Govt fought for years to hide mistake that put student on no-fly list

Government lawyers spent seven years claiming that a Stanford student belonged on the no-fly list, all the while trying to conceal the bureaucratic error that mistakenly put her there. Right up until the end, the government—knowing what had happened—tried to get her case dismissed.

“He checked the wrong boxes, filling out the form exactly the opposite way from the instructions on the form,” U.S. District Judge William Alsup wrote (.pdf) today.

The decision makes Ibrahim, 48, the first person to successfully challenge placement on a government watch list.

Much of the federal court trial, in which the woman sought only to clear her name, was conducted in secret after U.S. officials repeatedly invoked the state secrets privilege and sought to have the case dismissed.

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  1. One of the Homeland guys made a mistake, even admitted to it in court. It was an honest mistake easy to make back when all this stuff was starting out. But his superiors cost that woman 3.3 million in attorneys fees and costs (Even if it was done pro bono) in order to force them to fix it. We need something to change. People make mistakes it should not cost millions to get it fixed.

  2. Civil suit now? Sounds reasonable. I'm thinking for about $60.8 Billion, the entire DHS budget.

  3. She is so going to get on a watch list for this.

  4. I just read the judgement. It sounds like an 'honest' mistake by an FBI agent in 2004 "tick here if this person should not be put on the TSA no-fly list" propagated for a number of years. It's also possible that there is a second reason why the student is denied a visa in 2009 and 2013 - e.g. that the USA suspects (rightly or wrongly) that she has a family member who is linked to terrorism - and they're expecting her to apply for a waiver and to specifically disclaim that she has any link to terrorism when she next applies to enter the USA. The judgement records that the US government assesses that she poses no threat as a terrorist - so you might expect she'll be allowed to enter the USA if she applies for a visa after 15th April 2014.

    The lack of oversight is really troubling though - the judge makes the point that there are non-reviewable actions that can be taken by visa issuing authorities.

    It sounds as though no-one in the system has enough information to make an informed judgement, nor enough confidence to overrule a database entry - once there is an entry in a database saying 'terrorist' there is no way to expunge that information, and the consular offices who issue visas trust the databases more than their own judgement.

    The consular offices need to be trained to treat the terrorism databases as suspect by default, to assume it's as likely that the database contains a false positive as accurate information. The GAO report in 2006 that found a sample of ~110 records contained 38% errors and the purge of 70,0000 records to less than 34,000 in 2007 should each indicate that the databases are unreliable and that their judgement is necessary and should have priority.

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