one of the plaintiffs in the ACLU suit challenging the US government’s no-fly list.
staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project.
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against top Justice Department and FBI officials on behalf of ten Americans and legal residents on the government’s no-fly list. We speak with one of the plaintiffs, twenty-two-year-old Adama Bah, who’s lived in the US since she was two years old. She got political asylum from Guinea to prevent her undergoing genital mutilation. We also speak with ACLU attorney Ben Wizner. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We go now to the government’s no-fly list, which, reports indicate, has roughly doubled to 8,000 names since the failed bombing attempt on a Detroit-bound flight last Christmas. People on the list can’t fly to or from the United States or over US airspace.
Well, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU, has filed a lawsuit against top Justice Department and FBI officials on behalf of ten Americans and legal residents on the government’s no-fly list. Five of them remain stranded overseas. Three are veterans. Not one of the ten people named in the lawsuit has been given any information about why they’re on the list or a chance to clear their names.
I’m joined here in New York by two people. Adama Bah is one of the plaintiffs in the case. She’s twenty-two years old. She’s a citizen of Guinea and was granted political asylum here in the United States, where she has lived since she was two years old. She fought against being sent back to Guinea, where she faced female genital mutilation. She found out she was on the list last year when she was trying to fly to El Paso. We’re also joined by Ben Wizner, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Ben, start off by saying what you have found and who these ten people are.
BEN WIZNER: Well, as you said, the list has expanded dramatically since the 25th of December, since that failed attack in Detroit. And although the government tells newspapers that the list is 8,000, we have to understand that the impact of that is vastly magnified, because that includes the 8,000 individuals on the list and the many, many, many thousands more who have names that are similar to those people. So I think that saying that it’s 8,000, even though the number is way too large, probably understates the problem.
We at the ACLU have been contacted by so many people who find themselves in this situation. They show up at an airport. They are denied boarding. The government will not confirm or deny that they’re on a list, will not give them any reason for why they can’t board, will not show them any evidence for why they can’t get on these flights. The only recourse that someone like Adama has is to go to a government website, to put in her name, and hope that some bureaucrat somewhere will correct the mistake or maybe change his mind about the situation. As you said, some of our plaintiffs are American citizens who are stuck overseas, who have been placed literally into exile by their government by virtue of a secret government blacklist.
AMY GOODMAN: And the ten people you’re representing, the veterans?
BEN WIZNER: Three of the plaintiffs of these ten are veterans of the Army, Air Force and Marines, who now find themselves in this situation. I think there’s been this, you know, general freakout in the government since December 25th, and the attitude must be "Dump them all on the list, we’ll sort it out later, we can’t let anybody get through who might conceivably present a threat." But remember, even if you’re charged with a serious crime in this country, you’re told what the charges are, you’re given a lawyer, you’re given a chance to object and defend yourself. These people have absolutely no legal recourse whatsoever.
AMY GOODMAN: Adama Bah, explain what happened to you.
ADAMA BAH: Well, the first thing that happened is I went to check in, and they said, "See a ticket agent." So I stepped up to the ticket agent, and immediately they got on the phone. They called security. So many people came, but nobody told me why I was on a list or how to get off of the list.
AMY GOODMAN: Which airport did you go to?
ADAMA BAH: LaGuardia Airport.
AMY GOODMAN: LaGuardia.
ADAMA BAH: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And what exactly happened when you went there?
ADAMA BAH: When I went there, I just went to the ticket agent, showed her my ID. She typed in my name and just got on the phone. And from there on, you know, TSA was coming in, federal agents, Homeland Security, but nobody was telling me what’s going on, why am I on a list.
BEN WIZNER: Adama took out her cell phone and called me, because I had been helping her with another matter. I jumped into a taxi and said to her, "Don’t speak to anyone until I get there." When I arrived at the airport, we got there just before an FBI agent and a member of the Joint Terrorism Task Force arrived. We all went into a private room, where a really extraordinary scene unfolded. Even with a lawyer at her side, they would give her no information. Instead of telling her why she was on a no-fly list, they asked her why she thought she was on a no-fly list. They asked her to give names of people who she was associated with, who they might be interested in speaking to. And I said, "Absolutely not. She will answer questions if you have specific questions, but this is a fishing expedition for incriminating information about other people. This is not how it’s going to work." And I just wonder what happens in those rooms when there isn’t an ACLU lawyer sitting next to the person on the list.
AMY GOODMAN: Adama, many people may remember your story and not remember it’s you, the person who’s speaking here today. But explain what happened to you, how you got political asylum in the United States.
ADAMA BAH: Well, I came to this country when I was two years old with my mother. And when I was sixteen, I was detained for immigration reasons. I didn’t know I was illegal, so that’s when I found out. After three years of battling, I got an asylum in 2007. I wore an ankle bracelet for three-and-a-half years.
AMY GOODMAN: Wait, explain why you got the political asylum, what it was you faced in getting it.
ADAMA BAH: Well, I got the political asylum, because in my country, they circumcise women. So...
