The Michigan ACLU filed a civil rights complaint today on behalf of a Lebanese-American family man who, in spite of not being suspected of any wrongdoing, was subjected to years of sustained abuse at the hands of the FBI.
In Chebli v. Kable, et al, Ahmad Chebli is suing Charles Kable of the Terrorist Screening Center, Attorney General Merrick Garland, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Alejandro Mayourkas of the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA’s David Pekoske for violating his Fifth and First Amendment rights, along with his right to religious liberty. The plaintiffs allege that the US surveillance apparatus was utilized to threaten Chebli’s family and put him on the No Fly List.
The facts in the case paint a picture of an FBI and DHS that operate in ruthless and unhinged ways against US citizens who are neither charged nor suspected of being criminals. The goal is not even to investigate “terrorism,” but to blackmail and intimidate ordinary people into entrapping people in their community to build political narratives.
Under the guise of “counter-terrorism,” federal agents use a number of unconstitutional tools to punish individuals whose political beliefs they disagree with, or when they see fit, to compel them to become assets. To this day, there is no evidence the DHS or its the FBI’s Patriot Act powers have ever succeeded in thwarting an authentic terror plot.
Chebli’s First Encounter
According to the facts in the case, Chebli is a 32-year-old American citizen of Lebanese ancestry who is a father and husband.
Chebli, a small business owner, had for years traveled back and forth to Lebanon to visit family members without incident.
He first began encountering harassment in 2015, when during a flight back to the United States from Lebanon he received an “SSSS” on his plane ticket. SSSS stands for secondary security screening selection, which is usually a sign an individual has been placed by the FBI on the terrorist watch list.
When “selectees” travel internationally, they are detained by Customs and Border Patrol at the airport and interrogated. During this instance, Chebli was interrogated about his political beliefs and Lebanese issues by the CBP but then released without incident.
Chebli grew accustomed to the invasive searches whenever he traveled and simply chalked it up to a nuisance caused by misidentification.
In 2018, the annoyance evolved into serious harassment.
Chebli received a mysterious call from a man pretending to be a building permit inspector for one of his business. Chebli went to City Hall to clear up the issue, only to find out that the call was made by FBI agents who dragged him into a private room.
The agents told Chebli that he did not have to agree to the interview, but closed the door behind him as an intimidation tactic.
During the discussion, FBI agents told Chebli that they wanted him to become an agent provocateur in the Lebanese-American community, citing his supposed engineering abilities and fluent proficiency in the language. The Muslim terrorist threat in the United States does not come from Hezbollah or the Lebanese, but rather from groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda which Hezbollah has been leading the fight against. The Israel lobby is eager to change that and they may believe entrapping people in “Hezbollah” plots could help build public interest and animosity against the group.
Chebli did not want to become a tool for demonizing his people and told the agents that he was too busy with his work and family to participate in their operation.
The agents, who warned Chebli not to record them, then began accusing Chebli of being an “agent of Hezbollah” and demanded that he admit to it under penalty of law. Chebli continued to deny that he had any contact with the Lebanese political party.
The FBI then told him that the only way to make their “suspicions” of him being in Hezbollah “go away” was to work for them as an informant. When Chebli once again said no, they began to threaten him with deporting his wife and taking his children away. They then proceeded to tell the US citizen that if he didn’t comply with their demands, he should get out of America.
Serial Killer Behavior and The No Fly List
Chebli agreed to meet with the agents numerous other times in hopes of clearing his name and showing that he was not a terrorist or a Hezbollah agent. When he realized they weren’t interested in his innocence, he heeded the government’s threats and decided to move his wife and children to Lebanon in hopes of keeping them safe.
The menacing only continued. When he applied for a passport for his infant son to fly, two FBI agents dropped in on his family at the Detroit passport office, urging him to attend their next meeting.
Going one step further, in September of 2018 he drove his wife and children to the airport. After dropping them off, he received a creepy and unsolicited serial killer style phone call from an FBI agent, who said that he was at the airport to “make sure” his wife would be able to get through security without much hassle. This was naturally construed as a threat.
Four FBI agents, only identified by their first names, continued a sustained campaign of harassment and mental torture against Chebli, demanding at every meeting that he either work for them or leave America.
Chebli later flew to Lebanon to see his family, and the FBI’s demand that he leave finally started to make sense.
When after a month, Chebli attempted to board a flight back to the United States to tend to his business, staff at the airport dropped a bombshell: he was no longer allowed to fly.
The US embassy was unhelpful, instead telling him to lodge a complaint with the DHS’ “TRIP Redress,” an utterly useless complaint box for people confused about being randomly put on watch lists or No Fly Lists without an explanation.
It took a month to get a response from the DHS, who simply told him that he was on the No Fly List and had no way to travel back to the country he was a citizen of.
It was only after contacting the ACLU that Chebli was able to obtain a one time flight waiver to get home to Detroit.
The FBI and DHS’ Infantile Behavior
The most important aspect of the story is how the government appears to be self-aware that their “watch lists” are illegal, shameful and unethical.
Only after obtaining high powered counsel did the DHS bother to respond to Chebli’s inquiries for more information. In 2019, the DHS told the man that they had sent him a letter explaining why he was on the No Fly List, but that it was undeliverable because he didn’t give a correct address– a likely lie. When he emailed them his address again, the DHS never responded.
In October 2020, Chebli tried to fly to New York City domestically, only to be bullied all over again.
FBI agents cornered him at LaGuardia airport and took him to a private lounge. After learning his rights from the ACLU, he told the agents his travel plans but refused to answer any of their other questions.
An FBI agent named “Tony” and his supervisor retaliated by threatening his children, a pressure point the cowards struck in every interaction. When he asked them why they were so obsessed with his children, the FBI agents named another Lebanese man he did not know, and said “He has two daughters similar in age to your kids and they’re safe right now because he chose to cooperate with us.”
While having no right to detain him, the agents refused to answer if he was free to leave until he called his ACLU lawyer, who they acquiesced to.
During his last attempt to fly to Lebanon for holidays, Chebli was once again denied boarding. His Constitutional right to travel for family, leisure, business or religious reasons was being denied and no reason was being given.
The ACLU’s lawsuit solidly demonstrates the myriad of ways the FBI terrorist watch list and No Fly List violate the rights of US citizens, and how these tools are used to torment people rather than engage in legitimate law enforcement or protect national security interests.
There is no recent data on how many people have been put on these lists, but estimates range in the millions, including many thousands. Unlike the Chinese social credit system, Washington’s “blacklists” do not even tell an individual who is not charged or even being investigated for a crime why his liberties are being suddenly curtailed.
As the US government prepares to load up these oppressive lists with ordinary Trump supporters, it is vital to put aside all differences and support this lawsuit’s mission of creating meaningful redress, due process, or better yet, abolishing the ridiculous list altogether.