BECOME A MEMBER Aswad Khan photographed at his home in Karachi, Pakistan, on Nov. 27, 2021. Photo: Courtesy of Aswad Khan
November 30 2021, 1:00 p.m.
ASWAD KHAN DIDN’T understand why people were congratulating him. On a February morning in 2017, rolling out of bed at his home in an upper-middle class area of Karachi, Pakistan, Khan saw a flurry of text messages, mostly from old college and high school friends, many living in the United States, that had arrived the night before. They were wishing him well about some good news that he had not yet received. Groggily, he scrolled through his phone and scanned the messages.
Khan, then age 31, soon came across a text that revealed what was going on. “Congrats bro your best friend is getting married!” the message read. “You must be so happy man.”
He could not believe what he had just read.
Khan immediately logged onto Facebook to check the page of his childhood best friend, Ahmed. He quickly realized that Ahmed had unfollowed him and restricted his access to the profile. Meanwhile, the pages of his other friends were congratulating Ahmed on his engagement and the wedding that he had apparently announced for that summer. Ahmed, whose full name is being withheld at Khan’s request and who did not respond to requests for comment, had shared every moment of his life with Khan since they were kids. Yet he had not even told Khan about his engagement.“I just realized then that he’d cut me off without saying a word.”
“I just realized then that he’d cut me off without saying a word. He even unfollowed me on Facebook, on Instagram. I can’t even explain how shattered or humiliated I felt,” Khan said. “People were messaging me from around the world saying they were looking forward to seeing me at his wedding. I didn’t even know how to reply to them.”
Khan lay back in bed, tears stinging his eyes. He had experienced so many small betrayals over the years since his problems with the U.S. government began: acquaintances quietly severing ties, phone calls and messages left unreturned, and even parents of friends telling their children it’s too much trouble to associate with him.https://o.prod.theintercept.com/checkout/template/cacheableShow?aid=hsZyoAWmIE&templateId=OTEXERHVRCE9&templateVariantId=OTV276VWLQNA2&offerId=fakeOfferId&experienceId=EX3LBE28N473&iframeId=offer_bf057b9fbed721f7d387-0&displayMode=inline&pianoIdUrl=https%3A%2F%2Fid.tinypass.com%2Fid%2F&widget=template&url=https%3A%2F%2Ftheintercept.com
A handsome, athletic young man who had been accustomed to being the center of attention since his high school days, Khan — though he had never even been accused of a crime — was now a pariah. He had plummeted into a downward spiral of depression, anxiety, and sleepless nights. Each friendship lost, or rumor about him overheard, had dealt another blow to his self-esteem. Learning secondhand about his childhood best friend’s marriage, to which he would not be invited, was the worst blow yet.
THE SLOW UNRAVELING of Khan’s personal life had begun almost a decade before, with a sudden visit from the FBI. Khan had been an international student attending Northeastern University in Boston to study business management. In 2011, after graduating, he returned to the U.S. on a visitor visa. While staying with family, he was approached by the FBI with an offer to become a paid informant for the bureau. Khan declined.
After leaving the country a few weeks later, Khan and his legal team believe he was placed on the U.S.’s no-fly list as well as the terrorist watchlist. “I would say that it is very likely that he is on the watchlist,” said Naz Ahmad, a staff attorney at the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility, or CLEAR, project at CUNY School of Law, who has worked on Khan’s case. Proving his place on a secret watchlist, by its very nature, is impossible without government confirmation, but Ahmad said the harassment of Khan’s associates at U.S. ports of entry as well as comments made to his previous attorney by officials pointed strongly to the listing.
Since the day he left the country, Khan has not returned to the U.S., where he once spent every summer with family in Connecticut, graduated from college, and even became a diehard Boston Celtics fan. “I would say that the five years of my life that I spent in Boston were the best years of my life, hands down. I would recommend Boston to anyone,” Khan said. “I’d been coming to the United States in general since I was a kid, visiting Disney World, traveling all over the country. I loved it. The time I spent there made a big influence in making me the person that I am.”“The FBI has all this power over you. They’re the gatekeepers of your prison, even though you haven’t done anything wrong to justify being put in there.”
