Archive for the ‘Secret Law’ Category

Sai v. TSA: A case study in TSA secrecy

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

Time and time again, the TSA has acted as though its middle name was “secrecy” rather than “security”.

Case in point: Sai v. TSA.

There’s a lot at issue in this case, but here are some of the problems with the TSA that it has exposed:

Sai poses no threat to aviation security. He has an unusual but recognized medical condition, attested to by documentation from his doctor that he carries when he travels, for which he needs ready access to liquids.  The TSA is required by law to accommodate such medical disabilities, as it easily could.  TSA press releases claim that travelers are allowed to bring medically necessary liquids through TSA checkponts in any quantity.

But TSA employees at airport checkpoints at Logan Airport in Boston and the TSA contractors who staff the checkpoints at San Francisco International Airport have, among other improper actions, seized Sai’s medical liquids, denied him access to his medical liquids while detaining him, and refused to allow him to pass through checkpoints or travel by air unless he abandoned his medical liquids.

While detaining Sai, TSA employees and contractors have conducted searches unrelated to weapons or explosives (but directly related to activities protected by the First Amendment), including reading through and copying documents Sai was carrying.

The TSA has never tried to claim that any of these actions were justified by “security” concerns. Instead, the TSA has responded to Sai’s requests for information, administrative complaints, and eventual federal lawsuit solely on the basis of secrecy, when it has responded at all, arguing that it isn’t required to divulge anything about what it has done, why, or whether it is justified.

The TSA claims to practice “layered security,” but Sai’s saga shows how the TSA actually practices “layered secrecy” to shield its activities from public and judicial accountability.

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Lawsuit challenges “watchlisting” of Michigan Muslims

Thursday, August 14th, 2014

A lawsuit filed today in Federal District Court in Michigan challenges “the widespread government practice of placing names on watch lists without providing individuals with any notice of the factual basis for their placement and without offering a meaningful opportunity to contest the designation.”

According to the complaint:

This lawsuit is an expression of anger grounded in law.  Our federal government is imposing an injustice of historic proportions upon the Americans who have filed this action, as well as thousands of others.  Through extra-judicial and secret means, the federal government is ensnaring individuals into an invisible web of consequences that are imposed indefinitely and without recourse as a result of the shockingly large federal watch lists that now include hundreds of thousands of individuals.

So far as we can tell, this is the first lawsuit informed by the publication last month of the US government’s “Watchlisting Guidance“, and last week of a breakdown of who has been “watchlisted”.

These leaked documents, published by The Intercept, make clear that names can be added to “terrorism” watchlists without any individualized basis for suspicion. They also confirmed the overwhelming focus of “terrorist” watchlisting on Arab and Muslim Americans. The leaked documents don’t explicitly categorize watchlist entries by religion or ethnicity, but the correlation is strongly suggested by the fact that more people in Dearborn, Michigan, have been watchlisted than people in any other U.S. city except New York.  Dearborn has only 96,000 people, but 40% of them — the highest percentage of any U.S. city — are of Arab descent.  Not surprisingly in light of this pattern of watchlisting, the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) has played a leading role in challenges to watchlisting practices and consequences.

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US government’s witchhunting manual made public

Monday, July 28th, 2014

The Intercept has published the March 2013 edition of the US government’s Watchlisting Guidance. This 166-page document, previously kept secret as Sensitive Security Information (SSI), provides standardized but not legally binding “guidance” to Federal executive agencies as to how, on what basis, and by whom entries are to be added to or removed from terrorism-related government “watchlists”, and what those agencies are supposed to do when they “encounter” (virtually or in the flesh) people who appear to match entries on those lists.

The Intercept didn’t say how it obtained the document.

The “Watchlisting Guidance” is the playbook for the American Stasi, the internal operations manual for a secret political police force.  As such, it warrants careful and critical scrutiny.

Most of the initial reporting and commentary about the “Watchlisting Guidance” has focused on the substantive criteria for adding individuals and groups to terrorism watchlists.  Entire categories of people can be added to watchlists without any basis for individualized suspicion, as discussed in Section 1.59 on page 26 of the PDF.

