Quiet Skies Surveillance Makes Air Travel Hairy for Some Muslim Americans


When Suhaib Allababidi tried to board a flight to Cancun for a vacation with his wife and kids, they missed the flight even though they arrived to Dallas-Fort Worth Airport three hours early. That’s because the boarding passes of the entire family, including two infants, had been stamped “SSSS,” a marker reportedly used by airline employees and screeners.

Upon inquiry, an airline representative informed the dad that he was on the federal terror watch list. By association, so was his family. Although Mr. Allababidi rebooked his family on another flight, they went through the same process yet again.

“What’s happening here is new in America, and it is terrorizing Muslim Americans,” said Gadeir Abbas, senior litigation attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a national civil rights and advocacy group.

Mr. Allababidi along with four other plaintiffs filed a complaint in the Northern District Court of Texas, alleging that many Americans, including children, are on the Terrorist Screening Database (“TSDB”) watchlist based on mere guesses, hunches, and conjecture and even simply based on matters of race, ethnicity, national origin, religion or the exercise of their constitutional rights.

“Through extrajudicial 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 terror watch list that now include hundreds of thousands of individuals,” wrote plaintiffs’ counsel Nikiya Natale in the January 17, 2018, pleading.

The suit seeks injunctive and declaratory relief and names a number of individuals and federal agencies including the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the director of the Terrorist Screening Center.

“Because Mr. Allababidi is included on the federal terror watch list, and specifically the Selectee List, Defendants disseminated and are continuing to disseminate his designation as a ‘known or suspected terrorist’ to state and local authorities, foreign governments, corporations, private contractors, airlines, gun sellers, car dealerships, financial institutions, among other official and private entities and individuals,” stated Ms. Natale.

Persons on the Selectee List are systemically subject to extra screening at airports and land border crossings and persons on the No-Fly List are prevented from boarding flights that fly into, out of, or even through United States airspace, according to court records.

But defendants argue that Mr. Allabadi does not allege being prevented from traveling domestically or internationally through any action of the TSA.

“Each Plaintiff alleges that he or she is on a watch list and, as a result, has been subject to a variety of delays, searches, or inconveniences when traveling by air or entering in the United States,” wrote Samuel Singer, a trial attorney with the Federal Programs Branch of the Department of Justice Civil Division, in his April 13 motion to dismiss. “They further allege that they have a “liberty interest in traveling free from unreasonable burdens that are not reasonably tailored within, to, and from the United States, through land border crossings and over U.S. air space. Even assuming these allegations were true, they do not show a deprivation of the right to travel.”

Under the Fifth Amendment, the right to travel is a liberty that American citizens cannot be deprived of without due process of law. That’s not consistent with what’s actually occuring at the nation’s airports and border crossing, according to CAIR’s Mr. Abbas.

“I don’t think it’s a strong argument when you are handcuffing innocent people at the border,” said Mr. Abbas. “When you are detained for 9 hours, in front of your family, that’s going to dissuade you from ever travelling again. It interferes with a person’s ability to move about the world the way they’d like and it’s unprecedented for people who are simply harassed but there are others who are not even allowed to board planes because they are on the no fly list.”

A spokesman with the Transportation Security Administration defends the program, saying that its core design is no different than putting a police officer on a beat where intelligence and other information presents the need for watch and deterrence.

“The program analyzes information on a passenger’s travel patterns, and through a system of checks and balances, to include robust oversight, effectively adds an additional line of defense to aviation security,” said Thomas H. Kelly Jr., assistant supervisory air marshal in charge with/public affairs in law enforcement/of the Transportation Security Administration’s Federal Air Marshal Service.

In August, 20 other Americans, including two children, filed a separate federal lawsuit in the District Court of Maryland Greenbelt Division challenging the constitutionality of the TSA’s Quiet Skies Surveillance Program, which they allege assembles the results of risk-based targeting rules onto a separate TSA watchlist known as the “Quiet Skies Selectee List” and then subjects the passengers to intense investigation and scrutiny by federal officers who collect information, such as bathroom usage, wardrobe changes, meals, conversations and reactions when they become aware of the stalking.

Defendants include U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Watchlisting Advisory Council.

“Without charges, without arrests, without even an investigation sometimes—the agency defendants act in concert to deprive thousands of innocent Americans, mostly Muslim, of their right to be free from a government that extra judicially designates them as worthy of permanent suspicion,” wrote a consort of CAIR attorneys representing the plaintiff in an August 8 pleading. “The FBI has sought to recruit Plaintiffs, and similarly situated watchlisted Americans, as informants.”

Mr. Kelly labeled the monitoring programs as routine and practical in an emailed statement to PacerMonitor.

“With routine reviews and active management via legal, privacy and civil rights and liberties offices, the program is a practical method of keeping another act of terrorism from occurring at 30,000 feet,” he said.

Among the watchlisted plaintiffs is Moustafa El-Shahat, who alleges that when he deplaned at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York from a trip to Egypt, two Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers escorted him to an interrogation room before he arrived at passport control for questioning by FBI agents that lasted nearly four hours.

He was reportedly interrogated about what he thinks of jihad, what mosque he attends, how religious he is, whether he teaches at a mosque, whether he is an imam among other invasive questions about his Islamic religious beliefs and practices.

When asked what behaviors travelers need to curb in order to avoid being perceived as a threat that would result in monitoring, Mr. Kelly responded that the purpose of the program is to ensure passengers and flight crew are protected during air travel and that it does not take into account race and religion.

“It is not intended to surveil ordinary Americans.” he said.

According to CAIR, the U.S. federal government has added approximately 1.1 million persons to the federal terrorist watch list over the last 10 years, including thousands of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents.

Getting removed from the federal government’s monitoring programs is not so easy for Americans who have Arabic first and last names and who are practicing Muslims.

‘If you find yourself targeted for questioning while traveling, you don’t have to answer any questions about your religion or political views,” said Mr. Abbas.

When push comes to shove, a passenger’s best recourse is to invoke his or her right to counsel and to bring due process to bear on a policy that appears to lack it.

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