The FBI has been using the No Fly List to bully American Muslims into working as agency informants, according to a lawsuit filed this week by a Muslim legal-defense group.
The complaint, filed by the New-York-based CLEAR Project in conjunction with the Center for Constitutional Rights, says that the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs, along with thousands of others on the No Fly List, are violated by their placement on the list.
The No Fly List is intended to prohibit a "known or suspected terrorist from boarding a commercial aircraft that departs from or arrives in the United States" and includes fewer than 500 Americans as of September 2011, according to the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center. The problem, critics say, is that the list is being misused to intimidate or punish Muslim Americans with no prior record of terrorism or crime.
The suit calls for the plaintiffs to be removed from the No Fly List, but also seeks larger changes within the system.
"We want a court to say that the way the government is using the list is violating the constitutional rights of our clients. In plain English: they have the right to refuse to be FBI informants, and they have the right to travel without having to make that trade-off," said Diala Shamas, an attorney with CLEAR project and one of the lawyers in the case.
Muhammad Tanvir, one of the plaintiffs in the case, was placed on the No Fly List after turning down several requests by FBI agents to serve as an informant in his Muslim community in Queens, New York. After learning he was on the list, Tanvir was instructed to contact the same agents who had asked him to serve as an informant. When he did so, the agents offered to help get him off the No Fly List - but only in exchange for information. Tanvir refused and is still on the list.
Neither Tanvir nor any of the other plaintiffs in the case have been accused of any crime and there is no evidence indicating that they pose a threat to aviation safety, says Shamas.
The FBI did not respond to a request for comment.
The opacity of the process of being placed on the No Fly List is one of the main issues in the case. The complaint claims that the No Fly List is shielded from both public and judicial scrutiny and lacks supervision. Those placed on the list lack any form of meaningful recourse, apart from the Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (TRIP) which is widely considered to be ineffective.
"The lack of recourse, and the fact that these agents know there's no recourse, makes it prone to abuse," Shamas told Fusion.
All of the plaintiffs in the case identify as Muslim, and the trend of targeting Muslims has been long been recognized. However, Shamas points out, this case is important not just as a Muslim issue.
"This isn't just an American Muslim concern," she said. "Once we permit the No Fly List to continue to exist with all these flaws, it will be used against other populations as well."
While Shamas is confident that her case will succeed, the number of people who have successfully challenged a no-fly decision in the past is low: exactly one.
Alexandra DiPalma is a producer for Fusion Lightworks, Fusion’s In-house Branded Content Agency.