These criticisms of the watchlisting criteria are well-founded. But we think that there are at least as fundamental problems with what this document shows about the watchlisting procedures and the watchlist system as a whole.

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Is it a “state secret” that the no-fly list is unfair?

Monday, July 14th, 2014

Faced with a series of decisions by federal District Court judges that the procedures for putting names on the “no-fly” list lack the due process of law required by the Constitution, and with more no-fly and “watchlist” (blacklist) cases on track toward trial, the government is trying to claim that the basis (if any) for putting a US citizen on the no-fly list is a “state secret” exempt from judicial review.

The case of Gulet Mohamed, a Virginia teenager who was placed on the US no-fly list while he was visiting family members overseas, is one of the most egregious examples of the FBI’s systematic abuse of the no-fly list. It appears that Mr. Mohamed was placed on the no-fly list in order to pressure him to become an FBI informer, as was done with many other US citizens. When Mr. Mohamed’s visa expired and he couldn’t fly home to the USA, he was taken into immigration detention in Kuwait, where he “was repeatedly beaten and tortured by his interrogators,” one of whom spoke “perfect American English.”

After a series of government attempts to get Mr. Mohamed’s complaint dismissed for on jurisdictional and other grounds were rejected, the case was set for the first trial ever on the merits of a no-fly order. (The government had avoided such a trial in the case of Dr. Rahinah Ibrahim by conceding, on the eve of trial, that her initial placement on the no-fly list had been an FBI mistake.)

At this point, however, the government has invoked the “nuclear option” by moving to dismiss Mr. Mohamed’s complaint on the basis of a declaration by Attorney General Eric Holder that the reason (if any) why Mr. Mohamed is on the no-fly list is a “state secret” and that it would endanger national security to allow the court to review the no-fly decision or the evidence (if any) supporting it.

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Court rules “no-fly” review procedures lack due process

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

In a significant reaffirmation of the decision earlier this year in Ibrahim v. DHS, another federal District Court has now found that the US government’s administrative procedures for reviewing and appealing “no-fly” decisions violate both Constitutional standards of due process and the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act.

The ruling this week by Judge Anna J. Brown of the US District Court for the District of Oregon, in Portland, comes in the case of Latif, et al. v. Holder, et al. This lawsuit was brought in 2010 by the ACLU on behalf of ten US citizens and permanent residents (green card holders). Their stories, as summarized in Judge Brown’s latest ruling, vary, but all of them have been prevented from boarding international flights to or from the US, and/or overflying US airspace.

Some of the plaintiffs in Latif v. Holder have been trapped in the US, separated from family and/or employment opportunities abroad, while others are trapped overseas, unable to return home. At least one of the plaintiffs who booked passage on a passenger-carrying ocean freighter to return to Europe from the USA was denied boarding by the ship’s captain as a result of a “recommendation” from the US Customs and Border Protection division of DHS.

In 2012, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the government’s effort to prevent the District Court from hearing this case. Last year, finally beginning to consider the merits of the complaint, Judge Brown ruled that international travel by air is a right that can only be restricted in accordance with due process of law.

Judge Brown’s latest ruling addresses whether the government’s current procedures, particularly the DHS “Traveler Redress Inquiry Program” (TRIP), provide such due process. Judge Brown has now decided that they do not, and must be changed to provide the subjects of no-fly orders with:

  1. Notice (at least after they have been denied boarding on an international flight and sought redress) of whether they are on the US government’s no-fly list.
  2. At least a summary of the nature of the “suspicion” and the evidentiary basis for the administrative decision to place them on the no-fly list.
  3. An opportunity for some sort of in-person hearing to present evidence to rebut the allegations and evidence against them.

Echoing Judge Alsup’s finding in Ibrahim v. DHS, Judge Brown found that the opportunity to submit exculpatory or rebuttal evidence through the TRIP program is meaningless without notice of what allegations have been made, on what evidentiary basis, and thus of what needs to be rebutted.

