The Boy(s) Who Shouted ‘National Security!’

Some people out there prefer to defend the government more and more in the name of national security. The government is supposed to keep us safe, they say. And to a certain extent they are correct. But the question remains: is what the government is doing in the name of national security actually keeping us safe? Some people, like myself, are rather skeptical of all the claims of national security to cover all the things we uneducated citizens are not supposed to question the government doing. Why? Well, the case of Rahinah Ibrahim is a good example.

Who is Rahinah Ibrahim? David Kravits at Wired explains:

Ibrahim was a Stanford University doctoral student in architecture and design from Malaysia and was headed to Hawaii to give a paper on affordable housing. Wheelchair-bound after just having a hysterectomy, she was handcuffed, detained for hours at San Francisco International Airport and denied her pain medication until paramedics arrived in 2005. She was eventually released and allowed to fly to her home country of Malaysia.

She sued, seeking to learn if she was on the no-fly list and to clear her name. Her case ping-ponged across the legal landscape for years as the government tried everything it could to have the lawsuit tossed.

The woman was even barred a return flight for her own trial. So was one of her daughters, a U.S. born American citizen, who witnessed her mother’s humiliation at the San Francisco airport.

What happened that caused all this?

FBI agent Kevin Kelley was investigating Muslims in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2004 when he checked the wrong box on a terrorism form, erroneously placing Rahinah Ibrahim on the no-fly list.

What happened next was the real shame. Instead of admitting to the error, high-ranking President Barack Obama administration officials spent years covering it up. Attorney General Eric Holder, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and a litany of other government officials claimed repeatedly that disclosing the reason Ibrahim was detained, or even acknowledging that she’d been placed on a watch list, would cause serious damage to the U.S. national security. Again and again they asserted the so-called “state secrets privilege” to block the 48-year-old woman’s lawsuit, which sought only to clear her name.

Holder went so far as to tell the judge presiding over the case that this assertion of the state secrets privilege was fully in keeping with Obama’s much-ballyhooed 2009 executive branch reforms of the privilege, which stated the administration would invoke state secrets sparingly.

“Under this policy, the Department of Justice will defend an assertion of the state secrets privilege in litigation, and seek dismissal of a claim on that basis, only when necessary to protect against the risk of significant harm to national security,” reads an April signed declaration from the attorney general to U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who presided over the Ibrahim litigation in San Francisco.


In his declaration, Holder assured Judge Alsup that the government would not be claiming national security to conceal “administrative error” or to “prevent embarrassment” — an assertion that is now nearly impossible to square with the facts.

In other words, the government insisted that they could not correct a simple but significant human error because that was supposedly a risk to national security. And yes, the U.S. Federal Government did apparently place Ibrahim’s daughter on the no-fly list simply so they could keep her from testifying as a witness. This was finally solved, but only after years in court with the U.S. government insisting things like “disclosure that an individual is not a subject of an FBI counterterrorism investigation could likewise reasonably be expected to cause significant harm to national security.”

This is what is known as security theater. It is a show with no real substance. It is a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. And yes, by using that allusion to Shakespeare, I am comparing the “but national security” argument to “a tale told by an idiot.”

Which is to say, I think the whole “we have to trust the government because national security” bit is foolishness. Do not get me wrong. Yes, the government should be trying to protect us. And yes, there may be some secrets the government should keep so it may effectively do that job. But that is not an excuse for the government to just to do anything it pleases in the name of national security. National security is not an excuse for the U.S. government to act like a self-righteous bully.

Mind you, this is not an anti-Obama administration rant. The cover-up of the error that placed Ibrahim on the no-fly list started during the watch of President George W. Bush. The problem is not partisan. The problem is government abuse of authority.

So no, claiming the issue is one of national security is not a sufficient excuse. It is not a sufficient defense of government secrecy. Because clearly the national defense excuse is being used repeatedly when there is, apparently, no risk to national security at all.

Which reminds me of a story I heard when I was a boy. It was all about this shepherd boy who for fun decided to cry “Wolf!” The villagers all came running, but there was no wolf. But the boy got bored while watching the sheep and later again cried out “Wolf! A wolf is attacking the sheep!” Again, the villagers came running, and again there was no wolf. Later, when a wolf did finally arrive, the shepherd boy yelled out “Terrorists! National Security!” Oops. Sorry. I meant to say he cried out “Wolf! Help! A wolf is attacking the sheep!” But no one came to help because no one believed the shepherd boy who had proven himself to be a liar.

Which is to say, when the U.S. government wonders why people are becoming more skeptical of it and the things it claims it needs to do to protect us, it has only itself to blame.

3 Responses to “The Boy(s) Who Shouted ‘National Security!’”

  1. A horrifying example of ineptitude wreaking mayhem on an innocent’s life, with the lengths taken to hide this particular case how many more lurk beneath the surface?

    • Indeed. How many have we not heard about because the person has not the means to fight the U.S. government in court?

      • I am sure there are many. Why can’t the big boys suck it up and admit they made a mistake? I know why but it would be a better world without the cover ups and a little humility.

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