'State Secrets,' Non-Denials And Lies: How The Government Tried To Bury Its 'No Fly' List Screwup

from the the-public-will-never-achieve-'need-to-know'-status dept

Our government lies.

This is an obvious statement but it needs to be put out there in black and white. We, the people, are represented and “protected” by a government that actively lies to its constituents to cover up its mistakes. The recent case of Rahinah Ibrahim, who was accidentally placed on the government’s “no fly” list and only removed after a long legal battle, illustrates this truth about our government to a sickening degree.

FBI Special Agent Kevin Kelley marked the wrong box on a single form and locked Ibrahim out of air travel for nearly a decade. The government’s refusal to even examine Ibrahim’s case dates back to 2005, during the the Bush Administration. By the time the case was reinstated by a federal appeals court, the screw up wasn’t even a screw up. Thanks to intersecting agency databases, Ibrahim’s name, even though removed from one “no fly” list was now permanently tainted by ‘terrorism” associations. Bureaucracy succeeded in accomplishing one thing: retconning a paperwork flub into canon. According to the government, Ibrahim deserved to be on this list. When pressed, it would cite “terrorism,” the argument-ending word deployed most frequently by government officials over the last dozen years. When pressed further, officials would simply refuse to discuss it, invoking the holiest of non-denial denials, “state secrets.”

David Kravets at Wired has collected several of the deflections deployed by government officials in order to bury Ibrahim’s case — an error so easily fixed, yet ultimately so damaging to the person Agent Kelley consigned to the ranks of terrorism suspects by checking the wrong box.

Note that these are the more pernicious (and more frequently used — especially when it comes to national security issues) form of governmental lying: the refusal to confirm or deny accusations.

“My assertion of the state secret and statutory privileges in this case precludes defendant or any other agency from making any response, including through document production or deposition testimony, that would serve to disclose classified information regarding plaintiff or any other individual; the sources, methods, and means by which classified information is collected; and information which would confirm or deny whether information regarding plaintiff or any other individual is in NCTC’s TIDE database.” — James Clapper, director of national intelligence, April 23, 2013.

“Public disclosure of the identity of individuals on the No Fly List or Selectee List would compromise the safety and security of passengers by providing terrorists with information that may reveal which of their members have been compromised, and which of their members may board an aircraft without any form of enhanced security. For these reasons, TSA’s regulations expressly prohibit the disclosure of the contents of Security Directives and Emergency Amendment…” – Joseph C. Salvator, Transportation Security Administration then-deputy assistant administrator for intelligence, May 22, 2006.

There are more, but these are the most indicative of the national security mindset. Eric Holder’s deferral to “state secrets” in 2013 was based on the belief that a single disclosure, especially if it prompted more, would lead to terrorists gaming the no-fly list. John Tyler, then-attorney for the DOJ, claimed in 2006 that Ibrahim’s complaint was so inextricably intertwined with the utility of the “no fly” list that her case should be dismissed.

According to these statements, being mistakenly placed on the “no fly” list is just something those wrongly blacklisted will have to deal with. These citizens (and other foreigners) just need to resign themselves to the fact that they won’t be boarding planes, possibly for the rest of their lives. Once you’re on the list, you’re on it. The list is apparently so crucial to national security that even admitting it may have blacklisted someone accidentally would turn the nation’s airports into terrorist playgrounds.

A mistake was made made, but rather than looking for a solution, the government grabbed its “state secret” broom and swept it under the “neither confirm nor deny” rug.

The government cannot be so beholden to its own inflated terrorism fears that it willingly punishes a person for nearly a decade because of a paperwork error. There’s plenty of middle ground between keeping the country safe and screwing someone over because an agent couldn’t follow a form’s instructions. But that’s not the way our leaders, representatives and those beyond our limited power (the ODNI, for example) see it. To them, it’s binary. It’s all or nothing. Discussing the status of one person the government can “neither confirm nor deny” is on the list is portrayed to be as damaging as opening the entirety of the “no fly” list to public scrutiny.

