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ACLU sues U.S. over 'no-fly' list

Complaint: Innocent passengers must have way to clear names

From Jeanne Meserve and Phil Hirschkorn

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The American Civil Liberties Union challenges the 'no-fly' list that the U.S. government uses to bar travelers from flying because they're considered a threat. CNN's Jeanne Meserve reports. (April 6)
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
Air Transportation
Transportation Security Administration

(CNN) -- A federal government list designed to keep terrorism suspects off commercial airline flights has subjected "hundreds, if not thousands" of innocent passengers to repeated interrogation, detention and stigmatization, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday.

Administered by airlines since November 2001, the "no-fly" list has resulted in routine stops of passengers without terrorist ties who "have no meaningful opportunity to clear their names," said the complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

"They are detained, interrogated, delayed, embarrassed, humiliated in front of other passengers," said plaintiffs' attorney Reggie Shuford, an ACLU senior staff attorney.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, Washington, a jurisdiction where three of the seven named plaintiffs live.

"It's frustrating. It's starting to get maddening," said Michelle Green, an Air Force master sergeant stationed at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, who says she has been stopped at airports three times this year.

"You think that once you get your name cleared that it will stop, and each time it's still the same thing."

The "no-fly" list includes individuals' names, dates of birth, nationalities and passport numbers. The lawsuit alleges the list is not accurate or updated to reduce the chances that passengers who pose no security risk are not stopped.

The suit's defendants are the Department of Homeland Security and Transportation Security Administration as well as the appointees in charge of those agencies, Tom Ridge and David Stone, respectively.

The TSA compiles the list with data supplied by the FBI, CIA and the government's terrorist screening center.

The "no-fly" list is one of two the TSA maintains. The other is the "selectee" list. Those on the "no-fly" list are not allowed to board a commercial aircraft. Those on the "selectee" list must go through more extensive screening before boarding.

Plaintiffs demand information about list

In explaining their lawsuit, plaintiffs detailed their experiences at airports.

"Last time I traveled, I traveled with my 2-year-old and my 3-year-old, and they actually did a search that time," Green said. "So the security guard had to watch my child -- my 2-year-old -- and he started to run off, and I started to go after him and they were like, 'Ma'am, please freeze!' You know, and so that was very scary for me."

Although none of the seven plaintiffs said they have been jailed, they have occasionally missed flights because of interrogations that have lasted up to three hours. All the plaintiffs said they allow for extra time arriving at airports.

"Sometimes I have a completely uneventful experience. Other times I have been led away by police," plaintiff David Fathi said. "I have been threatened by indefinite detention. I've had one officer tell another to put me in handcuffs and take me away."

Fathi, 41, is an ACLU attorney of Iranian heritage who lives in Washington.

"If the government is going to put your name on a list and call you a security risk, the government should have to tell you why," Fathi said. "Assuming that it's because of my name, I think that that's wrong."

Plaintiff David Nelson, 34, a trial attorney in the St. Louis, Missouri, area, said he has been stopped more than 30 times -- every flight he's taken since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which gave rise to the "no-fly" list.

"I don't want to make people behind me wait even longer because the government presumes even momentarily that I am a terrorist, not a patriot," Nelson said.

The other plaintiffs include John Shaw, 74, a retired Presbyterian minister from Washington state; Mohamed Ibrahim, 51, from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who works for the American Friends Service Committee, an organization founded by Quakers that promotes peace and social justice; Alexandra Hay, 22, a student at Middlebury College in Vermont who is studying in Paris, France; and Sarosh Syed, 26, a special projects coordinator with the ACLU in Seattle.

After complaining to the TSA, Shaw received a letter from the agency's ombudsman that said in part: "While TSA cannot ensure that this procedure will relieve all delays, we hope it will facilitate [a] more efficient check-in procedure for you."

That response fell short of the plaintiffs' goal: to be told what they can do to clear their names and not be permanently designated as suspects.

TSA spokesman Mark Hatfield said about 250 people have written to complain and said there is a process in place for those who are inconvenienced.

"There's an application and a series of steps that an individual can take to seek redress," Hatfield said.

The ACLU is seeking to have the suit certified as a class action. No financial damages are being sought.

"We have no problem with the government doing whatever it can to make us safe," Shuford said. "We support those efforts wholeheartedly, with the caveat that it has to be done in a way that does not trump or trample upon constitutional rights.

"Simply what we want, at the end of the day, is for our clients to be treated just like every other innocent passenger who attempts to fly."

CNN's Mike Ahlers and Kimberly Osais contributed to this report.

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