WaPo on No-Fly: Black Hole to Quicksand

I wrote here Monday, and the Washington Post editorialized today, about the lawsuit in which the ACLU is representing a group of people who believe they have been wrongly placed on the government’s no-fly list. I find the Post’s editorial needlessly equivocal and muddied.

The plaintiffs “have a point — to a point,” says the Post. “[T]he list is essentially a black hole.” But it never says how their suit overshoots the mark.

When someone vindicating a constitutional right has a point, he or she has a point—period. Due process is a right prescribed by the Constitution, not something to dither about like Hamlet.

Hewing to a reasoned-sounding middle ground, the Post says, “There are legitimate law enforcement reasons for keeping the list secret: Disclosure of such information would tip off known or suspected terrorists, who could then change their habits or identities to escape government scrutiny.”

Think this through. The no-fly list is self-revealing. Any terrorist who tries to fly and can’t is “tipped off” that he or she is a suspect. (Does it matter whether the list or something else prevented him or her from flying? No.) Said terrorist will take steps to evade the list or someone else will take over—terrorists are fungible. The benefit of secrecy is small to the point of superfluous.

The Post correctly states that “U.S. citizens who believe they are on the list because of bad information should have a chance to challenge that designation before an independent arbiter.” But then it goes all mealy: “A federal court may be an appropriate forum, if governed by procedural safeguards to protect national security information. Creating an independent review panel within the executive might also meet the need.”

The secrecy rationale is tiny. The federal courts have vast experience with issues of all sensitivities. Developing a new (suitably) ”independent” panel would be a mountainous chore. And the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers cuts strongly against the Post’s proposal.

This editorial’s “middle ground” looks a lot like quicksand—a lot like the black hole the no-fly list is.