• EXCLUSIVE: State Department Seizing U.S. Passports in Yemen

    December 5, 2013 // 18 Comments »

    The rights of citizenship are among the most crucial to a democracy– from citizenship flows the full range of legal protections against unwarranted government interference, and the ability to travel freely.

    Citizenship for an American is made plain by the issuance of a U.S. passport by the U.S. Department of State. That passport once could only be seized and revoked by State under clear rules, and with a form of redress made explicit. Those strictures may still apply to most Americans, everywhere. Everywhere but in Yemen.

    NSC: 500 Unlawful Passport Seizures in Yemen?

    According to exclusive information obtained through a U.S. government whistleblower involved directly with U.S.-Yemeni affairs, the American Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen unlawfully seized over one hundred U.S. passports from Yemeni-Americans (some place the number at 500 passports), resulting in multiple lawsuits in Federal court. The Department of State, responsible for all U.S. passport matters, lost one case, and settled three others out-of-court. Yemenis in the U.S. are bringing the issue to the attention of the National Security Council and Congress, demanding oversight and assistance. State’s response has been to stonewall the inquiries inside the U.S., and to award and promote the person at the U.S. embassy in Yemen responsible for the seizures.

    The leaked information supports the contention that passport seizures are a bigger problem than was originally believed. The Yemen Post cited only twenty cases. A forum for legal advice includes accusations of the same, prompting one attorney to comment “The U.S. consular officers in Yemen believe they are God and act accordingly.”

    However, in emails from the National Security Council to the State Department obtained by this blog, the Director for Yemen cites contact from “another” immigration attorney on the subject, and, more significantly, an inquiry that involves 500 seized/revoked passport cases. She asks State “Can you tell me what he is referring to?” State’s response was to promise to hold a meeting with some Yemeni-Americans to “hear their concerns.” The last email in the chain is again from the NSC, pleading for confirmation that any such meeting actually took place.

    Abdulhakem Alsadah, who coordinates a Yemeni-American society in Michigan, said though he initiated calls to the State Department, he has never been contacted by them. He knows of no meetings held “to hear concerns.” The publisher of a Yemen-American news site also says he has heard of no meetings held by State. Both men would welcome the chance to speak directly to the officials responsible for what they see as a significant violation of rights at the U.S. embassy in Sanaa.

    The Case of Abdo Hizam

    The use of extra-judicial passport seizures by State against Yemeni-Americans extends back several years, and appears connected to the case of drone-assassinated al Qaeda propagandist and American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki.

    Yemeni-American Abdo Hizam immigrated with his parents to the U.S. at age nine, growing up a typical American kid outside Detroit. He was issued a U.S. passport, and in fact renewed it twice through the State Department. As an adult, Hizam traveled to Yemen in 2009. In the course of a routine immigration matter regarding his own children, the U.S. embassy unlawfully seized Hizam’s passport, providing no explanation. After three weeks of silence, he was permitted by the embassy to return to the U.S.

    Two years after returning home, around the same time as the more spectacular passport case of Anwar al-Awlaki, the State Department told Hizam that he had received his citizenship “in error” twenty two years earlier. The mistake was no fault of his or his parents. In fact, the government adjudicated the original application wrong, and admitted so. Nonetheless, State revoked his passport and stripped Mr. Hizam of his nationality, plunging him into statelessness, declaring he was, at the stroke of the pen, no longer an American. Hizam could not leave the U.S., and his wife and children in Yemen were not issued visas by State to come to the U.S., actions that kept the family apart for three years. Hizam was offered no chance to argue, no recourse by the State Department but to accept his forced expatriation.

    Hizam was however one of the lucky ones. Still in the U.S. physically but no longer legally, he sued the government. While the State Department argued in part that it could retroactively apply a law passed long after Hizam became a citizen to revoke his citizenship, in Hizam v. Hillary Clinton, a court ordered State to give Hizam back his passport. The court scolded the State Department that at the time it approved Hizam’s citizenship it was “impossible for him to have received any notice whatsoever that his status could be revoked in the future.”

