FBI No-Fly List Error Ordered Expunged

An FBI agent who checked the wrong box on a 2004 form caused a former Stanford graduate student, Rahinah Ibrahim to be wrongly placed on the government’s “no-fly” list.  Last week, U.S. District Judge William Alsup unsealed most of his court order requiring the FBI fix the error by reviewing all its lists and removing her name and insert a note that she was wrongly placed on the list.

Alsup said the 38-page ruling contains no state secrets and he pushed for disclosure, but he gave the Justice Department until April 15 to get an appeals court to order the partial blackout maintained.

Ibrahim, an architect, a scholar, mother of four and a Malaysian Muslim, was admitted to Stanford for post-graduate studies. When she went to San Francisco airport with her 14-year-old daughter in 2005 she found herself handcuffed and detained, based on her “no-fly list” status, during a trip to Hawaii for a professional conference.  She was allowed to fly to Hawaii the next day and then return to Los Angeles and return to Malysia.

But while in Malaysia her student visa was revoked and she could not return to the U.S.

She sued several state and federal agencies for civil rights violations and constitutional claims based on inclusion of her name on the government terrorist watchlists.

At the end of a trial in December, Alsup concluded that in 2004, San Jose FBI agent Kevin Kelley put Ibrahim on the NCIC Violent Gang and Terrorist Organization File Gang Member Entry Form.  “Agent Kelley misunderstood the directions on the form and erroneously nominated Dr. Ibrahim to the TSA’s no-fly list,” Alsup said.  The remainder of the sentence is blacked out.  Kelley did not intend to do so.  “This was a mistake, he admitted at trial,” according to Alsup.

“So the way in which plaintiff got on the no-fly list in the first place was human error by the FBI, “ he said.  He added that Kelley did not learn of his error until his deposition in September 2013, three months before the trial.

Ibrahim sought to show she poses no threat to national security and to clear her name.  Without the ability to return to the U.S. she will be damages professionally, she argued.

Her trial is believed to be the first involving a challenge to the terror watchlist.  She is currently the dean of architecture at Universiti Putra Malaysia.

But even the trial was not simple.  Five days before the start of proceedings, Ibrahim’s lawyer told Alsup Ibrahim’s daughter, who is a U.S. citizen and witness to the event, would not be allowed to board a flight from Kuala Lumpur to attend the trial.  She too was on the no-fly list, according to Alsup.  The government later a mistake in that instance and reopened the trial to allow her to participate.

The government also conceded at trial that Dr. Ibrahim is not a threat to our national security, Alsup noted.

While the government needs to maintain secret watchlists, this case “involves a conceded, proven, undeniable and serious error by the government,” he said.

He ordered the government to search and trace all of its terror watchlists and records for entries identifying Dr. Ibrahim and remove all mistaken designations by Agent Kelley in 2004 and include a correction that they were wrong and should not be relied on for any purpose.

He gave the government until April 15 to complete the fix.

Case:  Ibrahim v. Dept. of Homeland Security, No. C06-545WHA


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