EDITORIAL: Judge takes air out of no-fly list

U.S. District Judge Anna Brown last week ruled the federal government’s “no-fly” list, originally created to prevent another 9/11, was unconstitutional. The list accused 20,000 people — including 500 Americans — of having links to terrorism and banned them from traveling on commercial airline flights.

The banned travelers made the list based on secret intelligence that the government says raises the “reasonable suspicion” that each person named is “known or suspected to be, or has been engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, or in aid of or related to, terrorism or terrorist activities.”

In response, 13 Muslim Americans on the list — including four veterans of the U.S. military — filed a lawsuit in Oregon denying that they had any links to terrorism and saying that they only found out about their no-fly status when they were prohibited from boarding flights at the airport. Judge Brown ruled that the list violated their constitutional rights, as it gave them no way to challenge the designation.

A no-fly list is a good thing. Once the government has identified those who pose a legitimate terrorist threat, whether they’re a U.S. citizen or from another country, those people shouldn’t be allowed to travel aboard a commercial flight and potentially put others at risk. But once people are placed on that list, or the Transportation Security Administration’s “watch list” — especially if they’re American citizens — they should be notified and given the opportunity to clear their names.

This case reminds us of another one closer to home.

A few years ago, Carlos Garcia, the superintendent of the Clark County School District, learned that he shared his name with someone on the TSA’s watch list. As a result, Mr. Garcia was subjected to repeated and needlessly complicated interrogations at security checkpoints every time he tried to board a flight. Every time, Mr. Garcia would follow the advice of the government in clarifying his identity, providing notarized copies of his passport, driver’s license and school district identification. But as far as the federal agency in charge of airport security was concerned, Mr. Garcia still represented a threat.

We are a free people, and Judge Brown wrote in her ruling that “international travel is not a mere convenience or luxury in this modern world,” but for many “a necessary aspect of liberties sacred to members of a free society with due process.” Instead of employing questionable lists based on secret evidence, the government should offer these people not only a clear explanation of why they aren’t allowed to travel, but also an equally clear and constitutional method of removing their names from the list if they have done nothing wrong. Judge Brown’s ruling was appropriate.

Despite all of the costly additional staffing, technology and procedures introduced since 9/11, data and congressional testimony show that our nation’s airports are no more effective at preventing terrorist threats than they were before the attacks.

This no-fly list, as well as the Patriot Act and all of its resultant domestic snooping, illustrates just how far the government has overreached in its attempts to stop terrorism. If we can’t rein in the bureaucracy, we will become significantly less free — and, as the saying goes, the terrorists will have won.