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Can the TSA retroactively declare public information “secret”?

Sunday, June 1st, 2014

At the request of the government, the Supreme Court has agreed to review the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in favor of Robert MacLean, a TSA “air marshal” who was fired for telling a journalist, members of Congress, and the DHS Office of the Inspector General about an unclassified text message that the TSA,  three years later, would designate as “Sensitive Security Information” (SSI).

Mr. MacLean challenged his firing as being in violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act, which prohibits retaliation against Federal government employees for certain types of disclosures of information.  But the law has an exception for disclosures “specifically prohibited by law.”

A 3-judge panel of the Court of Appeals found that the ex post facto administrative designation of the text message by the TSA as SSI did not make its disclosure “specifically prohibited by law.”  The Court of Appeals unanimously denied the government’s petition for rehearing en banc.  Now the Supreme Court has decided to hear the case, DHS v. MacLean, during its 2014-2015 term.

The issue presented to the Supreme Court is the meaning of the phrase, “specifically prohibited by law,” in the Whistleblower Protection Act.  But the case is also necessarily about the extent of the TSA’s authority to create “secrets” retroactively and by administrative fiat.

Federal laws and regulations shouldn’t be interpreted by the courts as though they were written in Orwell’s Newspeak.  Information known to the public is not “secret”. The TSA cannot make it “secret” by retroactive administrative action, and should not be allowed to punish those who talk about or disseminate it.

TSA includes all air travelers in pre-crime profiling

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

TSA-Pre-Crime

Since late last year, we’ve gotten several inquires from readers wondering why they got a boarding pass marked “TSA Pre-Check” or were sent through the “Pre-Check” lane at a TSA checkpoint even though they hadn’t participated in the “TSA Pre-Check Application Program”.

The confusion stems from the TSA’s own misleading publicity about the program, which tries to persuade travelers “voluntarily” to provide additional information to be used by the TSA, in exchange for the hope of being subjected to slightly less intrusive searches at TSA checkpoints.

The logical (but wrong) inferences are that TSA Pre-Check is a members-only program, and that the Pre-Check lane at a TSA checkpoint is only for those travelers who have “applied” and been “accepted” into the program.

There are actually three distinct components to “TSA Pre-Check” as a pre-crime scheme:

  1. “Voluntary” submission and collection of additional personal information about those travelers who chose to participate in the TSA Pre-Check Application Program.
  2. Pre-crime profiling of all travelers and determination of a “risk assessment” score for each traveler, based on all information available to the TSA including the information, if any, submitted through the TSA Pre-Check Application Program.
  3. Graduated treatment of travelers at TSA checkpoints, including searches of varied intrusiveness and potential total denial of passage, on the basis of these risk assessments and other secret algorithms.

Only the application component of the program — the submission of additional personal information by travelers to the TSA — is voluntary.  The TSA obtains information from various sources about all travelers. All travelers are profiled. All travelers are assigned risk assessment (pre-crime) scores based on whatever information is available to the TSA.  All travelers are subjected to a more or less intrusive search, and may or may not be allowed to pass through the checkpoint, on the basis of these scores and other secret factors.

Some travelers who are assigned sufficiently low risk assessment scores and meet other secret criteria are directed to the “Pre-Check” lane and subjected to slightly less intrusive searches, regardless of whether they participated in the TSA Pre-Check Application Program.  The TSA calls this process “managed inclusion” in TSA Pre-Check.

A traveler whose risk assessment score is low enough, and who meets the other secret criteria (again, regardless of whether they participated in the TSA Pre-Check Application Program) can be selected for less intrusive search when she applies for a boarding pass.  The TSA’s assignment of such a traveler to the Pre-Check lane is sent to the airline with, or as part of, the permission message or Boarding Pass Printing Result (BPPR) for that traveler sent to the airline by the TSA.