AMY GOODMAN: And you were afraid, if you went back —-
ADAMA BAH: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —- this would happen to you, as it did to all the women members of your family?
ADAMA BAH: All the women in my family have gotten it done, even my mother.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did you wear an ankle bracelet?
ADAMA BAH: They wanted to track my immigration. I don’t know.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, you wore that for — now, going back to an article in 2006, "Young Woman Fears Deportation and Mutilation," from the New York Times, by Nina Berinstein. "Adama Bah’s schoolmates were jubilant when she returned to 10th grade at Heritage High School in Manhattan in May 2005 after six weeks in a distant juvenile detention center. Her release put to rest the federal government’s unexplained assertion that Adama, a popular 16-year-old who wore jeans under her Islamic garb, was a potential suicide bomber.
"But a year and a half later, with many of her friends planning proms and applying to college, Ms. Bah, now 18" — this was a few years ago — "was still wearing an electronic ankle bracelet and tethered to a 10 p.m. government curfew, restrictions that were conditions of her release." This is when you were still facing deportation?
ADAMA BAH: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: But today, you’re twenty-two years old. Why were you going to El Paso?
ADAMA BAH: I was just going to travel, to take a vacation. It was three years on ankle bracelet. My ankle bracelet was taken off. I just wanted to take a vacation.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you think you were off this list?
ADAMA BAH: The thing is that I flew before to Florida. So I didn’t think I would be on a list. So when I went to travel to El Paso, that’s how I found out.
AMY GOODMAN: Ben Wizner, how do people find out they’re on the list, unless they go to the airport? And what are the ways you can get off the list?
BEN WIZNER: Well, you can’t find out unless you try to fly, because there’s no government source of information that will confirm or deny. I suppose you could try to be clever and buy a fully refundable ticket and see if you’re able to print out a boarding pass at home, but that’s really the only way that you could find out, because the government does not give you any information about this. You can go to a government website, on the Department of Homeland Security’s website, which purports to provide redress, but all it does is collect information from you. You can describe the incident. You can give your identifying information. And then you have to hope that someone somewhere else will look at that information and change their mind. But the Department of Homeland security, which runs that website, doesn’t even have the authority to take you off the list. That authority resides in the FBI, which doesn’t interact with the public. I mean, this basically is a Kafkaesque program that really doesn’t give you any reasonable way to rebut the evidence or, in many cases, innuendo against you.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the American citizen who’s being prevented from coming into this country from Egypt?
BEN WIZNER: Well, and we have several, but this man, Ayman Latif, who is a veteran of the US armed forces, who worked for the Postal Service, was in government employ for fifteen years, is living in Egypt with his family. He needed to return to Florida for a veteran’s disability evaluation, so that his benefits wouldn’t be cut by several hundreds of dollars. This is a disabled US Marine. He tried to fly back. He was not allowed to board the flight. He wasn’t given any information about it. He’s been waiting for months. FBI agents have flown to Egypt from Florida to interview him. He’s answered every question. He took a polygraph exam, which he said that he passed. They still won’t tell him why he’s on the list. They still won’t tell him what he needs to do to get off. This really is a deprivation of his citizenship. There’s no legal basis for the US government to keep a citizen abroad, and the government will confirm that. So they’re using this no-fly list to accomplish something that is profoundly unconstitutional.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the Somali American family, whose son Yahya Wehelie is also stranded in Cairo?
BEN WIZNER: Well, and I should tell you, I don’t represent Mr. Wehelie, but he finds himself in exactly the same situation. This is a US citizen who is in Egypt trying to get back to the United States, again, has answered every question that FBI agents have asked him. And it seems like what the FBI is doing with these Americans stuck abroad is that it’s taking advantage of their situation to try to do what they did with Adama: to ask questions about anyone they might have met anywhere, just to cast the widest possible net and to get people to, in some cases, even try to be informants against others. The result is that we have US citizens who are separated from their own country without any legal justification.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Adama, so you’re born in Guinea. You come here. You learn that you are not a citizen — actually, when you’re a teenager. But in 2005, your father is deported, though there’s such outcry over you, a popular teenager in high school at Heritage High, that they allow you to stay. You, though, can’t finish high school, because you have to support your family. You have four —
ADAMA BAH: I actually did finish high school, but I still have to support my family.
AMY GOODMAN: And you have four brothers and sisters here?
ADAMA BAH: Yes, I do.
AMY GOODMAN: And your mom.
ADAMA BAH: Yes, I do.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, what do you plan to do now?
ADAMA BAH: Well, I hope to get off the no-fly list and see what the future holds for me.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will leave it there, and we will certainly continue to follow this lawsuit. Adama Bah, citien of Guinea who applied and gained political asylum here in the United States, where she’s lived since she was two years old, she is on the government’s no-fly list, as thousands of people are. Ben Wizner is staff attorney in the ACLU’s National Security Project. ACLU has just brought suit on behalf of ten Americans and residents to challenge the no-fly list.