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NYCLU Calls For Relief For New York Man In Mistaken Identity “No Fly” Dilemma

The New York Civil Liberties Union is asking the Transportation Security Administration to end the personal, Alfred Hitchcock-like drama of Asif Iqbal. Iqbal is a permanent resident of the US who flies frequently on business out of Rochester, New York, but is blocked repeatedly from boarding an airplane. He apparently has the exact name of an individual who had been detained in Guantanamo Bay for two years and was only released within the past few weeks.

In a March 25, 2004 letter to the TSA, the NYCLU detailed how Iqbal has endured repeated encounters at the boarding gate that cause needless hardship, humiliation and inconvenience because his name continues to appear on a “No Fly” security list, even though the TSA has issued him a letter that clarifies his identity. “We acknowledge the need for careful security with respect to air travel,” says NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman. “However, the TSA can advance its goal of enhanced security with less intrusion on the rights of innocent passengers.”

Without fail for several years, Asif Iqbal has flown each week to and from various jobs as a software expert for a major consulting company. The 31-year old Iqbal, who is married and a graduate of the University of Texas, generally leaves his home in Rochester on Monday mornings and usually returns Thursday evenings. Iqbal had followed this schedule without incident until the morning of February 18, 2002.

On that date, the Pakistani-born Iqbal attempted to check-in for a flight out of Rochester, but when the airline clerk typed his name for issuance of a boarding pass, the computer flashed “Security Alert—Passenger Name on No-Fly List—Call LLE (local law enforcement). The computer blocked Iqbal’s name so that it could not issue a boarding pass and 4 deputy sheriffs arrived and took him aside. He was asked a series of personal questions, e.g. Where was he born? What was his job?, etc. After 90 minutes, Iqbal was let go but missed his flight.

Since then, Iqbal’s efforts to check-in for a flight have triggered the alert, local law enforcement have arrived and there have been delays, sometimes minimal since authorities have come to know him. Using the TSA’s Passenger Identity Verification procedure has not remedied the situation. This procedure is a new policy to verify the identities of individuals with names identical or similar to names on the “No-Fly List.” Iqbal and other applicants have submitted extensive personal information to permit the TSA to confirm they do not pose security risks. In turn, the TSA issues letters to these passengers to show airline personnel that they’ve been “cleared” by the TSA and the TSA apparently produces “No-Fly List” updates of those individuals who have been “cleared.”

Even with this letter, Iqbal on occasion has encountered greater difficulty. Once he had been questioned for nearly an hour even after producing his TSA Passenger Identification letter, with only calls to the FBI and TSA resulting in his release. “I feel, as an American resident who travels on a regular basis, that there should be no reason why I should be repeatedly singled out by the “No Fly” list simply because of my name,” says Iqbal who expects to become a naturalized citizen by year’s end. “This ineffective TSA policy discriminates or encourages stereotypes against American Muslims and can be simply improved by the effective use of TSA’s Passenger Identity Verification procedure.”

Meanwhile, the Guantanamo Bay detainee who is also named Asif Iqbal is 20 years old and a British subject who was captured in Afghanistan in 2001. He looks nothing like Asif Iqbal of Rochester. The NYCLU proposes the TSA revamp its Passenger Identity Verification program to ensure airlines do not subject Iqbal and others like him who innocently trigger “No Fly” alerts to intrusive and unreasonable interrogations.

The TSA should develop uniform procedures when collecting individuals’ personal information for verification. Second, the TSA might obtain an individual’s passport number to use after clearing that individual and immediately notify airlines with that passenger’s passport number. Airlines collect passport data for international flights and some domestic flights for frequent flyers and their computers can be easily programmed to match such data. Absent a passport, the TSA could create a PIN number for individuals to be used to clear them for a flight.

“Mr. Iqbal’s Guantanamo detainee namesake who precipitated these incidents has been released as no threat, yet, Iqbal continues to be harassed,” says Scott Forsyth, cooperating attorney to the NYCLU. “It’s scary that the government cannot distinguish between a law-abiding permanent resident and a suspect it held for more than two years in Guantanamo.”

The NYCLU has requested a meeting with the TSA to discuss its proposed changes. “If uncorrected, we will seek legal redress,” says NYCLU legal director Art Eisenberg. “The current procedures provoke needless and unreasonable seizures and unnecessary stigma and embarrassment” for innocent people like Asif Iqbal of Rochester, NY.

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