After that fateful FBI visit, many of Khan’s contacts who traveled to the U.S. started to be repeatedly detained at the U.S. border, sometimes for hours. Those stopped included friends and acquaintances in Pakistan, as well as people with whom he was only casually connected on social media. A consistent feature of the stops, something that at least five of Khan’s contacts confirmed, is that they were asked about their relationship with him at the border. The contacts said U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers suggested to them during interrogations that Khan was a dangerous person, a possible terrorist. The officials made it clear that he was the source of their problems at the border.
For many of his friends, the pressure was too much. People whom Khan had known for years started calling him to apologize that they were going to have to unfriend him on social media. At weddings in Karachi, other guests started asking that he be excluded from group photographs. His invitations to events started drying up. Spouses and parents of his friends began telling them that being associated with Khan was not worth the trouble. They even wondered whether, against all indications based on his ordinary life as head of an advertising business in Pakistan, Khan had really done something wrong to warrant all this scrutiny.
“They’re harassing all my friends for hours whenever they travel and made it such that even my best friends didn’t want to talk to me anymore,” Khan said. “It’s like I’m in a virtual prison being on this list. The FBI has all this power over you. They own your life. They’re the gatekeepers of your prison, even though you haven’t done anything wrong to justify being put in there.”
Aswad Khan at a club in Boston in 2009.
Photo: Courtesy of Aswad Khan
OVER THE PAST two decades, since the 9/11 attacks, one of the FBI’s core activities has been recruiting informants. While up-to-date numbers are unavailable, past estimates have put the number of informants working in the country in excess of 15,000. Many of these people are Muslim Americans or immigrants from Muslim-majority countries in the United States. For those who decline an offer to inform, the consequences can be serious.
“There are a number of people who have accused the FBI of putting them on the no-fly list for refusing to be an informant,” said Michael German, a former FBI agent who is now a fellow in the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program. “Agents need to have informants, which is why they go on these fishing expeditions. When people refuse, they often become vindictive. They take the attitude that, ‘We gave you a chance to prove yourself on our side and your refusal to aid us means you’re against us.’”“There are a number of people who have accused the FBI of putting them on the no-fly list for refusing to be an informant. When people refuse, they often become vindictive.”
In late 2016, The Intercept reported on a cache of documents provided by an FBI whistleblower revealing how U.S. national security agencies use the immigration system and border crossings as a means of gathering intelligence and recruiting informants. The documents laid out in detail how the FBI and Customs and Border Protection cooperated to target lists of people from countries of interest, with the FBI helping identify individuals for additional screening, questioning, and follow-up visits.
No active investigation or suspicion of criminal activity is needed to make such approaches; the FBI merely has to suggest that the person in question could provide useful intelligence. According to the latest available public documentation, officials can collect information on someone, which is followed by a “nomination” of that person to the lists; the FBI is one of the nominating agencies. Then comes a process, including purported vetting, that frequently lands people on watchlists despite a dearth of hard evidence tying them to terrorism.
One FBI presentation said, as officials also told Khan, that the authorities aren’t looking for “bad guys” to push to become informants, but rather for “good guys.” Individual agents were given broad discretionary power in how they handled such situations. The result, FBI whistleblower Terry Albury recently told the New York Times, was a culture of racism and malice, with agents pressuring individuals into spying on their communities and frequently destroying the lives of innocent people in the process.RelatedThe Secret Government Rulebook for Labeling You a Terrorist
“It is very typical to hear about someone pressured to become an informant who refuses and suffers retaliation in the form of being placed on the no-fly list,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Security Project. “What is worse in this case is that as a noncitizen all of these problems are exacerbated: The already constitutionally inadequate recourse available to citizens and permanent residents placed on the list is not even available to him.”
