After 9 Years, Woman Gets off Secret No-Fly List, then Is Put on Secret Visa-Denial List

Monday, April 21, 2014
Rahinah Ibrahim (photo: Universiti Putra Malaysia)

Professor Rahinah Ibrahim fought for 9 years to get off the government's no-fly list that marooned the one-time Stanford graduate student in her native Malaysia and finally won when U.S. District Judge William Alsup issued a redacted ruling (pdf) that the FBI had made a clerical error and he ordered her stricken from all related terror-watch lists.

Last Wednesday, Judge Alsup re-issued the ruling (pdf) without the redactions, chastised the government for its “Kafkaesque on-off-on-list treatment” of Ibrahim—and then let U.S. officials revoke her visa for secret reasons he would/could not disclose. Among the newly unredacted passages was this: “The government is further ordered expressly to tell Dr. Ibrahim that she is no longer on the no-fly list and has not been on it since 2005.” (The bold-face text was originally blacked out.)

The judge called her 2005 exclusion an “inexcusable error” and noted, “At long last, the government has conceded that plaintiff poses no threat to air safety or national security and should never have been placed on on the no-fly list.”

But, although Alsup asserted that she is “entitled to the post-deprivation remedy” of officially hearing that from the government, he said Ibrahim is not entitled to getting her visa back. Alsup said he read the classified information cited by the government in denying the document and “if accurate, warranted denial of the visa” but that Ibrahim and her lawyers can't see it because of the “state secrets privilege.”

The judge determined that the government had incorrectly failed to let Ibrahim know that she could apply for a waiver from its decision and that she could make that application. But that doesn't mean it will do her any good.  “This order, of course, does not insist that the government grant a waiver,” Alsup wrote. “Once acted on, the agency's decision whether (or not) to grant a waiver would presumably be unreviewable” by the court.

Ibrahim was locked out of the United States in 2005 when she attempted to fly with her daughter from San Francisco International Airport to Malaysia for a Stanford-sponsored conference. The authorities told her she was on the no-fly list, handcuffed her and put her in a holding cell for hours. She was in a wheelchair at the time, following a recent hysterectomy.

Ibrahim was finally sent to her Bay Area home and told she could fly the next day, which she did. But then the government refused to let her back in or give her an explanation why she was banned. After her initial complaint, the government said it took her off the list but the U.S. State Department then revoked her student visa. An exchange between State Department employees indicated that getting off the no-fly list did not clear her name as a “potential terrorist.”

Alsup's ruling in January that the government was accountable for its handling of the no-fly list was considered a major victory by its critics. The government has steadfastly refused, since the no-fly list was conjured up after the September 11, 2001, attacks, to say who is on it, how they got there or how they can get off it. Officials have argued that they can’t be compelled to discuss the no-fly list in open court and have consistently thrown up barriers to people receiving a judicial hearing over their inclusion on it.

Alsup had already ordered that the government take her off all watch lists that were propagated with her name because an FBI agent mistakenly checked off the wrong box on a no-fly-list form in 2004. So the operation was a success, but the patient will not benefit.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Quarrel Over Fees Begins in Terror Watch List Case (by William Dotinga, Courthouse News Service)

Rebuke over No-Fly List Fully Unsealed, but Mysteries Remain (by William Dotinga, Courthouse News Service)

Malaysian Victim of Kafka-esque Action in US Travel Ban, Court Rules (by Boo Su-Lyn, Malay Mail)

Flight Risk? (by Sam Scott, Stanford Alumni)

FBI Fessed Up: Agent's Error Kept Woman From Flying for 9 Years (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Rahinah Ibrahim v. Department of Homeland Security, et al (U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California) (pdf)

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