An American college student was detained for over five hours at a Philadelphia airport because he was carrying a set of English-Arabic flashcards, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Nicholas George, the 22-year-old senior attending Pomona College, said he was on his way back to school in August 2009 when he was stopped at an airport security screening point and told to empty his pockets by Transportation Security Authority (TSA) agents. He was carrying a set of English-Arabic flashcards that he used in his studies, which had English on one side and Arabic on the other.
According to the lawsuit, the agent asked George questions, including how he felt about 9/11, if he knew who did it and if he knew what language he spoke. After he answered, the agent held up the flashcards and asked, “Do you see why these cards are suspicious?”
Afterwards, a local Philadelphia police officer arrived, handcuffed George and walked him through a terminal to an airport jail cell. He was kept there for a total of four hours, with two spent in handcuffs and two without. Officers continued to examine his possessions, especially the flashcards and a student ID from when he studied abroad in Jordan.
According to the lawsuit, George was then interrogated by two FBI agents, one of whom asked George if he knew why he was being held. When he replied that he did not, the agent called him a “f—-ing [sic] idiot.” They then continued to ask questions such as whether he was Islamic or a member of any “pro-Islamic groups” on campus.
After half an hour, the agents eventually said to George, “Our job is more of an art than a science. The police call us to evaluate whether there is a real threat. You are not a real threat.” They then said he was free to leave. The lawsuit also said that George never received an apology from anyone involved.
After he returned to the terminal, the airline told him that he would have to wait until the next day to fly out.
During the interrogations, George said, he tried to answer all questions fully without giving the agents attitude, thinking they would “just pass it by” because he had nothing seditious or dangerous on him. “I’m absolutely certain that I never raised my voice,” he said. “I never got smart with them.”
“Nick doesn’t object and we don’t object to the fact that he was searched closely, that his belongings were scrutinized,” said Ben Wizner, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project, to CNN. “But once that’s done, there’s absolutely no justification for handcuffing him and locking him in a cell for several hours.”
The lawsuit said that George was “never informed of why he was handcuffed, detained, or arrested,” nor ever informed of his rights.
“Arresting and restraining passengers who pose no threat to flight safety and are not breaking any law not only violates people’s rights, but … may actually make us less safe, by diverting vital resources and attention away from true security threats,” said Wizner.
According to CNN, a government official speaking on background said that George was detained for “anomalous behavior,” after which local law enforcement was called in.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court by the ACLU on behalf of George, charged that the three TSA agents, two Philadelphia law enforcement members and the two FBI agents violated George’s Fourth and First Amendment rights, or freedom from unreasonable seizure and right to free speech.
“Nick George was handcuffed, locked in a cell for hours and questioned about 9/11 simply because he has chosen to study Arabic, a language that is spoken by hundreds of millions of people around the world,” said Wizner. “This sort of harassment of innocent travelers is a waste of time and a violation of the Constitution.”
Security technologist Bruce Schneier said in a Philly.com article that the incident was “just stupid” and that it should have taken the TSA “15 seconds” to determine that George was not a threat. However, the problem lies in how agents don’t face a penalty for making a wrong call.
“If I detain someone and he’s not a terrorist, nothing happens to me,” Schneier said. “I’m probably praised. If I let him go and he is, my career is over. The TSA incentive is to overreact. Terrorism can’t do this to us. I think only we can do this to ourselves.”