Hard-To-Change Mistakes Led To Successful 'No-Fly List' Case

This week, a federal judge ruled that the government's no-fly list process is unconstitutional. NPR's Arun Rath speaks with Abe Mashal, one of the 13 plaintiffs in the case.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

The no-fly list has violated Americans constitutional rights and has to change. That's what a federal judge ruled this past week. Since 9/11 the government has maintained one list of people who should face additional screening at airports and another for people who are simply not allowed to fly. The government says they cannot reveal how many people are on the no-fly list or who they are - for security reasons. The ACLU represented 13 people in this federal case. They argued that the government had added them to the no-fly list by mistake and made it very difficult to get off. Abe Mashal is one of those plaintiffs. He's a former Marine who now works as a dog trainer. He said he found out he was on the no-fly list back in 2010 when he was getting ready to go on a trip for his job.

ABE MASHAL: And the night before I was trying to print my boarding pass online. I was unable to print it. So I called the airlines up. I said, hey I'm not able to print my boarding pass. And they told me to report to the ticket counter in the morning. Next morning I went to the airport handed the lady my license. She kind of gave me a strange look then she went in back for about five minutes. And when she came back out I heard some commotion behind me so I turned around and I was surrounded by around 30 TSA and Chicago police. So that's how I found out I was on the no-fly list.

RATH: Abe Mashal says an FBI agent then took him into a back room at the airport.

MASHAL: So we went in back and he just asked me some general questions, name, Social Security number, you know, my background and I told him I was half Italian, half Arab. And then once I said that he kind of really followed in with some of the Arab background questions. Am I Muslim? You know, do I go to a mosque? This and that. And I actually, I answered all of his questions and then he told me I was free to go. And I said, well wait a minute - how did I end up on this list and how do I get off? And he said that even if he knew why they put me on it he wouldn't be able to tell me. And he knows of no way off of it and the only thing I could do was go home and fill out a redress form on the Department of Homeland Security's website. And that's exactly what they did.

RATH: He says he got no response from Homeland Security. He was never charged with a crime. But Mashal says a couple of months later two FBI agents called him and asked to meet him at nearby hotel. He agreed.

MASHAL: And I says, OK guys what's going on? And he basically said, well the good news is we can get you off this no-fly list today if you agree to become an undercover informant for us. You know, we would be paying you under the table. You wouldn't be claiming this money but you couldn't even tell your wife about this position. And I was like you know what guys this is crazy. I want to speak with an attorney.

RATH: That's when Mashal joined the ACLU lawsuit. For three years Mashal did not fly. He says he lost a lot of business and missed a lot of life.

MASHAL: My sister-in-law graduated from school in Hawaii - I couldn't go to that. My friend passed away in Southern California - one of my really close friends. I couldn't go to that. One of my best friends in Boston got married. I couldn't go to that. So it has definitely impacted lots of different things in my life.

RATH: And I understand that you've since gotten off the list even before this week. How did you find out you were off the list?

MASHAL: Well I found out because my lawyer basically urged me last year she said, you know what Abe it's been over three years since you've flown - why don't you attempt to fly. And I says, you know, I'm not going to go back to the airport unless you're with me. So she met me. We went to O'Hare. And, believe it or not, I was able to print my boarding pass from the house. When I got to the airport I got on the plane. It was the strangest thing because I was not pulled aside for additional security or anything. It's weird to be because, in my opinion, it's like OK they put me on this no-fly list. The next step would maybe be to put me on a screening list but I'm not even on a screening list. You know, I mysteriously ended up on it - and just as mysteriously they took you off and they never told me when they put me on or took me off.

RATH: So what did it feel like being back on an airplane after going through all this?

MASHAL: Well, you know, I had mixed emotions. You know, that - the day I was able to fly last year with the lawyer I was extremely happy. And I was saying to myself, finally. My main objective of this whole lawsuit is done. But at the same time you say to yourself, OK I'm able to fly. But, you know, there's been tons of people who've flown somewhere and then when they go to come home they find themselves on the no-fly list. So like when me and my wife went on vacation - we went up to Portland, Oregon, Northern California in October. I made it to Portland like nothing but I was still worried. I'm like what if they put me on the list before I get home? How the heck am I going to get home to the kids and everything? So, you know, you run through all these different scenarios in your mind. You know, you're always I guess a little bit nervous about it.

RATH: When you heard about this week's ruling about the no-fly list what was your reaction?

MASHAL: I was extremely happy. It's a huge step in the right direction. I'm really happy that the judge was able to view it not as a case but as - on a personal level. Like she kind of went through everybody's life. All the plaintiffs lives that were on the case and said, holy cow this has really impacted them. Their lives have been turned upside down. People look at them differently. This isn't right. And, you know, I'm glad that she said that our rights were violated because I totally agree. I think it was a great step in the right direction. I really am happy with the ruling.

RATH: That's Abe Mashal. He was one of the plaintiffs in an ACLU lawsuit challenging the no-fly list. Abe thank you.

MASHAL: You're welcome.

RATH: We also reached out to the Department of Justice for their response. They declined to comment on the claim that the FBI has used the no-fly list to pressure people to cooperate with investigations. But a spokesman did tell us they are currently evaluating how to respond to this week's ruling. And said in a statement quote, "the government's terrorist watchlisting programs, including the no-fly list, are vital tools in the counterterrorism efforts of the United States." The statement goes on to say - "we are committed to a process that protects Americans from terrorist threats while protecting privacy and safeguarding their civil liberties."

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