Khan reeled from the latest blow of not being invited to his best friend’s wedding. Though he cannot prove that he is on a watchlist, let alone know who put him there, Khan could not help but think that his life had been destroyed over a decision taken at a whim by an FBI agent he had met years ago, whose offer to become an informant he had turned down. Khan had no way to clear his name or fix his shattered reputation. To this day, he has never been accused of any wrongdoing.
“I’ve lived a clean life and never got into any kind of trouble at all anywhere in the world. This really affected me. I love America, and I loved every part of my life there. Even today I wish I could go watch the Celtics at TD Garden, see my old college, and go visit my friends and family,” he said. “No one has ever even accused me of doing anything, so I can’t see where the justice is in any of this. It feels like one guy in the FBI just decided that he was going to ruin my life for no reason.”
The FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 2, 2021.
Photo: Samuel Corum/Bloomberg via Getty Images
ON THE MORNING of February 9, 2012, Khan, then 26, woke up to the sound of banging on the front door of his aunt’s house in New Britain, Connecticut. His aunt, uncle, and cousins had gone out for the day, leaving him home by himself. He was in the United States on a visitor visa, having arrived the previous October, and was nearing the end of his allotted six-month stay. As the banging on the front door continued, Khan’s cellphone rang with the number of his cousin displayed on the caller ID. Thinking that it was her at the door and that perhaps she had forgotten something on the way to work, he picked up the phone. “Hey, should I come open the door?”“This is not your cousin. This is the FBI. Come to the door now and do not hang up the phone.”
“This is not your cousin,” a man’s voice curtly replied. “This is the FBI. Come to the door now and do not hang up the phone.”
Khan’s heart immediately began racing. He had no idea why the FBI would be showing up at his front door or how they could spoof his family’s phone numbers to contact him. He went downstairs holding the phone as instructed, while the officers continued aggressively banging on the door. When he opened it, two men in suits were standing there waiting for him. They showed him their badges, one from the FBI and another of a Connecticut State Police detective. The officers were Andrew Klopfer, the FBI agent, and then-CSP Detective Andrew Burke, according to Khan and an email from one of his attorneys confirming his recollection of the men’s names.
Khan, trying his best to suppress his terror over this sudden visit, tried to clarify what was going on. His lanky 6-foot-1 frame filled out most of the doorway, the side of which he gripped as he spoke to the officers.
“I asked how I could help them, and they said that they just wanted to speak to me. Then they said that they needed to take me to another location so that we can talk and that it’s for my own security, as well as their security,” Khan said. “I asked if I needed a lawyer or something and they told me that wouldn’t be necessary. By this point I was already so nervous and scared, I was shaking. I was just trying to figure out why these guys were here and looking for me.”
The officers told Khan that they were going to take him to a local diner in town so that they could have breakfast and talk. Still wearing his pajamas, he asked if he could change. After refusing initially, the officers relented, following him into the house and waiting on the bottom floor while he went upstairs. Khan then followed them out to their car.
“They put me in the front seat. First thing they said to me was that I’m a really tall guy and that they didn’t think I’d be this tall,” Khan said. “They said that people had been watching me for the past week and that cars had been tailgating me and asked if I’d noticed. I told them I hadn’t.”
The officers drove Khan about 15 minutes to a local diner. After sitting him down in a booth, they told him to order something for breakfast. Still terrified and struggling to comprehend the surreal turn his morning had taken, Khan ordered a glass of juice and an omelette. The officers, who ordered themselves breakfast as well, peppered him with questions about what he did in Pakistan, why he was visiting the United States, where he went to college, and what his family’s financial situation was like.
After about 20 minutes, Klopfer, the FBI agent, got to the point of the encounter: They wanted Khan to work for them.