The TSA’s Pre-Check designation is printed on the boarding pass and included in a 2D bar code in IATA-standard format. “For flights originating in the USA, the digital signing of barcodes and the management of security certificates and key pairs is required by the TSA.”

The TSA also assigns some travelers to Pre-Check lanes on the spot at its checkpoints, using secret criteria and techniques including a randomizer app (like the magical Sorting Hat at Hogwarts) to determine how intrusively to search each person.

Through this process, the TSA chooses one of four basic levels of search and seizure for each traveler:

  1. “TSA Pre-Check” (slightly less intrusive search)
  2. “Standard screening” (including virtual strip-search or manual groping)
  3. “Secondary screening” (more intrusive search including more thorough groping)
  4. “No-fly” (denial of the right to travel by common carrier, possibly accompanied by other adverse actions)

There are refinements within these basic categories. In a document filed with the court following the trial of Dr. Rahinah Ibrahim’s lawsuit challenging her placement on the no-fly list, the government disclosed that that each entry in the Terrorist Screening Database (which includes the no-fly list and the list of “selectees” for secondary screening) includes a “handling code” indicating what airline and checkpoint personnel should do if that person attempts to check in for a flight or pass though a TSA checkpoint.

We don’t know how many handling codes there are. But according to the government’s court filing:

[FBI Agent] Kelley designated Dr. Ibrahim as “handling code 3.” … [T]he majority of individuals in the TSDB were assigned handling codes 3 or 4…. Defendants state that the advantages of Handling Code 3 include allowing law enforcement officers to ask the individual probing but non-alerting questions, and searching the individual’s passport [REDACTED].”

Presumably, other handling codes include those that tell airline or checkpoint personnel to attempt to detain the traveler and contact local law enforcement agencies, the FBI, or the Terrorist Screening Center.

You can’t “opt out” of pre-crime profiling by choosing not to participate in the TSA Pre-Check Application Program.  You will be profiled, on a per-flight basis, every time you try to fly.

“Anything you say may be used against you,” although the TSA doesn’t say this on the TSA Pre-Check application forms.  If you participate in the Pre-Check Application Program, the additional information you provide will be added to the other inputs to the TSA’s black box. It might result in the TSA assigning you a lower risk score, and subjecting you to a less intrusive search.  Or it might result in the TSA assigning you a higher score, and searching you more intrusively or preventing you from traveling by air.

Albuquerque Journal investigates DHS “Mission Creep”

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

For many years after 9/11,  the Department of Homeland Security got a “free pass” from most mainstream media. This has been especially true of the largely unreported negative impact of the DHS and the homeland security industrial complex at the state and local level.

We’re pleased to call the attention of our readers to one of the most notable exceptions to date: a recent series of articles by Michael Coleman, Washington correspondent for the Albuquerque Journal, on what the DHS and its contractors and state and local accomplices are actually doing “on the ground” in New Mexico:

  1. Homeland Security a ‘runaway train’ (April 27, 2014)
  2. NM footprint grows: ‘We’ve up-armored’ (April 28, 2014)
  3. Feds help militarize police agencies (April 29, 2014)
  4. Editorial: Homeland’s ‘mission creep’ works on 3 levels (May 4, 2014)
  5. Follow-up: New DHS head says agency needs change (May 4, 2014)

We’ve been paying particular attention to events in Albuquerque, of course, as part of our work with Phil Mocek, whose lawsuit against DHS and Albuquerque police personnel is currently on appeal from the US District Court for the District of New Mexico to the Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.

But we suspect that what the Albuquerque Journal uncovered in New Mexico is a typical case study that could usefully be repeated in any other state or metropolitan area.  We hope that national and other local journalists are inspired by this example to look into DHS activities throughout the country.

Court to “review” TSA’s use of virtual strip-search machines

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

As we’ve noted previously, the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit has scheduled oral arguments June 4th in Miami as part of its “review” of the TSA’s use of virtual strip-search machines. The Court may decide on the day to close portions of the argument to the public, but has overruled the latest objections of the TSA, which claimed that any oral argument would necessarily reveal “secrets” that would jeopardize aviation security.

