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PORTLAND, OREGON — Abe Mashal couldn’t get his boarding pass to print before a flight out of Chicago four years ago. The woman behind the airline counter gave him a strange look and then a cadre of federal agents surrounded him.
“It was the biggest shock you can even imagine,” said Mashal, a Marine veteran from Naperville, Illinois.
The airline employee told him: “You’re on the no-fly list. I can’t say anything else.”
For Mashal and a dozen others, the experience was the same: Without warning, they were told they couldn’t get on a plane, and like Mashal, three others are military veterans. They sued in Portland, Oregon, claiming the U.S. government’s no-fly list violated their constitutional right to due process.
On Tuesday, a federal judge agreed, saying the 13 plaintiffs, all Muslims, have been unconstitutionally deprived of their right to fly and lack a meaningful way to challenge their inclusion on a list that bars them from flying to or within the United States.
The 13 had a right to hear why they were placed on the list, U.S. District Court Judge Anna Brown ruled. If the information is not classified, Brown urged the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to release it.
If it is classified, the government should at least inform them of the “nature and extent” of the information, Brown said.
The no-fly list, a well-protected government secret, decides who is barred from flying at U.S. airports. The FBI has said the list requires secrecy to protect sensitive investigations and to avoid giving terrorists clues for avoiding detection.
It contains thousands of names and has been one of the government’s most public counterterrorism tools since 9/11. It also has been one of the most condemned, with critics saying some innocent travelers have been mistaken for terrorism suspects.
Mashal said he can’t imagine why he would be on the list. He, like the other plaintiffs, is Muslim and believes that played a role.
Representatives of the U.S. Justice Department did not immediately return a call or email seeking comment Wednesday afternoon.
In the wake of the ruling, the U.S. government doesn’t have to take the plaintiffs off the list, but it has to tell them why they are on it. Brown, the judge, did not set out a specific policy for Homeland Security to follow in informing people. The agency can appeal her ruling or seek an alternative way around the directive.
Nevertheless, Mashal, who started a private dog training company after leaving the service, said the impact to his livelihood is done.
Business was good but relied on national advertising and a busy cross-country flight schedule, Mashal said. That all came to a halt in April 2010, when he was stopped in Chicago.
He lost clients and had to scale back his business.
And it wasn’t just money. Mashal missed a wedding in Boston and a funeral in Southern California.
“A lot of people are shocked by my story, but they shouldn’t be,” Mashal said. “It’s a lot more common than you think.”
Last year, his lawyer passed on a mysterious message: Try to fly again and see what happens. He did and boarded without a problem.
“It was the strangest thing,” Mashal said. “So I’m on this horrible list one day, and then they just took me off?”
To Mashal, it reinforced that the list is arbitrary at best and, at worst, a tool to compel people to become government informants.
“To be honest,” he said, “I don’t think they have very much on anyone in this whole lawsuit.”