“They said they want me to do work and provide them information, and it could be either in the U.S. or in Pakistan. I asked them what the job was that they were specifically describing here, and they said directly that they wanted me to be an informant and spy on mosques in the U.S. or in Pakistan,” Khan said. “At this time, I didn’t even know exactly what ‘informant’ meant, so I asked them. They told me that it meant being on the side of the good guys, referring to themselves, and going in and getting information for them.”
Khan had come from a relatively well-off family in Pakistan who had paid for him to be educated in the United States. He told the officers that he did not need a job. He wouldn’t be well-suited for it anyways, he added, describing himself as loud, sociable, and not the type of person who could keep dark secrets to himself. The officers said the FBI could provide him with U.S. citizenship, money, and other perks; they promised that whoever worked for them would become a powerful person with connections that would make them “untouchable.” (The FBI declined to comment for this story or to make Klopfer available to answer questions. Neither Burke nor the Connecticut State Police responded to a request for comment.)
At one point, the officers reminded him that the government was paying for his juice and omelette. By now, however, with the purpose of the meeting clear, Khan was only focused on getting home as soon as possible and finding help.
“I told them it’s not a big deal. ‘OK, it’s 10 bucks. I’ll pay for it. I’ll even pay for your meal,’” Khan said. “The only thing on my mind at that point was thinking how to get out of this situation and getting home to tell my aunt what the hell is going on right now.”RelatedFederal Informants Are Often Promised Visas. They Rarely Materialize.
Although he wanted U.S. citizenship — offering him the chance to spend more time in a country he loved, with family and friends — the idea of becoming an informant was out of the question. Even though he did not attend mosque regularly, he did not want to be sent by the FBI to spy on people at prayers. The officers continued to make offers, and Khan kept rebuffing them.
“I told them, ‘I respect you and what you do. You put your lives at risk to protect us and the people of the United States, but I’m not one of those people who is cut out to be a spy or is interested in the kinds of things you’re offering me,’” Khan recalled. “I said, ‘I have a clean record and lived here for years without ever doing anything wrong.’ They told me, ‘That’s why we want you.’ They said, ‘We don’t go after troublemakers, we want the good guys to work for us.’”
Seeing that their efforts to entice him by offering immigration help and money were getting nowhere, the officers soon began taking a different tack. They asked him the names of several terrorist organizations based in Pakistan: Did he know these groups? The organizations were mainly based in Pakistan’s tribal regions, far from Khan’s urban hometown of Karachi, and he told them he had never met anyone who had connections to the groups.
After about two hours of tense conversation, the officers put Khan back in the car and drove him home. Wracked with anxiety, he had been unable to take a single bite of his food. Now he was just glad that this frightening ordeal was about to be over. Before leaving, Khan said, Klopfer gave strict instructions not to tell anyone about the meeting, not his family and especially not a lawyer. They said they would be in touch again soon.
Aswad Khan checks his phone at his home while his dog Storm stands nearby in Karachi, Pakistan, in Nov. 21, 2021.
Photo: Courtesy of Aswad Khan
AS SOON AS the officers drove away, Khan immediately dialed his aunt to tell her what had happened: that the FBI had picked him up at home, that they were offering him money and perks to work for them as an informant, and that he was scared. She and his cousin rushed home from work and called a lawyer in Bridgeport to set up an appointment for later that day. When they arrived, the lawyer, Christian Young, took the numbers of the FBI and Connecticut State Police officers who had picked Khan up. Young called the officials and told them not to contact Khan again without calling him first.
A week later, according to Khan, Klopfer called Young and said that he wanted to interview Khan again before a federal prosecutor. Young advised Khan to take the meeting and said that he would be there with him to make sure it went smoothly, Khan said. (Young declined to comment for this story.) The interview was scheduled for just over a week later. Wanting to make a confident impression, unlike the last meeting in which the officers had showed up at his house in the early morning unannounced, Khan came wearing a suit and tie.
