SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Human error led to a Stanford grad student's placement on a number of terror watch lists and her arrest at a San Francisco airport ticket counter in 2005, the Justice Department divulged Thursday.
Rahinah Ibrahim's eight-year battle legal battle against the government over her placement on the Transportation Security Administration's no-fly list - and subsequent visa revocation - began when FBI Special Agent Kevin Kelley interviewed her in 2004. At the time, Ibrahim was working on her doctorate in construction engineering and management at Stanford University.
For reasons never stated publicly - but possibly related to the FBI's "mosque outreach program" involving Bay Area Muslims and Sikhs - Kelley nominated Ibrahim to various terror watch lists, according to the ruling. U.S. District Judge William Alsup found that the agent nevertheless "filled out the form wrong" and also added Ibrahim's name to the TSA no-fly list.
"Kelley checked the wrong boxes, filling out the form exactly the opposite way from the instructions on the form," Alsup wrote in a heavily redacted order issued on Jan. 14 and unsealed Thursday. "He made this mistake even though the form stated 'It is recommended the subject NOT be entered into the following selected terrorist screening databases.'"
The agent's error spiraled out of control and eventually led to what the State Department calls a "prudential" revocation of Ibrahim's student visa. State Department officials based the revocation on "law enforcement interest in her as a potential terrorist," according an email between the head of the U.S. Consulate in Kuala Lumpur and an official at the department's visa office.
"Since her erroneous placement on the no-fly list, plaintiff has endured a litany of troubles in getting back into the United States," Alsup wrote. "Whether true or not, she reasonably suspects that those troubles are traceable to the original wrong that placed her on the no-fly list. 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."
In no uncertain terms, the judge ordered the government to clear Ibrahim's name from its terror database and watch lists. At trial, the Justice Department said that had been done long ago, but Alsup expressed his doubts.
"This order finds that suspicious adverse effects continued to haunt Dr. Ibrahim in 2005 and 2006, even though the government claims to have learned of and corrected the mistake," he wrote. "For example, after her name was removed from the no-fly list, the next day, Dr. Ibrahim was issued a bright red secondary security screening selection (SSSS) pass. Less than a month after she was removed from the no-fly list, her visa was 'prudentially' revoked. In March 2005, she was not permitted to fly to the United States. Her daughter was not allowed to fly to the United States even to attend this trial despite the fact that her daughter is a United States citizen. After so much gnashing of teeth and so much on-the-listoff-the-list machinations, the government is ordered to provide the foregoing relief to remediate its wrong. If the government has already cleansed its records, then no harm will be done in making sure again and so certifying to the court."
Alsup acknowledged that judicial review of Ibrahim's past and possibly future visa denials is extraordinarily limited. He nevertheless invited Ibrahim to apply again once the Justice Department certifies that her name has been completely removed from its plethora of watch lists.
"It is true, as the government asserts, that she cannot fly to the United States without a visa, but she is entitled to try to solve one hurdle at a time and perhaps the day will come when all hurdles are cleared and she can fly back to our country," Alsup wrote.
Ibrahim found success in Malaysia, becoming a dean at the Universiti Putra Malaysia in 2011. To communicate with her extensive network of colleagues in the United States, Ibrahim has resorted to collaboration via email, Skype and telephone.
At trial, Ibrahim testified by videotape that since 2005 she has attended conferences across the globe, always on commercial airlines.
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