The fear has destroyed the reality. Terrorists are supposedly one small step away from another attack on the US, even if billions of pieces of collected data have yet to result in the prosecution of these supposedly omnipresent attackers. The machinery — some public, some private — that thrives on this false narrative has managed to subvert due process, privacy and a variety of other constitutional “niceties” in its quest to create a lucrative, endless War on Terror. All objections are greeted with 9/11 / Boston Bombing rehashes and endless pages of retractions.

The machinery lies. The government lies. And those caught between the gears of both entities are ignored, lied to and buried underneath pages and pages of black ink and official denials.

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Comments on “'State Secrets,' Non-Denials And Lies: How The Government Tried To Bury Its 'No Fly' List Screwup”

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Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re:

That. Also

The machinery lies. The government lies. And those caught between the gears of both entities are ignored, lied to and buried underneath pages and pages of black ink and official denials.

Do I smell cynicism here? Still it’s a quite sad truth that is plaguing our times. I thought humanity had evolved to be better than that.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Public disclosure of the identity of individuals on the No Fly List or Selectee List would compromise the safety and security of passengers by providing terrorists with information that may reveal which of their members have been compromised”

Look – A Giant Wookie !!!! Who is asking for public disclosure of the entire lists? Those who are denied boarding have already found out they’re on the list. Are they forbidden from ever telling anyone (the equivalent of receiving an NSL) ? Nope. The airline knows, the person barred knows, and probably so do their family, work colleagues and friends. That horse has bolted. And if one of the people on the list really is a terrorist, does the US really expect people to believe that they (the terrorist) won’t tell their comrades ? Yep, look, there’s a Wookie.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Furthermore, if a terrorist finds out he’s on the list because he’s been denied, what’s he going to do. Do you really think he’s going to go to court to try to get himself removed from the list and spend all the money it takes to go through these sorts of legal shenanigans? No, he’s just going to find someone else that is not on the list to carry out his operation for him. Yep, it seems pretty hairy to me.

Matthew Cline (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Perhaps the scenario they’re afraid of is like this: a terrorist calls up the “no-fly list dispute” number and demands to be taken off the list. The person handling the call replies “sir, you aren’t even on the list” or replies “to get off the list you must [whatever]”. Now, without exposing themselves to any risk, the terrorist knows if they’ve been found out.

Of course, if they are afraid of something like that, then they could require that to challenge being on the list you have to initiate the challenge procedure in person, where either: 1) you’ll be arrested if you’re an actual terrorist, or 2) if you’re an actual terrorist who they want to monitor some more before arresting, they lie to you and say you aren’t on the list, thus giving the terrorists a false sense of security.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

” a terrorist calls up the “no-fly list dispute” number and demands to be taken off the list. ….
without exposing themselves to any risk, the terrorist knows if they’ve been found out.”

But the terrorist used a phone. There’s a drone program for that. Just zap anyone near the phone. Only a pre-criminal with a guilty conscience would want to know in advance.

The “dispute number” should only be available to individuals turned back (and it would be easy to give a unique number to each person).

Androgynous Cowherd says:

It's not just government.

I recently had the “pleasure” of debating some Republican-leaning nutbag on Usenet on the topic of border security. His contention? That there are thousands of Islamists swarming north across the border from Mexico and discarding Islamic prayer rugs on the fields of ranchers living in southern Texas.

First of all, I don’t see any sensible reason why a Muslim would abandon a perfectly good prayer rug.

Second, the contention that these alleged Mexican-border-crossing Muslims, if they even actually exist, are Islamist terrorists seems dubious in light of the fact that the only Islamists that have blown things up within US borders in recent years all got in on visas rather than sneaking undocumented across the Mexican border.