“By this time, I already knew that Andrew Klopfer was pissed off at me,” Khan said, noting that the FBI agent was much more standoffish than their first meeting. “I did exactly what he didn’t want me to do by telling my aunt and getting a lawyer. I was no good to them anymore for what they had wanted me to do.”
For about two-and-a-half hours, Klopfer, Burke, Khan, and his lawyer sat with then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen B. Reynolds in a boardroom at the FBI office in Bridgeport. In the presence of Reynolds, whose identity Khan and an attorney later working on the case confirmed, the officers asked Khan all the same questions about his life and background that they had asked at the diner. (The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Connecticut declined to comment. Neither Reynolds nor the Department of Justice responded to requests for comment.)
A description of this meeting, which also referenced Khan’s previous meeting with the FBI at the diner, was obtained years later as part of a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by Ahmad, the attorney with CLEAR. The document describes Khan’s views as expressed at the meeting about a variety of issues, including details of his life as a student in the United States, relationships with family members, and future career plans, as well as his political views.“I’d been a law-abiding citizen and didn’t want any trouble with you guys. But it seems like if I wasn’t brown, Pakistani, and Muslim, I wouldn’t be here.”
Any references to terrorism or offers to work as an informant are either not in the documents or concealed by the many redactions, which the FOIA response says were made because the underlying material “would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigation.” According to Khan, the redactions correlate with those parts of the conversation when the officers switched from mundane questions about life and politics to asking him about specific terrorist groups and attacks. When the officers began to take this line of questioning, Khan turned to Reynolds and addressed him directly.
“I told him that my parents had spent a lot of money to educate me in America and I’d loved it here. I’d never got into a fight or had a DUI or had any debts. I’d been a law-abiding citizen and didn’t want any trouble with you guys. But it seems like if I wasn’t brown, Pakistani, and Muslim, I wouldn’t be here,” Khan said. “The U.S. attorney said it’s not like that and that this is not a racist situation. He said there are always broader circumstances to be aware of and that we have a right to ask you questions about terrorists for security purposes.”
Khan told Reynolds that he needed to pay a visit to the hospital to see his ailing uncle later in the day. Reynolds announced that Khan was free to leave and wished his uncle a speedy recovery. Leaving the office, Khan noticed that neither Klopfer nor Burke said anything to him or made eye contact on the way out.
For a moment, it seemed like his problems were done with. Khan still had a few weeks left on his current six-month trip to the U.S. His lawyer told him to stay until the last day, to underline that he had done nothing wrong and was not fleeing. Khan took his advice and spent the remaining weeks with family and friends. With time, the frightening morning visit from the FBI began to fade in his mind.
A month later, at the boarding area of John F. Kennedy International Airport, in New York, Khan got an SSSS — short for “secondary security screening selection” — flag on his boarding pass for the first time in his life. He received a bit of extra scrutiny at the security checkpoint, but otherwise things seemed normal. He boarded his flight back to Pakistan with his mind clear, already making plans in his head for his next visit.
That moment at Kennedy Airport, in early April 2012, would be the last time Khan ever set foot in the U.S. Unbeknownst to him, it was also the beginning of a dark new chapter in his life: From that moment on, his reputation, his social life, and the promise of his future would begin to unravel.
The security area at John F. Kennedy International Airport on March 4, 2014.
Photo: Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
FOR KHAN — and his circles — the trouble began almost immediately after he arrived back in Pakistan, weeks after his last meeting with the FBI and assistant U.S. attorney. Though, because of the secrecy of the process, Khan has no evidence that Klopfer, Burke, or anyone else put him on a watchlist, his friends started having problems at the U.S. border and Khan’s name kept coming up. In May 2012, a childhood friend, Faisal Munshi, a dual Pakistani-Canadian citizen, was pulled aside at the U.S. border and questioned about Khan.
The owner of a large food supply business and holder of the Pakistani franchise rights to a multinational pizza chain, Munshi was headed to the U.S. from Toronto to attend the company’s biennial conference in Las Vegas. “All the franchisees from across the world go there, and I was planning to attend as I always did,” Munshi said.
