The FBI’s controversial lengthy placement of a American citizen on the “No Fly List” and subsequent hostile actions will win additional scrutiny after the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit this month reversed a lower court’s ruling supporting the agency’s dismissal request.
Oregon resident Yonas Fikre claims two FBI special agents told him in 2009 that he’d been placed on the “No Fly List.”
But they offered a deal: Become a confidential informant for the agency about an Islamic center in Portland and his name would be removed from the list.
In June 2011, the businessman was traveling in the United Arab Emirates when he says Emirati secret police kidnapped him, transported him to an unknown location, tortured him for 106 days and claimed the FBI inspired his detention, according to court records.
After his release, Fikre was unable to board any commercial flight back to the United States because of his inclusion on the “No Fly List.” He ended up in Sweden. For five years, U.S. government officials refused to alter his status or explain their rationale, a plight that, among other negative consequences, caused his marriage to end in divorce.
In Feb. 2015, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) finally advised him only that he’d been “identified as an individual who may be a treat to civil aviation or national security.”
After Fikre sued, officials at the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center dropped him from the list without explanation and Department of Justice lawyers successfully argued to U.S. District Court Judge Anna J. Brown that the lawsuit should be dismissed as moot.
In reaching its reversal decision, a bipartisan Ninth Circuit panel first noted that it presumed government officials didn’t finally drop Fikre from the list as “a strategic motive” to undermine the lawsuit but went on to explain the move didn’t render the plaintiff’s due process violation claims unworthy of potential relief at the conclusion of the case.
“Absent an acknowledgment by the government that its investigation revealed Fikre did not belong on the list, and that he will not be returned to the list based on the currently available evidence, Fikre remains, in his own words, ‘stigmatized . . . as a known or suspected terrorist and as an individual who represents a threat of engaging in or conducting a violent act of terrorism and who is operationally capable of doing so,’” wrote judges Milan D. Smith, Jr., Johnnie B. Rawlinson and Morgan Christen. “Because acquaintances, business associates, and perhaps even family members are likely to persist in shunning or avoiding him despite his renewed ability to travel, it is plain that vindication in this action would have actual and palpable consequences for Fikre.”
As a hopeful preventive measure, law enforcement officials intensified their “No Fly List” after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Numerous news reports have detailed incidents of mistaken identity or suspected targeting of people who’ve spoken out against government surveillance abuses. Through its Transportation Security Administration, DHS offers a Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (TRIP) for individuals who believe they’ve been wrongly flagged.
R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.