A report released earlier this month by the State Department’s Office of Inspector General confirms that, as we and others began reporting in 2013 and 2014, State Department staff “failed to comply with relevant procedures intended to safeguard the rights of U.S. citizens” when they summarily seized or retained the passports of US citizens who sought consular assistance at the US Embassy in Sana’a, Yemen.
Because of incomplete and inconsistent record-keeping and shifting stories told to OIG investigators by State Department staff, the OIG was unable to determine how many US citizens were improperly deprived of their passports, or for how long.
The consequences for these Yemeni-American US citizens were especially dire because many of them were seeking to leave Yemen to escape the escalating civil war and foreign military interventions in Yemen (some of which were backed by the US and its allies).
Without passports, these US citizens were unable to travel legally from Yemen to other countries, or to return to the US. They were forced either to remain in increasingly war-torn and dangerous Yemen, or use dangerous illegal means of transport to escape.
The de facto policy of the US Department of State as early as 2013 — even before the inclusion of Yemen in the 2017 Muslim ban executive orders — appears to have been to define anyone with Yemeni ancestry, regardless of citizenship, as an enemy of the US, and to use all available legal or illegal methods to deny them US passports. Typical tactics included putting applications by Yemeni-Americans for new or renewal passports into indefinite limbo, and indefinitely retaining US passports presented to consular officials at the US Embassy in Sana’a.
Typically, no formal decision that would be readily subject to judicial review was made. Even when a passport was revoked or an application for a passport was denied, the affected citizen often wasn’t notified until months or years later.
Several lawsuits were brought challenging the denials and delays in issuing, renewing, or returning passports. At least one case led to a court order for the return of a US passport seized in Sana’a. But the government was able to evade judicial review of most of its passport denials and seizures by reversing its decisions and dropping charges or issuing delayed passports once its victims lawyered up and made it to US courts.
Despite the fairly scathing report by the OIG, there’s no indication that any of the responsible State Department officials — either at the embassy in Yemen or making policy and directing practices from the US — have lost their jobs, much less been prosecuted, for conspiring to deprive US citizens of their fundamental rights, in circumstances where the ability to exercise those rights could be a matter of life and death.