He was interrogated for hours about Khan, including questions about a plane ticket he had bought him while they were college students in 2007.
“They told me that they knew I had bought this guy Aswad Khan a ticket to come see [me] in Toronto three or four years ago, and I told them that, yes, it was true I bought him a ticket with my air miles because he was my childhood friend and a bunch of us were going to gather to hang out over spring break,” Munshi said.RelatedOne Man’s No-Fly List Nightmare
After several hours of questioning by CBP agents, he was told that authorities were denying him entry into the U.S. CBP agents told Munshi that he could raise his objections with the Traveler Redress Inquiry Program, an administrative mechanism operated by the Department of Homeland Security for people experiencing difficulties traveling to clarify their status. When Munshi wrote in, he received an inconclusive message that neither confirmed nor denied his presence on any list.
A year later, Munshi tried to attend another company conference in the U.S., this time with plans to fly in from Dubai. The attempt ended in failure again, with Munshi being told by officials in the Dubai airport’s departures lounge that he had not been cleared to fly onward.
Increasingly concerned about these ominous restrictions on his movement, Munshi, who is married to an American citizen and has traveled to the U.S. regularly throughout his life, returned to Canada and sought out legal advice. A lawyer suggested that he try crossing at a land border next time. In 2014, two years after his first denial of entry into the U.S., Munshi drove to a border crossing at Buffalo, New York, in the hopes of being admitted to attend his sister in-law’s college graduation. This is when his situation became much more alarming.
“Driving to Buffalo and being detained there was the worst experience of my life,” Munshi said. “I could not believe how I was treated, with the assumption that I was a criminal. They kept me for six hours, shuffling me around into different rooms, one of them where they left me to freeze for an extended time, and separated from my parents. I met one immigration officer after another, and whenever I asked what the problem was, they’d just tell me it was above their pay grade.”
Thinking that it might help to underline that he was an ordinary person who posed no threat, Munshi had brought a letter from the U.S. corporate headquarters of his U.S.-based corporate parent confirming his identity and role as the head of the ubiquitous pizza shop’s Pakistan operations.
“The border agents asked me why I had been trying to come into the United States, and I told them that I had family there and also run a big business in Pakistan headquartered in the U.S., and I frequently need to attend conferences and meetings,” Munshi said. “They then asked me if I use the income from this business to finance terrorism. I told them I obviously don’t. I come from a good family and that they can look me up online themselves to see my background.”
After several hours, Munshi was informed by border agents that he had been denied entry again. The officials provided no reason and made no specific allegations against him over six hours of questioning. The only clue he had to why he had suddenly become unwelcome in the U.S., a country that he been traveling to his whole life, was the question he had received during that first interview: the airline ticket he had bought for his friend Aswad Khan.
Munshi was not alone. Another childhood friend of Khan, a Pakistani citizen married to a Canadian, was also detained at the U.S. border and questioned about Khan on multiple occasions since 2012. Like several others who spoke to The Intercept who had the same experience, he asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals.
“One time, when I landed at Chicago airport around the start of 2017, there were two agents waiting at the passport area who approached and told me they’d been waiting for me,” Y. told The Intercept. “They took me to an interrogation area and showed me a picture of Aswad that they’d printed.”“People gossip and eventually it came to a point where a lot of people would not even want to meet Aswad.”
CBP agents questioned Y. for several hours along with his wife. Officials asked about his friendship with Khan, how Khan earned a living, and what he used his income for. “I told the agents that they’re making a mistake with these questions about Aswad and that they had the wrong guy,” Y. said. “They told me that they’re going to ask whatever questions they wanted. Then they said point-blank in front of my wife that if they’re asking these types of questions about Aswad, that means he’s a person I shouldn’t be associating myself with.”
