How Does the U.S. No Fly List Work?

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Following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the U.S. federal government enacted a number of measures meant to combat the threat of terrorism on American soil. Among these measures was the implementation of the No Fly List, created and maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC). Often the subject of jokes in TV shows and movies, many wonder what it really is and how it works. So, how does the U.S. No Fly List actually work?

Those placed on the No Fly List are not permitted to board a commercial aircraft for travel in or out of the United States, and has even been used to divert aircraft containing persons on the list who are not traveling to or from the U.S. away from U.S. airspace. The names on the list are derived from U.S. intelligence gathering, and fluctuates in length, but as of 2012 the List reportedly contained just 21,000 names.

The No Fly List is different than the Terrorist Watch List, which is actually much longer, containing approximately 875,000 names as of 2013. The No Fly List is used not merely to combat terrorism, but also to halt the travel of some registered sex offenders and people convicted (or in some cases just suspected) of trafficking in illegal narcotics. As a result, the No Fly List has drawn criticism from civil rights groups for its unclear criteria and potential for abuse as to ethnic, religious, economic, political, or racial groups. It also raises privacy and government secrecy concerns, and has been cited as overly costly, prone to false positives, and easily defeated.

The No Fly List is currently the subject of a number of different lawsuits against the U.S. governement, primarily for preventing travel by those who claim no affiliation or knowledge of terrorist groups other than what they have heard in the news. Many of these individuals are reporters, business people, teachers, or others who travel frequently to predominantly Muslim countries and/or practice Islam themselves. As a result, many have asserted that the No Fly List is fueled by bigotry, not legitimate intelligence regarding terrorist ties. However, these lawsuits are often stymied by the U.S. government's privilege against disclosing classified information that could harm national security. This makes it difficult for those prosecuting these claims to investigate the reason behind their inclusion on the List or to challenge the List on constitutional grounds because they cannot easily show a pattern of improper behavior.

Fortunately, as noted, the chances of actually being on the list are extremely small. In fact, you are more likely to be struck by lightning (24,000 people around the world are every year) than you are to be on the U.S. No Fly List (only 21,000 as of 2012). Still, for those who are on the List, getting off of it can be a legal nightmare. Nevertheless, the List is intended to prevent the U.S. public from terrorist attacks originating on airplanes or allowing terrorists to travel into or out of the country. Although statistics on the effectiveness of the program are classified, the fact that there has not been another major terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 may speak to its success.

If you are concerned about being wrongfully placed on the Terrorist Watch List or the No Fly List, you should contact an attorney in your area that is experienced with civil rights claims. He or she may also advise you to voluntarily submit to interviews with U.S. intelligence and/or law enforcement officials in order to clear up any confusion as to why you were placed on the No Fly List.


Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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