    “It’s certainly a scary power that the State Department is asserting here,” one of Hizam’s lawyer said. “The fact that the State Department can go back and ask these questions when somebody has, from childhood, been a U.S. citizen, is very frightening.”

    But instead of accepting it could not go back to the future in Hizam’s case, State doubled-down and instead tried to stay the court order until it completed a lengthy appeal of the case, claiming the Department “will suffer irreparable injury because the Order undermines its ‘sole discretion’ to withhold passports.” The court disagreed and for the time gave Hizam back his passport, his citizenship, his right to travel and the ability to reunite with his family. State continues to appeal; the U.S. Court of Appeals for the second circuit the government’s arguments two months ago, but has yet to issue a decision. A lawyer familiar with the case stated “The government recognizes that their position is causing great unfairness to this man and suggests that the only remedy is to get a special law passed specifically for him.”

    Extra-Judicial Actions

    After failing to establish legal precedent for its unlawful passport revocations, the State Department appears to have shifted gears, simply ignoring the law to physically seize passports from Yemeni-Americans seeking routine services at the embassy in Sanaa, or those tricked into coming in. Supporters of the affected Yemenis report regular but often vague accusations of fraud being used as excuses to simply grab a passport. Others say that elderly Yemeni-Americans coming to the embassy for routine social security questions have been subjected to interrogations and again, after being accused of fraud, losing their passports without further explanation. While regulations require a formal, deliberative process to legally seize a U.S. passport, especially abroad where such seizure can strand an American and subject him to host-country immigration penalties, in Sanaa these regulations were bypassed simply by labeling the seizures as a case in need of “additional administrative processing.”

    The embassy in Sanaa gave itself top cover for its actions. In a cable obtained by Wikileaks, the embassy noted that “all immigrant visa cases are considered fraudulent until proven otherwise. Interviews are complex, due not only to fraud, but also to the illiteracy and poor education of applicants.”

    Rashid A. Abdu, publisher of the Michigan-based Yemeni-American, believes 100 or more Yemeni-Americans have had their passports taken away in Sanaa under dubious circumstances. He met with Congressman John Dingell not only to seek assistance but to remind him that word spreads fast in Yemen: these American citizens who could be serving as helpful bridges between the two countries are instead passing the word that the U.S. government seems to be singling them out for punishment (Dingell’s Dearborn office acknowledged the passport issue, but referred formal comment to the Congressman’s Washington office, who in turn refused to comment on the matter.)

    A Bigger Picture

    The actions at the American embassy in Yemen, while at first appearing to be little more than spiteful bureaucracy, fit into a larger pattern. For example, at the same time in 2011 the U.S. was ramping up its actions against Yemeni-Americans, Australia appeared to be doing much the same thing. “Withholding passports is an important means of preventing Australians from traveling overseas to train, support or participate in terrorism,” an Australian government spokesperson said. “It may also be used to help prevent an Australian already overseas from participating in activities that are prejudicial to the security of Australia or another country.”

    Anwar al-Awlaki

    The Government of the United States can also take away passports from American Citizens if “The Secretary of State determines that the applicant’s activities abroad are causing or are likely to cause serious damage to the national security or the foreign policy of the United States.”

    If the government feels it is against its interest for you to have a passport and thus the freedom to travel, to depart the United States if you wish to, it will just take it away. The law allows this prospectively, the “or are likely to cause…” part of the law, meaning you don’t need to have done anything. The government just needs to decide that you might.

    A Judicial Watch Freedom of Information Act request revealed that prior to having him and his 16 year old son killed by a drone in 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton secretly revoked the passport of Anwar al-Awlaki, al Qaeda propagandist and U.S. Citizen. The State Department even tried later to invite al-Awlaki into the U.S. embassy in Yemen so that they could encourage him to return to the U.S. to face charges. In a cable to the embassy in Sanaa, al-Awaki’s street address was listed. The embassy was to send him a written letter inviting him into the embassy, specifying that he was to bring along photo ID “to preserve his privacy rights.” Six months later (al-Awlaki never dropped by the Embassy, by the way), the U.S. government simply killed him. Two weeks after that it killed his 16 year old son, also an American citizen.