If these swarms of Muslims exist at all, then, it seems far likelier that they are refugees than that they are terrorists. If they were terrorists, wouldn’t they be causing some trouble and sometimes getting caught at it? The only way they wouldn’t be is if they had a large, long-range plan, but then we’re not talking terrorism anymore but a massively coordinated bona fide stealth invasion, and there’s no way that could be done without intelligence agencies intercepting stuff and finding out about it. Isolated terror cells can occasionally hide from the NSA, FBI, and others for long enough to carry out an attack, but a massive coordinated army could not hope to succeed at that.

What does all of this mean? That paranoia and, especially, anti-Muslim sentiment is not the sole province of government, and indeed is widespread on the political right among everyone from Tea Party officeholders down to random internet commentators; and that along with this paranoia and thinly-veiled racism comes an attitude that terrorism suspects and, especially, Muslims are to be regarded as guilty until proven innocent.

The fear has destroyed the reality indeed, and I fear it may already be too late to save the republic…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: In other words...

You mean in that fake confession video ? Come on now…everybody with a set of eyes and a brain knows that wasn’t him. Re: look at the obl videos right after 911 and that fat guy who the media fed us was obl bragging about doing anything. You seem smarter than to fall for that.

It’s all murky ancient history to most right now, which is the scariest thing of it all.

Anonymous Coward says:

and the McCarthy years were supposed to have died with ‘The Cold War’, but it appears that when accused of something, the facts dont matter, the truth doesn’t matter, all that is taken into account is what the government/security forces feel like doing on a particular day. if it’s arrest day, that’s it. no alternative. the only thing that appears to not be happening atm is the grabbing people from their homes in the middle of the night, for them never to be seen again! that remind you of another situation of a few decades ago? ask yourself how close we are now to resurrecting those dismal days?

Rekrul says:

Re: Re:

If everyone is concerned with the price of blood… why aren’t the billions being spent on the war on terror being put into vehicle safety?

Why aren’t the major chemical spills that are poisoning the water in the US being investigated with the same zeal that they would be if they were a supposed terrorist plot?

SoScared says:

Near Future Presidential Announcement

The TERRORISTS! are harmful to the people and democracy in the United States. The US government is here to protect the people and our democracy. We will strike the right balance to ensure that everyone is protected and our democratic way of life is sustained. With this goal ever in our sights, effective immediately, we will be suspending casual travel into and out of the country. If you have a need to enter or leave the country you will need to submit the proper request to the Department of Homeland Security at least 18 months in advance. This new process is being put in place to protect our citizens from those who would enter the country to do us harm. It also allows us time for TERRORISTS! already in the country to be identified and captured. To help capture these local TERRORISTS!, we will be implementing marshall law with a dusk to dawn curfew. To help protect and sustain a stable democratic government, we will be suspending all future elections, until further notice. This will keep TERRORISTS! from rigging our elections and allowing a TERRORIST! government control of our people. God bless this country and all true citizens.

Paul Renault (profile) says:

Not the first time this has happened.

Obviously. And it’s not just American spies fingering suspects on flimsy grounds, which even a cursory investigation would prove them to be non-existent grounds.

Ahmad El-Maati was arrested at the US/Canada border in August 2001 with a map of Canadian government buildings in the truck he was assigned by his employer.

He was interviewed by US Border officials then and later, after 9/11, by CSIS. After some time, frustrated by the on-going-nowhere police investigation, El-Maati returned to Syria to sort out some personal affairs.

Upon arriving in Syria, he was picked up by Syrian police and tortured into making a confession that he had been a part of a terrorism plot. The plot, via other torture-generated confessions implicated two fellow Syrian-Canadians, Maher Arar and Abdullah Almalki, who were then arrested and tortured.

He later retracted this confession.

From a The Globe & Mail article, four years later: “The Globe and Mail has learned that the map — scrawled numbers and all — was in fact produced and distributed by the Canadian federal government. It is simply a site map, given out to help visitors to Tunney’s Pasture, a sprawling complex of government buildings in Ottawa, find their way around.”

