FBI Scores Itself Another Lawsuit For Using The No Fly List To Punish A Lebanese Man For Not Becoming An Informant
from the FBI's-carrot-still-mainly-just-laying-off-the-stick-for-a-bit dept
For years, the FBI has threatened brown people with a miserable existence unless they’re willing to become informants. What should be illegal somehow isn’t — or at least hasn’t generated enough courtroom precedent to force the FBI to knock it off.
The FBI routinely approaches Muslims and people traveling to and from countries the US government considers questionable and tries to intimidate them into ratting out their friends, family members, and colleagues. Whether or not there’s actually any ratting out to do seems to be, at best, a secondary concern. The FBI has spent years using informants to radicalize people, which it then arrests the moment they become radicalized enough. The FBI’s counterterrorism budget depends on a healthy stable of informants and so the pressure tactics continue unabated.
The stick deployed most often is placement on the “No Fly” list, which makes it impossible to travel around the country, much less overseas to visit family and friends. The other stick is abuse of the immigration process. Visas can be revoked, family members removed, and other unpleasantness inflicted should someone reject these very forward advances from FBI agents.
We’re still waiting for the judicial hammer to come down. It looks like it may finally be on its way. A lawsuit filed in 2014 over these tactics was recently given the green light to proceed by the Supreme Court.
Another lawsuit has been filed against the FBI for its months of pressure tactics deployed against Ahmad Chebli, a Lebanese man who was first approached by the FBI in 2018, which utilized a local government agency to trick Chebli into having a “conversation” with them. From the lawsuit [PDF]:
The FBI’s initial contact with Mr. Chebli was deceptive. On August 21, 2018, Mr. Chebli received a call from an individual who identified himself as an employee of the Roseville, Michigan Building Department. The caller informed Mr. Chebli that a Roseville gas station that Mr. Chebli leased and helped to manage was in violation of city permit requirements and requested that Mr. Chebli come in to discuss the matter in person. Mr. Chebli was concerned about any such violation and wanted to clear it up.
On August 23, Mr. Chebli arrived at Roseville City Hall. He was led to a conference room where two men were waiting for him. They told Mr. Chebli that they wanted to talk to him and that he was free to leave whenever he wanted. The men then identified themselves as FBI agents. Mr. Chebli did not feel that he could voluntarily leave. The door to the conference room was closed during the entirety of the one and a half hour meeting. Mr. Chebli never heard from city officials about any city permit “violation,” and it never came up again after this meeting.
The agents asked Chebli to show them he was not recording the meeting. Once the agents were assured only their official version of this time-shares-but-for-terrorism pitch session would be the only version on record, they proceeded to threaten Chebli and accuse him of being a terrorist.
Chebli told the FBI agents he wasn’t interested. He had a steady job, a good life with his family, and moral objections to befriending FBI targets just so they could get set up and arrested. That angered the agents, who baselessly accused him of being a “Hezbollah agent.” They also told him lying to federal agents is a felony (which it is) and claimed they could make all of this trouble (they had instigated) “go away” if he would just work for the FBI.
Chebli again refused. The agents then stated Chebli and his family would be subjected to surveillance, an investigation would be opened, and that there was a good chance it might end in the arrest of Chebli and his wife. They also said refusing to work with the FBI would cause problems for his wife’s immigration application. They also said they would issue a “blue notice” — something that would be disseminated to other government agencies identifying Chebli as a suspected terrorist.
Since Chebli didn’t want any of this to happen, he continued to meet with the FBI agents. But he continued to refuse to become an informant. Since he no longer felt his family was safe in the US, he sent them back to Lebanon. After they left the airport, the FBI called Chebli to let him know his wife had gone through security without any problems, which made it clear agents were engaging in the surveillance they had threatened.
After several more fruitless meetings, Chebli decided things might be better for him if he left the United States for a month. When he tried to return after failing to find a stable source of income in Lebanon, he finally understood why the agents were so willing to help him leave.
On November 24, 2018, Mr. Chebli attempted to fly back to the United States. When he arrived at the Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport, he handed his passport to the check-in agent, and noticed an alert come up on the agent’s screen. The agent called a supervisor, who informed Mr. Chebli that she had received an email from the United States government indicating that he could not board the plane, and he needed to consult the U.S. Embassy. When Mr. Chebli sought more information about why he was being denied boarding, the supervisor repeated that he should contact the embassy.
After getting no useful answers from the FBI and the US Embassy, Chebli decided to contact the DHS. That’s when he discovered what the FBI had done in retaliation for his refusal to cooperate.
On December 20, 2018, Mr. Chebli received confirmation from DHS TRIP that he was on the No Fly List. The DHS TRIP letter stated that Mr. Chebli could “request additional information about your placement on the No Fly List and have the opportunity to respond to any information provided if you believe that the above determination is in error.” The letter further stated that if Mr. Chebli wished to request additional information, he was required to contact DHS TRIP within 30 days.
Thanks to other lawsuits, the DHS now actually has some form of recourse for travelers on this list. But, like so many other things the government is forced to do by court decisions, the DHS wasn’t all that interested in holding up its end of the agreement. It never provided Chebli with an answer about his No Fly status. The ACLU (which is representing Chebli) secured a waiver so he could fly back to the United State.
Almost two years later, Chebli tried to board a domestic flight. He was again informed he was on the No Fly list. He was subjected to multiple, lengthy searches and screenings. When he arrived back in Michigan, he was once again accosted by FBI agents.
Now fully aware of his rights and determined not to be coerced, Mr. Chebli answered the FBI agents’ questions about his travel but refused to respond to any other questions. The agents then asked Mr. Chebli who was taking care of his children. Mr. Chebli questioned why they were asking about his children. One of the FBI agents named a man Mr. Chebli did not know, and said, “You need to cooperate with us. He has two daughters similar in age to your kids, and they’re safe right now because he chose to cooperate with us.” The agents also asserted that they would denaturalize Mr. Chebli’s wife. Mr. Chebli knew they could not take this action because his wife was not yet a U.S. citizen, but he also knew that a decision on her naturalization application had been inexplicably delayed for months. Concerned about the FBI’s threats, Mr. Chebli asked if he was free to leave, and when he did not get a straight answer, he called his ACLU lawyer, who asked to speak with the FBI agents. At that point, the FBI agents told Mr. Chebli he could leave.
Chebli again tried to get some answers from the DHS about his No Fly status. He submitted his request in February 2021. As of the date of this filing (April 6), he still has yet to receive a response.
There’s a long list of rights violations here. And none of this is going to change until the courts tell the DOJ the FBI cannot threaten and intimidate people to encourage them to become informants. Since these “meetings” are informal and unrecorded, the FBI can always argue it isn’t doing this, even though there are dozens — if not hundreds — of people who’ve been subjected to the same coercive tactics described in this lawsuit. Applying pressure to create informants so the FBI can continue to rack up easy counterterrorism wins isn’t making the country any safer. But it’s definitely making the country worse.