added her daughter to the no-fly list to prevent her from testifying in the federal case. They said revealing why she was on the list would compromise national security.

Well, we found out why Dr. Ibrahim was detained: the Feds fucked up:

After seven years of litigation, two trips to a federal appeals court and $3.8 million worth of lawyer time, the public has finally learned why a wheelchair-bound Stanford University scholar was cuffed, detained and denied a flight from San Francisco to Hawaii: FBI human error.

FBI agent Kevin Kelley was investigating Muslims in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2004 when he checked the wrong box on a terrorism form, erroneously placing Rahinah Ibrahim on the no-fly list.

What happened next was the real shame. Instead of admitting to the error, high-ranking President Barack Obama administration officials spent years covering it up. Attorney General Eric Holder, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and a litany of other government officials claimed repeatedly that disclosing the reason Ibrahim was detained, or even acknowledging that she’d been placed on a watch list, would cause serious damage to the U.S. national security. Again and again they asserted the so-called “state secrets privilege” to block the 48-year-old woman’s lawsuit, which sought only to clear her name.

Holder went so far as to tell the judge presiding over the case that this assertion of the state secrets privilege was fully in keeping with Obama’s much-ballyhooed 2009 executive branch reforms of the privilege, which stated the administration would invoke state secrets sparingly.

This cover-up has been going on for seven years through two Administrations. And what, precisely were they covering up? A paperwork error. There was absolutely zero danger to national security in just admitting that they messed up, that they placed a scholar on the no-fly list by accident. But the reflex to lie, to cover-up, to deceive is so strong in our government that they engaged in a a ridiculous expensive seven year legal struggle to prevent this information from coming out.

This is the danger of creating things like the “states secrets privilege”. If you give any human beings that kind of an umbrella, they will put anything they want under it, including pointlessly detaining a PhD student because they checked the wrong box on a damned form.

But … you know … maybe they have a point. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea for us to find out how arbitrary, stupid and error-filled this no-fly list is. Because if we find that out, we might question the entire massively expense security theater our government has built. And we can’t have that, can we?

The Infinite Recursion of the Security State

This is pretty amazing:

As you my have heard, there’s a trial going on here in San Francisco about the legality of the complete lack of any sort of due process concerning the US’s “no fly” list. The NY Times has a good background article on the case, which notes that somewhere around 700,000 people appear to be on the list, where there’s basically no oversight of the list and no recourse if you happen to be placed on the list. This lawsuit, by Rahinah Ibrahim (who had been a Stanford PhD student) is challenging that.

In that case, a Stanford University Ph.D. student named Rahinah Ibrahim was prevented from boarding a flight at San Francisco International Airport in 2005, and was handcuffed and detained by the police. Ultimately, she was allowed to fly to Malaysia, her home country, but she has been unable to return to the United States because the State Department revoked her student visa.

According to court filings, two agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation visited Ms. Ibrahim a week before her trip and asked about her religious activities (she is Muslim), her husband and what she might know of a Southeast Asian terrorist organization. A summary of that interview obtained by Ms. Ibrahim’s lawyer includes a code indicating that the visit was related to an international terrorism investigation, but it is not clear what other evidence — like email or phone records — was part of that inquiry.

Ibrahim is suing not only to contest her placement on the list but to find out why she was on the list at all. One of the witness in this case was Ibrahim’s daughter, who is a US citizen. She was supposed to fly in this week to testify at the trial. But she now claims she was blocked from boarding the plane because she was … put on the no-fly list. The government is saying that she just missed her flight, but documents have now shown up confirming that she was indeed placed on the no fly list. Gideon:

Just so you understand what’s happening: the Federal government is being sued. The Federal government, in defending that lawsuit, has apparently just blocked the opposite party from providing a witness. It’s as if the state charged you with murder, but you have a rock solid alibi of your family, so on the day your family was going to testify, they took your family and moved them to Guantanamo and then pretended like nothing happened and they didn’t know anything.

The TSA is also trying to retroactively classify public documents as Sensitive Security Information, including the information about why precisely Dr. Ibrahim was on the no-fly list. The federal judge has been coming down hard on them.

So why is the government so twitchy about this case as to try to bar a US citizen from entering the country and conceal public documents? Mainly because they don’t want anyone to realize just how much bullshit security theater these no-fly lists are. The latest report is that they may have barred Ibrahim because they mistook a Malaysian networking organization for a terrorist organization with a similar name. Imagine being on a no-fly list because the government thinks LinkedIn sounds like the Lincoln Liberation Front.

Those of you who are familiar with how our government does things will see a familiar pattern. We’ve seen it play out a thousand times with this administration.

(1) do something for arbitrary and stupid for arbitrary or stupid reasons;

(2) insist that your reasons were sound, even if we can’t quite tell you what they were;

(3) insist that you didn’t actually do it;

(4) try to silence people and bury documents who can attest to your arbitrariness and stupidity.

It’s always hard to distinguish a cover-up from standard-issue incompetence. But it will be interesting to see where this goes. TSA’s no-fly list is a massive unaccountable database that people have been complaining about for ten years. It appears that not only does TSA want to keep that idiocy going; they want to make sure no one know how badly run it is.