Privacy SOS

Hey, you can’t hide behind those medals – we know you’re a terrorist!

It’s by now a sadly familiar story.

A guy with a ‘suspicious’ name (Mo Farah) and even more ‘suspicious’ ancestry (Somali) gets stopped at the border when trying to enter the US from Canada to spend Christmas with his family in Portland, Oregon.

Who cares if he’s a famous British citizen who holds a US residency permit and won two gold medals at the London Olympics, and took them out of his luggage to show to the border patrol? The computer rules.

“Because of my Somali origin I get detained every time I come through US customs,” Farah said. “This time I even got my medals out to show who I am, but they wouldn’t have it.”

Once a ‘terrorist suspect,’ always a ‘terrorist suspect.’ You would have thought Farah would have been ‘cleared’ in 2011, when he first moved to Portland to be sponsored by Nike and train with the renowned coach Alberto Salazar.

Nike signed off on Farah’s residence application. He was told that because he entered the US on a tourist visa, he had to leave the country and re-enter with his new residency visa.

So he went to Toronto for a few days. While there, he received a letter saying he was under an investigation for ‘terrorism,’ and would have to stay away from the US for at least 90 days. Having only packed for four days, he called up coach Salazar who had a friend in the FBI who turned out to be a big track fan and agreed to sort things out.

But these things never really do get sorted out. Once flagged as a ‘suspect’ in a computer database, always flagged in a computer database – somewhere.

But the FBI denies that being repeatedly hassled at borders means a person is in its Terrorism Screening Database or possibly on the ‘no fly list,’ whose number doubled in a single year to more than 21,000 as of February 2012.

According to the FBI’s Frequently Asked Questions, “at security checkpoints like our nation’s borders, there are many law enforcement or security reasons that an individual may be singled out for additional screening…If an individual is experiencing these kinds of difficulties, he/she should cooperate with the agency screeners and explain the recurring problems. The screeners can supply instructions on how to raise concerns to the appropriate agency redress office.”

Mo Farah, take note.

And take comfort from this information on the FBI site:

“Many people erroneously believe that they are experiencing a screening delay because they are on a watchlist. In fact, such delays are often caused merely by a name similarity to another person who is on the watchlist. Ninety-nine percent of individuals who apply for redress are not on the terrorist watchlist, but are misidentified as people who are.”

Repeatedly misidentified, possibly forever.

These ‘misidentified’ people should not be confused with those who are deliberately targeted for harassment. The popular Pakistani politician Imran Khan, who may be prime minister one day, falls into this category.

Last October Khan was removed from a plane when he was attempting to fly from Canada to New York where he was to attend a fundraiser and make a speech. He was interrogated for hours about his (negative) views on US drone strikes, and ended up missing his New York engagement.

His treatment was part of a trend “to harass anti-drone advocates,” according to Glenn Greenwald.

And showing the medals he got from his famed cricket career would not have helped. 

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.