Engineers and clerks love systems. They’re repetitive, conceptually sound and facilitate the movement of huge numbers of widgets, be they ball bearings or human beings, from the beginning to the end of the system. When the occasional bad widget comes out the end, it can be chalked up to an expected failure rate.
When the bad widget turns out to be a human being, the consequences can be devastating and nearly impossible to undo. Systems, it turns out, are designed to move widgets only in one direction, and are not designed to take into account their own fallibility. Systems don’t like to admit to failure, and fight efforts to correct their mistakes.
The findings and conclusions of Northern District of California Judge William Haskell Alsup in the case of Stanford Ph.D student Rahinah Ibrahim has issued, having been duly redacted by that other branch of government who is in charge of none of its secrets are revealed.
Mind you, Ibrahim was refused access to the United States in 2004, ten years ago. She has since been through a federal trial, all to ascertain why in the world she was on the no-fly list, which the government refused to confirm or explain because it’s a secret. A big, big secret. And a mistake.
Posed for a magazine? Posed for a poster on people who were screwed by government incompetence? Posed a threat? Is that really necessary to redact, because no one knows that the government perceives certain people to pose threats of terrorism?
But being merely wrong about someone happens all the time, like believing a person committed a crime when he didn’t. This isn’t about making a mistake.
In November, 2004, Dr. Ibrahim’s name was “nominated” to various federal “watchlists” by Special Agent Michael Kelley, including the VGTO, Violent Gang and Terrorist Organization. It has that bad word in it, and, well, that was that. Except for one thing:
And once Kelley introduced Ibrahim into the system, the system took over, propagating her mistaken characterization as a terrorist through all the other cool systems the government has to protect and defend us. The system worked wonderfully from that point forward, making sure that all other arms and legs of government would have the information about this newly discovered terrorist, so she shouldn’t slip through the cracks as some contend had happened before.
Except for the GIGO issue. Kelley had only to check a box to make the system function properly, but Kelley was a Special Agent. Apparently, more “special” than anyone knew, and so the instructions failed him and the wrong box was checked. The human factor is always the weakest link in systems, because humans are weak, unpredictable and unreliable.
But these systems invariably involve humans at some point, and ultimately affect humans at another. Indeed, even now, when Judge Alsup has found that this was just a silly ten-year, life-and-soul-crushing affair for a person who did nothing to deserve it because another person checked the wrong box, he still can’t know whether there is a viable remedy. Why? Systems.
The interconnected systems within the government are very good at putting names in and spreading them about. They are not, apparently, very good at removing names mistakenly put in.
While this post could well end here, my initial attention to the trial was derived from Judge Alsup’s apparent outrage at the government’s refusing to allow a witness, Ibrahim’s daughter, Raihan Binti Mustafa Kamal, who is a citizen, to come to the United States to testify. And, like me, you probably want to know the truth about what the government did, how they prevented the witness, a citizen, from getting on a plane and returning to her country.
Well, this is how Judge Alsup explains it:
No doubt this will bring you as much comfort as it does me. After all, if you can’t rely on a system, or a government, what can you rely on?