Jonathan Corbett will be speaking for himself, pro se, before the Court of Appeals, as he has done throughout the tortured history of his lawsuit.  Mr. Corbett has posted the latest round of appellate briefs in Corbett v. TSA, which provide a case study of how the TSA has sought to evade judicial review of its actions even when they involve extra-judicial restrictions on the fundamental rights of US citizens, residents, and visitors.

Corbett v. TSA charges that the TSA is engaging in unreasonable, suspicionless, warrantless, and unconstitutional searches of travelers. The case was originally filed in 2010 in U.S. District Court. But the TSA successfully argued that challenges to the Constitutionality of TSA orders, such as those requiring travelers to submit to either naked scanners (”advanced imaging technology”) or manual groping of their genitals (”enhanced pat-downs”), can only be heard by the Courts of Appeals. After the Supreme Court declined to review that jurisdictional finding, Mr. Corbett refiled his case in the Court of Appeals as a “petition for review” of the TSA’s (secret) orders.

The TSA’s claim is that the Court of Appeals can only review the “administrative record” submitted by the TSA itself. There is no trial, discovery, cross-examination, or adversary fact-finding process in the appellate court. The TSA can pick and choose what evidence to submit for review.  Portions of that evidence have been shown to Mr. Corbett (on condition that he not discuss them publicly), but other portions have been submitted to the Court of Appeals ex parte and under seal. Mr. Corbett doesn’t know what they allege, and has no way to know what secret arguments or allegations he should be trying to rebut.

In a separate case, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the TSA had violated the Administrative Procedure Act by failing to conduct a formal “rulemaking” concerning its use of virtual strip-search machines. Such a rulemaking must include notice of the proposed rules, an opportunity for the public to comment on them, and consideration of those public comments by the TSA before the rules are finalized.

Twenty months after being ordered to do so by D.C. Circuit Court, the TSA published proposed vitrtual strip-search “rules” and provided an opportunity for public comments.  More than 5,000 people and organizations submitted comments, including the Identity Project. Almost all of the commenters objected to the TSA’s virtual strip-searches and groping of travelers.

More than a year after the close of the comment period, the TSA has yet to publish any analysis or response to these public comments, or any final “rules”. And although the TSA is required by the Administrative Procedure Act to consider these public comments as part of its rulemaking, the agency doesn’t appear to have submitted any of them to the 11th Circuit as part of the “administrative record” to be reviewed in Corbett v. TSA.  This appears to be either an admission that the public comments have been ignored in the TSA’s decision-making, in flagrant violation of the APA, or an equally blatant attempt to deceive the 11th Circuit about the actual content of the record before the TSA.

How do FBI agents decide who to put on the “no-fly” list?

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

Dr. Rahinah Ibrahim still doesn’t know why she was placed on the “no-fly” list, even after the trial of her lawsuit against the US government and US District Judge William Alsup’s finding that Dr. Ibrahim was denied the due process of law which was her right.

At trial, the government admitted that back in 2004, FBI agent Kevin Kelly — fresh off a stint on the FBI’s mosque-watching detail — mistakenly left blank a negative check-off box on an internal form and thereby “nominated” Dr. Ibrahim for the no-fly list. By admitting that this was a “mistake”, the government successfully evaded having the court reach or review either (a) the criteria (if any) for “no-fly” decisions or (b) the factual basis (if any) for any of the government’s other decisions or actions with respect to Dr. Ibrahim.

Judicial review of the factual basis and legal criteria for a “no-fly” order remains for future no-fly cases, with that of Gulet Mohamed likely to be the next to go to trial.

Contrary to some reports, Judge Alsup didn’t order the government to take Dr. Ibrahim’s name off the no-fly list or tell her why it put her on multiple other “watchlists” including the “selectee” list to which Agent Kelly intended to nominate her.  Despite previous claims that government agencies and agents only put people on the “no-fly” list if they are able to articulate some reasonable basis for a suspicion of terrorism, we now know that there is a secret exception to this (non-binding) watchlisting criterion, pursuant to which Dr. Ibrahim and other non-suspects are also watchlisted.

