In 2005, Rahinah Ibrahim, a Malaysian architect, was placed on the United States Government’s No-Fly list, operated by the Terrorist Screening Center.
It wasn’t because she was a member of Al Qaeda. It happened because of an FBI screw-up.
The mess started in January 2005, when Ibrahim and her 14-year-old daughter arrived at the San Francisco Airport. Their destination: Hawaii, to attend a conference trip sponsored by Stanford.
Ibrahim, still recovering from a recent hysterectomy, was in a wheelchair.
When she approached the United Airlines counter to check in, she was seized, handcuffed, thrown in the back of a police car and taken to a holding cell.
There she was interrogated. During this, paramedics had to be summoned because she hadn’t taken her surgery medication.
Then, to her surprise, she was released–and told that her name had been removed from the No-Fly list. She boarded a flight to Hawaii and attended the conference.
But in March 2005, the situation suddenly changed.
Having returned to Malasia, she bought a ticket to fly back to California to meet with her Stanford thesis adviser. But at the airport, she was banned from the flight.
She was told that her student visa had been revoked, and that she would longer be let into the United States. When she asked why, authorities refused to give a reason.
She would not learn the answer for another eight years.
An FBI agent in San Jose, California, had conducted a background check on Ibrahim. He hadn’t meant to place her on theNo-Fly list.
He had simply checked the wrong boxes on a form. He didn’t even realize the mistake until nearly a decade later, during his deposition in 2013.
In fact, he filled out the form exactly the opposite way from the instructions provided on the form. He did so even though the form stated, “It is recommended that the subject NOT be entered into the following selected terrorist screening databases.”
Thus, Ibrahim was placed on the No-Fly list.
That was bad enough–but at least understandable. FBI agents are human, and can and do err like anyone else.
What is not understandable or tolerable is this:
After Ibrahim filed a lawsuit against the United States Government in 2006, the Justice Department ordered a coverup–to prevent word from leaking that one of its agents had made a mistake.
Moreover, Ibrahim was ordered by the Justice Department to not divulge to anyone that she was suing the United States Government–or the reason for the lawsuit.
Ibrahim is currently the dean of architecture at University Putra Malaysia.
Because the Justice Department refused to admit its mistake, attorneys working pro bono for Ibrahim incurred a reported $3.8 million in legal fees, as well as $300,000 in litigation costs.
In his recent decision on the case, U.S. District Judge William Alsup, based in San Francisco, called the agent’s error “conceded, proven, undeniable and serious.”
“Once derogatory information is posted to the Terrorist Screening Database, it can propagate extensively through the government’s interlocking complex of databases, like a bad credit report that will never go away,” he wrote.
If only the Justice Department had readily admitted the mistake and quickly moved to correct it. But the egos of Federal law enforcement agents and prosecutors effectively ruled out this option.
Robert Gates, who served as Secretary of Defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama (2006-2011) had a completely different approach to dealing with mistakes.
In his new autobiography, Duty, he writes of his determination to promote good relations between the Pentagon and the reporters who covered it.
In his commencement address at the Anapolis Naval Academy on May 25, 2007, he said:
“…the press, in my view [is] a critically important guarantor of our freedom.
“When it identifies a problem, the response of senior leaders should be to find out if the allegations are true. And if so, say so, and then act to remedy the problem.
“If [the allegations are] untrue, then be able to document that fact.”
Millions of Americans not only distrust the Federal Government–they believe it is aggressively conspiring against them.
But the vast majority of Federal employees do not come to work intent on destroying the lives of their fellow Americans.
They spend most of their time carrying out routine, often mind-numbing tasks–such as filling out what seem like an endless series of forms.
But even where no malice is involved, their actions can have devastating consequences for innocent men and women.
Especially in cases where “national security” can be invoked to hide error, stupidity, or even criminality.
The refusal of the Justice Department to quickly admit the honest mistake of one of its agents prevented Ibrahim from boarding a commercial flight for seven years.
Federal agencies should follow the advice given by Robert Gates: Admit your mistakes and act quickly to correct them.
Unless this happens, the poisonous atmosphere of distrust between the Government and its citizens will only worsen.