US Air Force Veteran, Finally Allowed to Fly Into US, Now Banned From Flying Back Home
Secret, unaccountable no-fly lists are one of many weapons the US government uses to extra-judicially punish American Muslims
In early November, I wrote about the infuriating story of Saadiq Long, the 43-year-old African-American Muslim who - despite having never been charged with any crime - was secretly placed on a no-fly list and thus barred from flying to the US to visit his seriously ill mother. When I met with Long in early November in Doha, Qatar, where he has lived for several years with his wife and her two children while teaching English, he was in the middle of his futile months-long battle just to find out why he was placed on this list, let alone how he could be removed.
Two weeks after that article was published, Long - without explanation - was finally removed from the no-fly list and he flew from Doha to Oklahoma City to visit his mother and other family members. He took several flights to make the 20-hour journey, all without incident. He has remained in Oklahoma for the last ten weeks, visiting his family in the US for the first time in over a decade.
But now Long - unbeknownst to him - has once again apparently been secretly placed by some unknown National Security State bureaucrat on the no-fly list. On Wednesday night, as Associated Press first reported, he went to the Will Rogers Airport in Oklahoma City to fly back home to Qatar. In order to ensure there were no problems, his lawyer sent the FBI a letter ahead of time notifying them that Long would be flying home on that date (see the embedded letter below).
But without explanation, Long was denied a boarding pass at the airport by a Delta Airlines agent. Three local police officers then arrived on the scene, followed by a US Transportation Security Administration agent who "told Long he couldn't board a plane but did not give him a specific reason".
Long's lawyer, Adam Soltani of the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), was with him at the airport and repeatedly asked agents why this was happening and who they should contact. He got no answers, except was told to contact the FBI. But both the FBI and Delta refused to comment to AP, while TSA spokesman David Castelveter would only say this:
"It's my understanding this individual was denied a boarding pass by the airline because he was on a no-fly list. The TSA does not confirm whether someone is or is not on the no-fly list, as that list is maintained by the FBI."
Long and his CAIR lawyers have thus far been told nothing about why he is barred once again from flying.
The personal cost to this injustice is obvious and substantial. Long has a job he needs to return to in Doha from which he has been away for more than two months, and his family needs that income for its sustenance. "I was extremely disappointed when I was unable to board the flight this past Wednesday," Long told me through his lawyer. "My family in Qatar feels crushed that I will not be returning home as expected."
The sense of humiliation and outrage should not be hard to fathom. Just imagine being a US citizen, denied the right to travel home - first to your own country, then back to your family - by a government that has never charged you with any crime or indicated you have engaged in wrongdoing of any sort. Imagine going to the airport and having local and federal agents arrive to prevent you from boarding a plane, treating you like a criminal - a Terrorist - without any tangible accusations. "I don't understand how the government can take away my right to travel without even telling me," he told me back in November. "If the US government wanted me to question or arrest or prosecute me, they could have had me in a minute. But there are no charges, no accusations, nothing."
But what's particularly infuriating here is that, if they had evidence that Long has done anything wrong, they easily could have arrested him at any point over the last ten weeks when he was in the US. The reality is that they could have arrested him at any time over the last decade because he has lived in three countries with highly US-loyal autocracies: Egypt, the UAE and Qatar. But he was never arrested, never charged with anything - just denied the basic right to travel.
Here is what CAIR's Gadeir Abbas told me about all of this on Thursday:
"It is not as if the FBI actually thinks Saadiq is a threat. If it did - and it had actual evidence - the FBI would simply arrest him. As they surely recall, they let him fly just a few months ago. It turns out, though, the only reason for doing so is because it is, in the FBI's view, slightly more indefensible to prevent an American citizen from flying home than it is to prevent him from flying abroad.
"And because we told the FBI ahead of time when Saadiq would be flying, hardly the behavior of a criminal, they could have stuck an air marshal right next to him. They could have subjected his person and luggage to extra scrutiny. But the FBI does not do these things because the No Fly List is not used to protect aircraft. This watchlist - and the many others like it - is a means by which the FBI metes out extra-judicial punishment."
How can anyone argue with that? Even leaving aside that he just flew into and around the US less than three months ago without incident, the very idea that he poses a threat to this flight is patently ludicrous given their advance knowledge that he was flying and the multiple precautions they could take if they really were concerned.
Plainly, air travel safety is not what any of this is about. It is about inventing ways to punish US Muslims and deprive them of the most basic rights without so much as providing any notice, let alone any due process that would enable the secret, unknown accusations to be discovered and rebutted. And it is a very common weapon.
Use of this repressive tactic has worsened significantly under the Obama administration. Last February, Associated Press learned that "the Obama administration has more than doubled, to about 21,000 names, its secret list of suspected terrorists who are banned from flying to or within the United States, including about 500 Americans." Moreover, as I detailed last November based on that AP report:
"Worse, the Obama administration 'lowered the bar for being added to the list'. As a result, reported AP, 'now a person doesn't have to be considered only a threat to aviation to be placed on the no-fly list' but can be included if they 'are considered a broader threat to domestic or international security', a vague status determined in the sole and unchecked discretion of unseen DHS bureaucrats."
There should be no doubt of the FBI's desire to harass Long. Although they never charged him with any crime or arrested him while he was in Oklahoma, he was, along with his sister, Ava Anderson, handcuffed and put on the ground the day after Thanksgiving after they drove to their local police department in fear when they noticed they were being followed. It turns out that the FBI had falsely told local police that Long and his sister were "fleeing felons", but when the local police learned that was false, they never arrested Long or his sister. They were simply told to leave without explanation. Here's a video report of these incidents from a local Oklahoma television station back in December.
As Abbas told me after that incident occurred: "Our sense is that a particular FBI agent, or perhaps a small group of them, in Oklahoma City are looking to inflict some pain on Saadiq and his family - maybe in retaliation for the embarrassment he caused them or the thousands of emails that ended up getting sent to their field office there."
The worst part of all of this is the complete lack of remedy available to Long. Abbas told me: "unfortunately, because of arcane jurisdictional complications, we don't think seeking a preliminary injunction is necessarily an expeditious option for getting Saadiq on a plane." Even worse:
"We'll likely try again in a couple of weeks, but if there isn't some change by then, this puts Saadiq in the position of rolling the dice and trying to get to a country by land or sea that will actually let him fly. Even in these situations, however, we've seen detentions and interrogations by foreign authorities, such as here and here."
So now he's just in a no-man's land. He can't contest the accusations against him because there are none. After being blocked for months from visiting his own country and his terminally ill mother, he's now barred from returning to his home, his job, and his own family. All of this is done by his own government without a shred of due process, transparency or accountability.
When I wrote on Tuesday about the Obama DOJ's "white paper" justifying due-process-free presidential assassinations, I wrote that "the core distortion of the War on Terror under both Bush and Obama is the Orwellian practice of equating government accusations of terrorism with proof of guilt" and that "if the US government simply asserts without evidence or trial that someone is a terrorist, then they are assumed to be, and they can then be punished as such." This is exactly what I was talking about: I'm sure there will be no shortage of people justifying this by insisting that he must have done something wrong: even though the government has never said what that is, offered evidence for it, or provided any opportunity for the accusations to be independently examined.
This is also a perfect example of what New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal meant when he wrote last March that the US now has "what's essentially a separate justice system for Muslims". State punishment without charges and trials is now perfectly normal - for Muslims.
CAIR letter to FBI:
© 2013 The Guardian