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Tomgram: Peter Van Buren, No-Fly-List America

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Here's what the president said back in June 2013, while reassuring the American people about the National Security Agency's collection of their phone metadata: "When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That's not what this program's about.  As was indicated, what the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls. They are not looking at people's names, and they're not looking at content."

And indeed, the NSA was analyzing the metadata it was collecting from all of us.  Only one small problem (shades of the Bush era): it was also listening in and reading, too.  To be exact, without warrants and using a "backdoor loophole" in the law, the agency repeatedly plunged into massive databases that, while gathering emails and phone calls from "foreign targets," swept up prodigious numbers of American ones in the process. (Evidently, the CIA and the FBI were using similar backdoors to similar ends.)  It's true that, strictly speaking, those calls and emails were being collected by a different program than the one the president was referring to; so, if you're a stickler for details, he didn't exactly, officially lie.  In any case, it's nothing you or I should really worry our little heads about, not when it turns out that whatever was done was perfectly "legal."

We know this thanks to a legal expert of the first order, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who communicated as much to Senator Ron Wyden by letter recently.  Who, after all, should know better than Clapper, the man in charge of overseeing a secret world that has its own "parallel supreme court" renowned for only listening to one side of any case?  Here's his statement on the subject of those warrantless searches of our phone conversations and emails: "There have been queries, using U.S. person identifiers, of communications lawfully acquired to obtain foreign intelligence targeting non-U.S. persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States.  These queries were performed pursuant to minimization procedures approved by the FISA court and consistent with the statute and the Fourth Amendment."

If you don't understand that, consider yourself English-challenged.  In fact, you should just stop fretting about government surveillance entirely and, while you're at it, cut back on the overblown paranoia, too.  Americans, it's time to go back to full-scale online shopping and banking, and to stop telling pollsters you're doing less of it because of the NSA!

Really, there's no point in making such a fuss about perfectly legal operations.  Isn't it simpler just to stop paying attention to what the president, his top officials, and the guardians of our secret world tell us about what they're doing?  After all, in the end, by hook, crook, or secret "law," they will find a convenient justification for doing just what they want to do anyway.  Right now, we have a partial picture of what one agency in the U.S. intelligence community, the NSA, has been doing in these years, thanks to the revelations of Edward Snowden.  Someday, perhaps, we'll have a fuller picture of what the other 16 agencies have been doing and it will surely take your breath away.

In the meantime, it's rare that we ever get a glimpse of how our expanding secret state really works.  But every now and then, a single case can suddenly illuminate an otherwise dark landscape.  Such is Rahinah Ibrahim's case, carefully laid out by TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren today.  It should chill you to the bone.  Former State Department whistleblower Van Buren has, by the way, just published quite an original, nitty-gritty novel, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, which is highly recommended. Tom

How Many Watch Lists Fit on the Head of a Pin?
Post-Constitutional America, Where Innocence is a Poor Defense
By Peter Van Buren

Rahinah Ibrahim is a slight Malaysian woman who attended Stanford University on a U.S. student visa, majoring in architecture. She was not a political person. Despite this, as part of a post-9/11 sweep directed against Muslims, she was investigated by the FBI. In 2004, while she was still in the U.S. but unbeknownst to her, the FBI sent her name to the no-fly list.

Ibrahim was no threat to anyone, innocent of everything, and ended up on that list only due to a government mistake. Nonetheless, she was not allowed to reenter the U.S. to finish her studies or even attend her trial and speak in her own defense. Her life was derailed by the tangle of national security bureaucracy and pointless "anti-terror" measures that have come to define post-Constitutional America. Here's what happened, and why it may matter to you.

The No-Fly List

On September 10, 2001, there was no formal no-fly list. Among the many changes pressed on a scared population starting that September 12th were the creation of two such lists: the no-fly list and the selectee list for travelers who were to undergo additional scrutiny when they sought to fly.  If you were on the no-fly list itself, as its name indicated, you could not board a flight within the U.S. or one heading out of or into the country. As a flight-ban plan, it would come to extend far beyond America's borders, since the list was shared with 22 other countries.

No one knows how many names are on it. According to one source, 21,000 people, including some 500 Americans, are blacklisted; another puts the figure at 44,000. The actual number is classified.

On January 2, 2005, unaware of her status as a threat to the United States, Ibrahim left Stanford for San Francisco International Airport to board a flight to Malaysia for an academic conference. A ticket agent saw her name flagged in the database and called the police.

Despite being wheelchair-bound due to complications from a medical procedure, Ibrahim was handcuffed, taken to a detention cell, and denied access to medication she had in hand. Without explanation, after extensive interrogation, she was allowed to board her flight. When she tried to return to America to resume her studies, however, she found herself banned as a terrorist.

Suing the United States

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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