By Dan Levine
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A long court battle waged by a Malaysian architect over her mistaken inclusion on the U.S. government's no-fly list may never have started if a federal agent had marked the correct boxes on an official form.
Rahinah Ibrahim sued the U.S. government in 2006 after she was placed on the no-fly list and was then denied a U.S. visa.
After years of litigation and appeals, U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco issued a short statement last month saying that existing procedures to correct mistakes on the no-fly list do not provide adequate due process protections.
The judge's detailed opinion, publicly filed on Thursday, describes how Ibrahim wound up on the no-fly list in the first place.
According to the ruling, an FBI agent in San Jose, California, had not intended to place Ibrahim on the list, but checked the wrong boxes on a form.
"That it was human error may seem hard to accept - the FBI agent filled out the nomination form in a way exactly opposite from the instructions on the form," Alsup wrote, "a bureaucratic analogy to a surgeon amputating the wrong digit - human error, yes, but of considerable consequence."
A U.S. Department of Justice spokeswoman declined to comment on the ruling.
The no-fly list has become the subject of multiple legal challenges. Ibrahim's case is believed to have been the first to go to trial, which took place in December.
Ibrahim attended Stanford University on a student visa, according to court filings. In early 2005, she was detained for two hours at San Francisco's airport because authorities believed she was on the no-fly list.
Eventually, she was allowed to travel to Malaysia. However, her U.S. visa was revoked under a legal provision relating to suspected terrorist activities, though she was not told the specific factual basis for that action. She has not been allowed to return to the United States.
Ibrahim petitioned U.S. authorities to clear her name, but instead received a letter that did not say whether she was still on the no-fly list. She filed a lawsuit, claiming that her inability to return to the United States damaged her professionally.
The U.S. government has since conceded that Ibrahim is not a national security threat. She is currently the dean of architecture at Universiti Putra Malaysia.
In his ruling, Alsup wrote that it is reasonable to believe that the FBI agent's original mistake led to Ibrahim's subsequent visa problems.
Once false information is entered into one government database, Alsup wrote, "it can propagate extensively through the government's interlocking complex of databases, like a bad credit report that will never go away."
Law enforcement must track terrorists and maintain secret watchlists, such as the no-fly list, Alsup wrote. However, this case "involves a conceded, proven, undeniable and serious error by the government," he wrote.
The judge ordered U.S. authorities to correct any mistaken information about Ibrahim and also to disclose more information relating to the denial of her visa application.
The case in U.S. District Court, Northern District of California is Rahinah Ibrahim vs Department of Homeland Security et al, 06-545.
(Reporting by Dan Levine, editing by G Crosse)