A West Haven man claims he refused to become an FBI informant.
The result, Naveed Shinwari says in court papers, was he was put on the United States no-fly list and was unable to board a flight to take a temporary job in Florida. The Afghani American and practicing Muslim said he lost his expected income from that job and was out $4,000 total in expenses and fees from multiple lost flights. Additionally, Shinwari said he has been unable to visit his wife and other relatives in Afghanistan.
That’s all according to his complaint filed in the U.S. District for the Southern District of New York in April. Shinwari and three other plaintiffs allege they are being deprived of due process by being placed on the Transportation Security Administration’s no-fly list even though they argue they do not pose a threat to aviation safety.
The case is being prosecuted by the CLEAR Project, which is part of the City University of New York School of Law; the Center for Constitutional Rights; and Debevoise & Plimpton LLP.
Legal experts said that Shinwari’s case is likely to be one of many in which plaintiffs go to court to challenge inclusion on the no-fly list. A California federal judge’s recent decision requiring the government to remove the name of a Malaysian Muslim architect from all governmental terrorism databases is likely inspiring Shinwari’s case, said Sudha Setty, a professor at Western New England University School of Law. Setty’s national security research focuses partly on the inability of people to access the court system to address counter-terrorism abuses.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup, of the Northern District of California, ruled in Ibrahim v. Department of Homeland Security that Rabinah Ibrahim was placed on the no-fly list by mistake. An FBI agent filled out the form “in a way exactly opposite from the instructions on the form, a bureaucratic analogy to a surgeon amputating the wrong digit—human errors, yes, but of considerable consequence.”
Even though Ibrahim was placed on the no-fly list by error, the derogatory information propagated through “the government’s interlocking complex of databases [was] like a bad credit report that will never go away,” the judge said.
The positive impact of the Ibrahim decision for “people interested in civil rights and civil liberties” is that those included on the no-fly list now have access to judicial review, Setty said. “That ends up motivating complaints like this one getting filed,” she said. “They are looking at the Ibrahim case and saying, ‘I can try to get my case heard.’”
Susan Hu, one of Shinwari’s attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights, said that while a California court does not bind a New York court, “we’re hopeful that the [California] decision will be a positive precedent for us.”
There have been other challenges to the no-fly list before, Hu said, but what is novel about this case is the ways in which the FBI “exploits the secrecy of the no-fly list” to coerce people into becoming informants. “What we’re really asking for this case is for the government to be transparent about its process and to be accountable for its misuse of power,” Hu said.
In his lawsuit, Shinwari said he is a lawful permanent resident in the United States, and that in March 2012 he “declined to work as an informant because he believed that it was dangerous, and because it violated his sincerely held personal and religious beliefs.”
Shinwari and the other plaintiffs — Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah and Awais Sajjad — said people are supposed to be placed on the no-fly list only if there is reasonable suspicion they are known to be or suspected to be terrorists and there is some other “derogatory information” indicating they pose a threat of committing a terrorist act.
But the plaintiffs said the only thing they have done is exercise their constitutional rights.
Shinwari also stated that FBI agents offered to remove him from the no-fly list if he became an informant. But, if he truly posed a threat to aviation safety, there was no way they could actually remove him, he stated. The FBI’s New York City press office declined comment.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has been a “mixed bag” in terms of plaintiffs getting access to the courts for review of counter-terrorism abuses, Setty said. The Ninth Circuit tends to be more concerned with civil rights and liberties, she said.
Generally, people who have been pressured into becoming informants have not been successful in prosecuting lawsuits on that fact alone, Setty said, because their unwillingness to work as informants is viewed potentially as providing material support to terrorists. But affecting someone’s right to travel without due process could be another matter, Setty said.
Richard S. Kay, a constitutional law professor at the University of Connecticut, agreed the Ibrahim case has shown that courts do have jurisdiction over people’s placement on the no-fly list and that people are entitled to some form of relief. The question for courts is if there was procedural due process before and after the plaintiffs’ liberty to travel was curtailed and what the government’s interest was in curtailing that right, Kay said.
The plaintiffs also argued being placed on the no fly list violates their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, association and religion.
“Many American Muslims, like many other Americans, and many followers of other religions, have sincerely held religious and other objections against becoming informants in their own communities, particularly when they are asked to inform on the communities as a whole rather than specific individuals reasonably suspected of wrongdoing,” the plaintiffs said. “Acting as an informant would require them to lie and would interfere with their ability to associate with other members of their communities on their own terms.”
Kay said the First Amendment claim “seems a little strained on the face of it” and less compelling than the due process argument.
Shinwari said that in March he was able to get on a commercial flight for the first time in two years. According to court papers, he does not know if he was granted a temporary waiver to travel one time or if he is now removed from the no-fly list.