    Because the passport revocations at the Secretary of State’s pleasure can be secret, it has been difficult to track down recent examples where the U.S. government revoked the passport of an American simply because his/her presence abroad bothered– or might bother– the Secretary of State. In fact, the only example found was that of infamous ex-CIA officer Phillip Agee, who in the 1970′s exposed CIA officers identities. It was in Agee’s case that the Supreme Court coldly stated that “The right to hold a passport is subordinate to national security and foreign policy considerations.”

    There is at least one other case of extra-judicial forced expatriation, this one outside of Yemen, though it follows an identical pattern of action by the State Department. Officials at the American embassy in Kuwait told an American working as a U.S. military contractor there that after they confiscated his passport that “he should no longer consider himself a U.S. citizen.”At issue is a 20 year old problem that occurred before the Moroccan-American resident of Oregon even was a U.S. citizen. “American citizenship is too important to be subject to the whims of low level bureaucrats,” a lawyer for the subject wrote. “If there are any concerns about my client’s citizenship, he has the right to have those concerns addressed through the judicial process once he returns to the United States.” The State Department referred questions about the case to its Bureau of Consular Affairs, where an official said she could not discuss the case because of privacy concerns.

    State Department’s Response

    Though the State Department did not respond to requests for comment on this article either, in response to a Yemeni newspaper inquiry the Department said “While we do not comment on individual cases, we take all passport fraud allegations seriously. U.S. passports are the property of the United States Government and under certain circumstances can be revoked.”

    Perhaps more telling is the State Department’s actions toward the American embassy official in Yemen in charge of the passport revocations. On November 13, via a cable sent worldwide to all embassies and consulates but curiously not yet made public, the State Department named the official consular officer of the year, an award for excellence that the cable said acknowledged “outstanding individual contributions… with a particular emphasis on efficiency and quality… the committee was impressed with (her) inspired leadership.” According to that official’s Facebook page, she was also promoted, and given a dream follow-on assignment from Yemen to Australia.

    State’s generous actions toward its official in Yemen are more than the usual puffery. They strongly imply sanction of the passport seizures and revocations, and thus encourage additional such actions despite the concerns at the White House and lawsuits that have followed. In the world of bureaucracy, no career action survives public chastisement without having official sanction.

    The War Hits Home

    Despite the devastating effect on individual lives, it is hard to see what is truly being accomplished in Yemen for the United States. Perhaps like the NSA hoovering up our Facebook posts, the point may be not that they need to do it, but that they can. A bureaucracy unchecked just continues to reach deeper into citizens’ lives.

    On the other hand, open season on Yemeni-Americans appears more than simple bureaucratic zeal. Since 9/11, the U.S. has stopped considering law and regulation in favor of unilateral, and often times secret, extra-judicial actions. From the more significant steps of indefinite imprisonment without trial, to torture to daily violations of Constitutional freedoms, the tentacles of the war on terror now reach as far as the forced expatriation of individual American citizens.

    Related Articles:

    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Embassy/State

    Sticking to Our Rights to Protect Our Rights

    February 8, 2013 // 44 Comments »

    Q: If a foreign organization kills an American overseas for political reasons, it is called…
    A: Terrorism.

    Q: If the United States kills an American overseas for political reasons, it is called…
    A: Justice.

    The Government of the United States, currently under the management of a former professor of Constitutional law, is actively killing its own citizens abroad without any form of due process. This is generally seen as a no-no as far as the Bill of Rights, the Magna Carta and playground rules goes. The silly old Fifth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees “no person shall be deprived of life without due process of law” and include no exceptions for war, terrorism, or being a really shitty human being.

