In a nationally-significant lawsuit, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has filed the most comprehensive challenge to date to the US government’s system of arbitrary and extrajudicial blacklists (“watchlists”) used to stigmatize and impose sanctions on innocent people — almost all of them Muslim — without notice, trial, conviction, or any opportunity, even after the fact, to see or contest the allegations or evidence (if any) against them.
The lawsuit, Khairullah et al. v. Garland et al., was filed last week in Federal District Court in Boston on behalf of twelve Muslims from Massachusetts and other states who have been stopped, prevented from traveling to, from, or within the US by air, harassed, delayed, interrogated, threatened, strip-searched, had all the data on their electronic devices copied, detained at gunpoint, denied permits, and had banking and money-transfer accounts summarily and irrevocably closed, among other adverse consequences:
Plaintiffs, along with over one million other people, have been placed by Defendants on the federal terrorist watchlist. Defendants claim the power to place an unlimited number of people on that list and, as a result, subject them to extensive security screening, impose adverse immigration consequences on them, and distribute their information to thousands of law-enforcement and private entities, which then use it to affect everyday interactions like traffic stops, municipal permit processes, firearm purchases, and licensing applications.
Congress has never statutorily authorized the creation, maintenance, use, or dissemination of the Terrorist Screening Dataset, its subsets like the Selectee List and No Fly List, the Quiet Skies and Silent Partner systems, or any other rules-based terrorist targeting lists.
WHEREFORE, Plaintiffs requests this Honorable Court grant declaratory and injunctive relief….
The complaint includes a depressingly thorough, detailed, and diverse litany of incidents of interference with normal life, especially with normal travel.
One US citizen plaintiff now abroad has been effectively exiled because the US government won’t allow any airline to transport him back to the US from overseas.
The effects of blacklisting can last for life. Because the US government continues to stigmatize “formerly” blacklisted individuals and flag them to its own agents and third parties including foreign governments, some of the plaintiffs continue to suffer these consequences despite having purportedly been “removed” from US “watchlists”.
Because the US government’s blacklisting algorithms incorporate explicit guilt-by-association criteria, some plaintiffs have had their friends, family members, and colleagues targeted for adverse treatment solely on the basis of having “associated” (an act protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution) with a blacklisted person.
As the complaint explains:
[B]ecause Defendants consider being a relative, friend, colleague, or fellow community member of a TSDS [Terrorist Screening Dataset] Listee “derogatory information” supporting placement on the watchlist, Muslim communities are subjected to rapidly-unfolding network effects once one member is watchlisted. One nomination, even if grounded in probable cause or a preexisting criminal conviction, can quickly spiral into Defendants classifying nearly every member of an extended family or community mosque as a suspected terrorist.
A similar lawsuit, also brought by CAIR, led a Federal District Court judge in Virginia to rule in 2019 that the Federal blacklisting system was unconstitutional. But that ruling was overturned in 2021 in a strikingly poorly-reasoned opinion by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The new lawsuit has been brought in a different circuit (the 1st Circuit), and the new complaint includes more recent information — including the disclosure of the no-fly and “selectee” lists — and arguments to bolster the case and counter the claims made by the 4th Circuit judges.
Lawsuits like this take years to be resolved, but we’ll be watching this one closely.