FBI Checks Wrong Box, Places Student on No-Fly List

It sounds like something out of Scandal, but it's more like a horror story, actually: For the last seven years, a Malaysian student at Stanford University who was placed on a no-fly list for no apparent reason has been fighting to clear her name in a mostly-secret federal court trial. Government officials have fought her the whole way, repeatedly trying to have the case dismissed — on Thursday, it became clear why: the judge found that it all happened because an FBI official "checked the wrong boxes" on a form, putting her on the list accidentally.

Let's rewind a little, to January 2005: a PhD student at Stanford university goes to San Fransisco airport with her fourteen-year-old daughter. They're on their way to Hawaii, a conference trip sponsored by Stanford. The student has had hysterectomy surgery a couple of months before, she's still recovering, so she's in a wheelchair. She goes up to the United Airlines ticket counter to check in, when suddenly she's handcuffed, thrown in the back of a police car, taken to a holding cell — by male police officers — and interrogated. One female police officer tries to take off her hijab; at one point, paramedics are called in because she hasn't taken her surgery medication.

Later, she's told that she's been released, her name's been removed from the no-fly list. She can go on her conference trip to Hawaii, if she wants. Which she does. Apart from being given additional security screening, all seems to be alright. She goes on from Hawaii to Los Angeles, and then Kuala Lumpur.

Fast-forward two months, to March 2005: the student buys a ticket back to the U.S. She's spent a month's salary on the ticket, but she needs to meet with her thesis adviser, who's taken very ill. At the airport, though, she isn't allowed on the flight. She is told that her student visa had been revoked, and that she would longer be let into the U.S. She's not been able to go back since.

Why? Because an FBI Special Agent "misunderstood" the form he had to fill out. He literally checked the wrong boxes. And he didn't even realize the mistake he'd made until nearly a decade later, during his deposition in 2013. As the court reports:

"In November 2004, FBI Special Agent Kevin Michael Kelly, located in San Jose, nominated Dr. Ibrahim, who was then at Stanford, to various federal watchlists... Agent Kelley misunderstood the directions on the form and erroneously nominated Dr.Ibrahim to the TSA's no-fly list. He did not intend to do so. This was a mistake, he admitted at trial. He checked the wrong boxes, filling out the form exactly the opposite way from the instructions on the form. He made this mistake even though the form stated, "It is recommended that the subject NOT be entered into the following selected terrorist screening databases." Based on the way Agent Kelley checked the boxes on the form, plaintiff was placed on the no-fly list. So, the way in which plaintiff got on the no-fly list in the first place was human error by the FBI. The agent did not learn of this error until his deposition in 2013."
"She got there by human error within the FBI ...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," the court concluded Thursday. The decision makes Ibrahim the first person to successfully challenge being put on a government watch list — and calls into question all other placements on government lists.

It's almost laughable, if it weren't so incredibly tragic: while the debate over the National Security Agency's sweeping snooping powers continues to rage on, an FBI agent can just press the wrong button and essentially designate someone a terrorist. Ibrahim fought for her innocence for seven years (mostly in secret, because the government ordered it to be so), she was alone, and, let's face it, she had racism against her.

Everyone makes mistakes every once in a while, even federal agents. But frankly, there's no place for whoops, soz in the FBI. Not in our current counter-terrorism world, anyway.

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