Nor does Judge Alsup’s decision mean that Dr. Ibrahim is now free to travel. The US still won’t give her a visa to return to the US, on the basis of secret allegations that she “has engaged in terrorist activity” (contrary to the government’s admission and Judge Alsup’s finding to the contrary) and on the basis of a “guilt by family association” law and some other  secret allegations that apparently relate to her husband.

Judge Alsup ordered the government to tell Dr. Ibrahim her status on the “no-fly” list, which it did. As of April 15, 2014, Dr. Ibrahim wasn’t on the “no-fly” list. And the government was ordered to correct the consequences of the one specific mistake it had admitted, FBI Agent Kelly’s failure to check the “not nominated for the no-fly list” box on the form.

But Judge Alsup’s decision leaves the government free to leave Dr. Ibrahim on any other “watchlists” (including those which function as de facto secondary no-fly lists), and/or put Dr. Ibrahim back on the “no-fly” list itself, at any time, for any reason or no reason, as long as those actions aren’t a direct result of Agent Kelly’s mistaken failure to check the right box on the nomination form nine years ago.

Visa denials aren’t normally subject to review by US courts. Neither Dr. Ibrahim’s placement on watchlists other than the no-fly list, nor the de facto banishment from the US of her US-citizen daughter, were raised in the complaint in this case, or addressed in Judge Alsup’s decision.  Nor could they have been, since they only occurred or became known later.

Judge Alsup’s finding that the “no-fly” system lacks due process is a step forward, but far from a happy ending or one that redresses the grievances of Dr. Ibrahim or her family.

What we did learn from this case is that the real decision to prevent Dr. Ibrahim from traveling was made by a single FBI agent. No matter how obvious Agent Kelly’s “mistake” was, nobody reviewed or corrected it.

So in practice, “no-fly” decisions are made by individual FBI field agents. How do FBI agents use their power to decide who is and who isn’t given government permission to fly?

Since 9/11, one of the FBI’s highest priorities has been to recruit Islamic-American informers. Not surprisingly, FBI agents have repeatedly used or threatened to use their “no-fly” nomination authority to coerce American Muslims into becoming FBI informers.

In 2010, FBI agents tried to persuade US citizen Yonas Fikre to become an FBI informer. After Mr. Fikre refused to “cooperate” with the FBI agents, they put him on the “no-fly” list while he was visiting relatives overseas, consigning him to detention and torture in the UAE when his visa expired. In 2012, after being allowed to leave the UAE (but not to return home to the US, since he was still on the US “no-fly” list)  Mr. Fikre applied for political asylum in Sweden.  Shortly thereafter, in further retaliation (and/or to make sure he never tries to come home to the US, even if his asylum request is eventually denied), the US indicted Mr. Fikre for failing to report routine money transfers from the US to family members in the UAE and Sudan. Mr. Fikre is also pursuing a civil lawsuit in the US against those US government officials complicit in his no-fly listing, arrest, and torture.

Was this an isolated case? No. Last year, Muhammad Tanvir filed a lawsuit against the FBI and other government agencies and agents for putting him on the “no-fly” list in retaliation for declining to become an FBI informer. Mr. Tanvir is a Muslim, a permanent US resident (green-card holder), and a shopkeeper in New York City.  On April 22nd, 2014, an amended compliant was filed in the case (Tanvir et al. v. Holder et al.). Three other Muslims from the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, one a US citizen and two others lawful permanent residents,  have joined Mr. Tanvir in making similar claims.

These abuses are an inevitable result of having decisions about whether we are allowed to exercise our rights be made in secret at the discretion of law enforcement officers or administrative officials. Decisions on whether to restrict the exercise of rights, including the right to travel, should be made by judges, not cops, through existing legal procedures for the issuance of injunctions or temporary restraining orders.