May 10 2012

Is the problem with the TSA the leader? Or the concept?

Rep. Paul Broun, MD, a Georgia Republican member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, has called for the resignation of the Administrator of  the TSA, John Pistole.

We agree with Rep. Broun that “The time has come for serious action to be taken” with respect to the TSA, that “drastic change” is required, and that, “The time for that change is now.” And we agree that those at the top as well as the bottom of the bureaucratic hierarchy need to be held accountable.

Most of all, we’re pleased to see Rep. Broun put civil liberties first in his letter to TSA Administrator Pistole requesting his immediate resignation:

Americans can no longer tolerate the flagrant violations of their civil rights which are occurring at airports nationwide in the name of “security.”

Pistole’s resignation, now or later, would accomplish nothing unless Senators ask more serious questions (we have a few suggestions) before confirming a new TSA Administrator.

As long as the TSA is allowed to wield power over the people (and our exercise of our right to travel)) through secret, extra-judicial administrative fiat, airports and other transportation facilities will remain the domestic counterpart of Guantanamo: law-free zones in which even the most friendly-faced and “respectful” leadership can do little to change the essential illegality of the agency’s operations.

More is required, we think, than another turn of the revolving door on the office of the TSA Administrator.  If the TSA is retained, it needs to be brought within the rule of law.  We have some specific suggestions for interim reform of the TSA’s policies and practices, not just its personalities. But fundamentally, we agree with participants in the White House’s own public poll, whose first choice of requested actions for the President was to abolish the TSA entirely.

May 08 2012

US retaliates against tortured “no-fly” exile with trumped-up criminal charges

For two years, FBI agents tried to recruit Yonas Fikre — a US citizen who came to the US with his family as refugees when he was 12 years old — to infiltrate and inform on members of the congregation of a mosque he attended in Portland, Oregon, as part of an FBI entrapment “sting”.

When Fikre declined to become an FBI snitch or “agent provacateur”, the FBI had him put on the US “no-fly” list while he was overseas, and told him he would only be taken off the list so he could return to the US if he “cooperated” with their investigation of his fellow worshipers. Fikre again said, “No.”

Then the US government tightened the screws on Fikre, more or less literally, by having its “friends” in the dictatorial monarchist government of the United Arab Emirates arrest Fikre, who was in the UAE on business, torture him, and again tell him that the only escape from his predicament was to cooperate with the FBI.  Eeven under torture, Fikre stkill said, “No.”

Eventually Fikre’s torturers in the UAE gave up, released him from prison, and kicked him out of their country.  We can only assume that they decided he was innocent, or at least knew nothing incriminating about anyone to reveal, and wasn’t going to talk to the FBI no matter what they did.

Unable to return to the US because he was still on the “no-fly” list, Fikre then went to Sweden, where he has relatives (refugees who went to Sweden when his immediate family went to the US).

Throughout all this, Fikre was never charged with any crime in any country, as we presume would have happened if the FBI had evidence of any crime to use as leverage in their recruiting of Fikre as an informer.

Now Fikre has been indicted in the US, less than three weeks after he went public with his story of exile by, and torture at the behest of, the government of his own country, and announced that he has sought asylum in Sweden in order to remain there, since he can’t come back to the US.

“Frankly, I think it’s retaliation and retribution,”  one of Fikre’s US attorneys is quoted as saying. Another of his lawyers calls the charges retaliation and “specious”. From everything we’ve seen about the case, we agree.

Fikre is charged with the pettiest of purely procedural violations of Federal law. Allegedly, when he transferred money from the US to Dubai to fund a business he was starting there, he had the money sent in smaller increments rather than all at once, in order to keep each of the amounts below the $10,000 threshold above which he would had to report them to the US government.

For having “structured” his legal personal business so as to avoid having to inform on himself to the Feds who he knew already wanted him to inform on his associates, Fikre has now been indicted for the Federal crime of “structuring”.

Fikre’s brother and another alleged associate, but not Fikre, were also indicted for alleged violations of tax laws.

Fikre’s business was legal. Fikre paid his taxes. The money transfers were themselves legal, and each of them was small enough that Fikre wasn’t required to report them individually. If Fikre had filed an aggregate report on the total of the transfers, everything he did would have been legal.

Fikre had good reasons to fear additional interrogation or worse retaliation if he told the Feds any more about his affairs. If he was “structuring” his finances to avoid self-surveillance requirements, he was also structuring them to try (unsuccessfully, it turns out) to avoid exposing himself to further persecution by the US government. Should this be a crime?

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Fikre’s real “crime” is exposing US torture and exile of its own citizens, and embarrassing the US by seeking asylum abroad. Not that he had much choice about seeking asylum somewhere, since he couldn’t come back to the US, or live and work anywhere else indefinitely as a tourist or temporary visitor.

It remains to be seen whether the US will seek to have Fikre arrested and extradited from Sweden, or will merely hold the threat of criminal prosecution over him for life (the clock stops on the statute of limitations while you are out of the country) if he ever manages to return to the US or visits another country sufficiently “friendly” to the US government to arrest him.

Shame on  the US, and best wishes to Mr. Fikre for success in his application for asylum in Sweden.