    On or about May 7, 2011 a US military drone fired a missile in Yemen (which is another country that is not our country) aimed at American Citizen Anwar al Awlaki, a real-live al Qaeda guy. The missile instead blew up a car with two other people in it, quickly dubbed “al Qaeda operatives” since we killed them. The US has shot at al Awlaki before, including under the Bush administration. In justifying the assassination attempt, Obama’s counterterrorism chief Michael Leiter said al Awlaki posed a bigger threat to the U.S. homeland than bin Laden did, albeit without a whole lot of explanation as to why this was. But, let’s be charitable and agree al Awaki is a bad guy; indeed, Yemen sentenced him to ten years in jail (which is not execution, fyi) for “inciting to kill foreigners” and “forming an armed gang.”

    While the al Awlaki killing is old news, the new news is that the drone that did him fly out of a previously secret U.S. base in Saudi Arabia. Conveniently, that base was secret pretty much only from the American public, as it turns out that an “informal arrangement among several news organizations that had been aware of the location for more than a year.” Those news organizations included the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Associated Press and Fox. The limp newsies kept the secret because the Obama administration claimed disclosure might carry “potential national-security risks.” The U.S. militarization of Saudi Arabia after the 1991 Gulf War is often cited by al Qaeda as one of its prime recruitment tools, so the disclosure indeed reveals a significant dumb ass decision by the U.S.

    Attorneys for al Awlaki’s father tried to persuade a US. District Court to issue an injunction preventing the government from the targeted killing of al Awlaki in Yemen, though a judge dismissed the case, ruling the father did not have standing to sue. My research has so far been unable to disclose whether or not this is the first time a father has sought to sue the US government to prevent the government from killing his son but I’ll keep looking. The judge did call the suit “unique and extraordinary” so I am going to go for now with the idea that no one has previously sued the USG to prevent them from murdering a citizen without trial or due process. The judge wimped out and wrote that it was up to the elected branches of government, not the courts, to determine whether the United States has the authority to murder its own citizens abroad.

    Just to get ahead of the curve, and even though my own kids are non-terrorists and still in school, I have written to the president asking in advance that he not order them killed. Who knows what they might do? One kid has violated curfew a couple of times, and another stays up late some nights on Facebook, and we all know where that can lead.

    The reason I bring up this worrisome turn from regular person to wanted terrorist is because al Awlaki used to be on better terms with the US government himself. In fact, after 9/11, the Pentagon invited him to a luncheon as part of the military’s outreach to the Muslim community. Al Awlaki “was considered to be an ‘up and coming’ member of the Islamic community” by the Army. He attended a luncheon at the Pentagon in the Secretary of the Army’s Office of Government Counsel. Al Awlaki was living in the DC area at that same, the SAME AREA MY KIDS LIVE, serving as Muslim chaplain at George Washington University, the SAME UNIVERSITY MY KIDS might walk past one day.

    Even though Constitutional law professor Obama appears to have skipped reading about the Fifth Amendment (release the transcripts! Maybe he skipped class that day!), courts in Canada have not.

    A Toronto judge was justified in freeing an alleged al Qaeda collaborator given the gravity of human rights abuses committed by the United States in connection with his capture in Pakistan, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled. Judges are not expected to remain passive when countries such as the US violate the rights of alleged terrorists, the court said Friday.

    “We must adhere to our democratic and legal values, even if that adherence serves in the short term to benefit those who oppose and seek to destroy those values,” said the Canadian court.

    Golly, this means that because the US gave up its own principles in detaining and torturing this guy, the Canadians are not going to extradite him to the US. That means that the US actions were… counterproductive… to our fight against terrorism. The Bill of Rights was put in place for the tough cases, not the easy ones. Sticking with it as the guiding principle has worked well for the US for about 230 years, so why abandon all that now?

    Meanwhile, I’ll encourage my kids to stay inside when they hear drones overhead.

    Related Articles:

    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Embassy/State