It took four years before it was finally acknowledged that the suspicious map was not suspicious after all.

In late January 2007, following the findings and recommendations of Canadian Federal investigation, the government officially apologized in Parliament and compensated Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati, Muayyed Nureddin, and Maher Arar.

In an April 2009 interview with the CBC’s Neil MacDonald, US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano stated that it is the opinion of those who have reviewed Arar’s case that “his status should not now be changed.” After pointing out Canada’s finding, she clarified this, saying “his status at least for admission to the United States purposes should not be changed.”


Erik Grant says:

I guess I just want to point out to the author and some others that the US absolutely has a vested interest in keeping the details behind the no-fly list secret. I’m not saying this case is justified, because it’s mind-bogglingly unconstitutional, but I do hope you all understand that there are valid security reasons to not letting terrorists know how it is compiled.

That said, it really only raises the burden on the government not to abuse this power and to have rigorous oversight of it’s use. If the government want to take more power and not explain itself, it inherently accepts the responsibility to use that power wisely or face the consequences in a court room.

Anonymous Coward says:

Judge William Alsup


You stated in your ruling you were limited in what you could do.

When did you as a judge loose the power to impose punishments and sanctions for giving false testimony to the court?

James Clapper, director of national intelligence, April 23, 2013,
Lied to the Court!
Mr. Clapper might have had a choice to give a DECLARATION for this case. That he do so and gave the DECLARATION he did is the LIE.
Granted He could have been lied to about the case, but that is not the courts problem to correct, it’s Mr. Clapper’s job to not lie to the court, if his people lied to him, it is Mr. Clapper’s problem.
Had Mr. Clapper been doing his Job, Some time shortly after his taking the position in August 2010, He should have corrected this problem. Just like the people in this position be for him should have corrected it.

As a judge you should impose punishments and sanctions to Mr Clapper. Not doing so allows Injustice to continue and get even worse.

Not doing so lets more citizens to be harmed and more cases for the courts to correct for harm that should not have happened.
Now can any court truly correct for the harms created by the government after the harm?

How many others with the government lied to the court for just this one case?
How many just did not do the job they were being paid to do?

Should the following people in addition to all the government lawyers be on the punishments and sanctions list for lies to the court?

Eric Holder, attorney general, April 23, 2013.

John R. Tyler, Department of Justice trial attorney, May 22, 2006.

Joseph C. Salvator, Transportation Security Administration then-deputy assistant administrator for intelligence, May 22, 2006

Anonymous Coward says:

Who is being terrorized?

The only group I see in fear of foreign terrorists is the government. The everyday citizen is more atuned to the probabilities and pretty much accept the risks they pose. We are more afraid (terrorized) by our own government’s overreach. Just as the government sees its citizens as the enemy, these same citizens see the government as the only group eroding our way of life.

David says:

Know what's funny about national security secrets?

This “don’t show, don’t tell” strategy perfectly well allows thwarting the Jewish World Conspiracy or whatever other lunacy the New Gestapo is willing to entertain.

What are you going to say when concentration camps outside of the U.S. itself are discovered? Oh sorry, they were already. I mean, what are you going to say if your soldiers invade foreign countries under shady excuses for securing resources? Oops, they did already.

Uh, soldiers hunting natives in occupied countries for fun? Manning got torture and 35 years or something like that for publishing the data containing those details.

In the interest of national security, it is kept a state secret that the U.S. is run by fascists from the military-industrial complex, with some alibi voting constructs in place that are indirect and unbalanced enough that they are neither Republican nor Democratic in the true sense of those words, and those who call themselves “Republicans” and “Democrats” are far more decoupled from their voters (there is a whole electorate system in between that separates votes from influence and the levers of power) than from the money and power pots of the fascist military-industrial complex running the country with changing sham presidents.

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