Feb 06 2014

More details of Judge Alsup’s decision in “no-fly” case

More details of Judge William Alsup’s decision in Ibrahim v. DHS, the first case challenging the US government’s “no-fly” list to go to trial, were made public today in the form of a redacted version of Judge Alsup’s findings, conclusions, and order.

In deference to the government’s insistence that even his verdict would reveal “secrets“, Judge Alsup originally issued his opinion and order temporarily under seal (to give the government a chance to appeal), accompanied by an unusual Public Notice and Summary.

Judge Alsup ordered the parties to try to agree on a redacted version of his opinion that both would allow to be made public. But after government’s lawyers declined to tell Dr. Ibrahim’s lawyers what, if any, portions of Judge Alsup’s opinion they believed had to be kept secret, or why, Judge Alsup ordered the government to file a minimally redacted version of the judge’s opinion by noon today.

The version of Judge Alsup’s order that the government has now made public still contains substantial redactions.  Some are surreal, such as the government’s belief that the public cannot be allowed to know Judge Alsup’s reasons for describing the treatment imposed on Dr. Ibrahim as “surreal”. Others are more substantive, such as the redaction of all of Judge Alsup’s finding concerning Dr. Ibrahim’s US-citizen daughter, who was prevented from traveling to the US to attend and testify at her mother’s trial.

But the government has, reluctantly, allowed us to know much more about why Dr. Ibrahim was treated so badly and what remedies Judge Alsup has ordered:

At long last, the government has conceded that plaintiff poses no threat to air safety or national security and should never have been placed on the no-fly list. She got there by human error within the FBI. This too is conceded. This was no minor human error but an error with palpable impact, leading to the humiliation, cuffing, and incarceration of an innocent and incapacitated air traveler. That it was human error may seem hard to accept — the FBI agent filled out the nomination form in a way exactly opposite from the instructions on the form, a bureaucratic analogy to a surgeon amputating the wrong digit — human error, yes, but of considerable consequence. Nonetheless, this order accepts the agent’s testimony.

Since her erroneous placement on the no-fly list, plaintiff has endured a litany of troubles in getting back into the United States. Whether true or not, she reasonably suspects that those troubles are traceable to the original wrong that placed her on the no-fly list. Once derogatory information is posted to the TSDB, it can propagate extensively through the government’s interlocking complex of databases, like a bad credit report that will never go away. As a post-deprivation remedy, therefore, due process requires, and this order requires, that the government remediate its wrong by cleansing and/or correcting all of its lists and records of the mistaken 2004 derogatory designation and by certifying that such cleansing and/or correction has been accurately done as to every single government watchlist and database. This will not implicate classified information in any way but will give plaintiff assurance that, going forward, her troubles in returning to the United States, if they continue, are unaffected by the original wrong….

FBI Agent Kelley made a plain, old-fashioned, monumental error in filling out the VGTOF nomination form for Dr. Ibrahim. He checked the boxes in exactly the opposite way from the instructions on the form, thus nominating Dr. Ibrahim to the no-fly list (against his intention). This was the start of all problems in Dr. Ibrahim’s case. Surprisingly, Agent Kelley first learned of this mistake eight years later at his deposition.

Significantly, therefore, our case involves a conceded, proven, undeniable, and serious error by the government — not merely a risk of error. Consequently, this order holds that due process entitles Dr. Ibrahim to a correction in the government’s records to prevent the 2004 error from further propagating through the various agency databases and from causing further injury to Dr. Ibrahim. By this order, all defendants shall specifically and thoroughly query the databases maintained by them, such as the TSDB, TIDE, CLASS, KSTF, TECS, IBIS, TUSCAN, TACTICS, and the no-fly and selectee lists, and to remove all references to the designations made by the defective 2004 nomination form or, if left in place, to add a correction in the same paragraph that the designations were erroneous and should not be relied upon for any purpose. To be clear, no agency should even rely on Agent Kelley’s actual unexpressed intention to nominate to certain lists in 2004, for the form instructions were not properly followed. The designations in the November 2004 form should be disregarded for all purposes…. A deadline will be set for defendants to file declarations under oath attesting to compliance.

This order finds that suspicious adverse effects continued to haunt Dr. Ibrahim in 2005 and 2006, even though the government claims to have learned of and corrected the mistake. For example, after her name was removed from the no-fly list, the next day, Dr. Ibrahim was issued a bright red “SSSS” pass. Less than a month after she was removed from the no-fly list, her visa was “prudentially” revoked. In March 2005, she was not permitted to fly to the United States. Her daughter was not allowed to fly to the United States even to attend this trial despite the fact that her daughter is a United States citizen. After so much gnashing of teeth and so much on-the-list-off-the-list machinations, the government is ordered to provide the foregoing relief to remediate its wrong. If the government has already cleansed its records, then no harm will be done in making sure again and so certifying to the Court.

With respect to the government’s TRIP program, which does provide a measure of post-deprivation relief, this order holds that it is inadequate, at least on this record.

Judge Alsup castigated the government for promising explicitly not to rely on alleged “state secrets” in its defense, and then trying to do so during and after the trial.

In the end, Judge Alsup found it unnecessary to rely on any “secrets” because the government conceded that Dr. Ibrahim did not and does not pose any threat and that her name had been placed on the “no-fly” list by “mistake”.  While Judge Alsup was able to find that Dr. Ibrahim was denied due process of law, his discussion of what due process might require if the government claimed (perhaps on the basis of “secret” information) that a “no-fly” listing was justified was consigned to a footnote:

In the instant case, the nomination in 2004 to the no-fly list was conceded at trial to have been a mistake. In this sense, this is an easier case to resolve. Harder no-fly cases surely exist. For example, the government uses “derogatory” information to place individuals on the no-fly list. When an individual is refused boarding, does he or she have a right to know the specific information that led to the listing? Certainly in some (but not all) cases, providing the specifics would reveal sources and methods used in our counterterrorism defense program and disclosure would unreasonably jeopardize our national security. Possibly, instead, a general summary might provide a degree of due process, allowing the nominee an opportunity to refute the charge. Or, agents might interview the nominee in such a way as to address the points of concern without revealing the specifics. Possibly (or possibly not), even that much process would betray our defense systems to our enemies. This order need not and does not reach this tougher, broader issue, for, again, the listing of Dr. Ibrahim was concededly based on human error. Revealing this error could not and has not betrayed any worthwhile methods or sources.

We think that the proper basis for inclusion of a name on a no-fly list is a no-fly injunction or restraining order, issued by a judge, with its attendant due process. No other no-fly case has yet made it to trial, but sooner or later the courts will have to address the hypothetical situation described by Judge Alsup in this  footnote.

The government has not yet given notice of its intent to appeal Judge Alsup’s decision. (When, as in this case, one of the parties to the case is a federal agency, the deadline for filing a notice of appeal is 60 days after the judgement or order appealed. Judge Alsup’s decision was issued on January 14th, so the government has until March 14th to decide whether to appeal.) Unless the government appeals, the decision will become final and will be made public in its entirety, unredacted, on April 15, 2014.