Like several others who spoke to The Intercept, Y., who travels frequently to the U.S. for work, deleted Khan’s contact off his phone and his social media accounts. He called Khan to apologize at the time, saying that he was shaken by the harassment he had begun facing. The experience put a strain on their friendship, though, unlike many others, Y. had at least talked to Khan about it.
In his community in Karachi, rumors were spreading well beyond his close friends that being in any way connected with Khan was a certain route to getting in trouble at the U.S. border.
“People gossip and eventually it came to a point where a lot of people would not even want to meet Aswad,” said Munshi. “They started thinking that maybe he really did do something wrong, and that’s why he had these problems with the U.S. government. They started thinking that maybe it was because of him that his friends and other people he knew were starting to have the same problems too. People started deleting him off Facebook. They were afraid to even be associated with him.”
Aswad Khan at work as CEO of MAQ Communications in Karachi, Pakistan, on Feb. 8, 2020.
Photo: Courtesy of Aswad Khan
IN KHAN’S MIND everything went back to his encounter with the FBI. Ever since then, more than a dozen of his friends told him about serious problems when traveling to the U.S., including questions about him and even statements from CBP agents telling people to keep their distance from Khan if they wanted to avoid trouble. Others never told Khan about any troubles but instead disappeared from his life without a word. Khan began noticing friends and acquaintances were removing their Facebook and Instagram connections to him. His phone calls and text messages went unanswered. Invitations to weddings and parties began to dry up. For a young man known throughout his life as a social butterfly, it felt like the world was caving in.
In 2018, Khan, still struggling to figure out how to clear his name, filed paperwork with the Department of Homeland Security’s redress program. Like Munshi, his friend, the written response from the agency he received in July of that year was vague, stating that the agency “can neither confirm nor deny any information about you which may be within federal watchlists.” He had run up against one of the limits governing noncitizens and nonresidents who seek information about their watchlisting: The government does not even have to confirm whether he is on the no-fly list, let alone what is justifying keeping him there.
“What is very frustrating is that they have found a way to make his life miserable from thousands of miles away 10 years after they met him,” said Ahmad, the staff attorney at CLEAR. “It should be very obvious from all the information that they’ve gathered at this point that he’s not a threat. Yet they continue to target him, and he has very little legal recourse to defend against that.”
Slowly but surely, Khan’s reputation was destroyed by scrutiny from U.S. authorities, particularly by what he and his attorneys believe is his placement on the terror watchlist. He did not face any harassment or scrutiny from the Pakistani government at home, yet because of the U.S. government’s harassment of his friends and acquaintances, he now lived under a cloud of suspicion.
“Friends I had my whole life started ghosting me over these rumors that started from people who had been questioned at the U.S. border,” Khan said. “I became depressed, I felt like I had no way out of this. I started questioning my existence, I looked to God for help. I felt like for no reason the FBI just took everything away from me.”
The issue of reputational harm has come up in previous lawsuits that targeted the watchlisting system, though the courts have so far upheld the practice as constitutional. An article this June in the national security law publication Lawfare about one such case put it, “[W]hile the Supreme Court has recognized a liberty interest in a person’s reputation, reputational injuries must involve a combination of factors: a statement that stigmatizes the plaintiff in the community and has been publicly disseminated, and the government must take some additional action that has altered or extinguished the plaintiff’s legal rights.”
The secrecy of the watchlists means that the reputationally damaging information about would-be claimants — the very fact that they are on a list — has been ruled by courts to not count as having been publicly disseminated. And yet the reputational damage is real. It is the ruin of his name and his friendships that continues to torment Khan.
“Aswad had graduated from college and was looking for a job at the time this happened, and it really affected his personal life,” said Ahmad, the CLEAR attorney. “Losing your friends, not even being invited to your best friend’s wedding — it’s a harm you can’t really quantify. That’s something that people don’t really appreciate: how what the government does can really affect people’s personal lives.”
The government’s terrorist watchlisting system remains opaque. The most consequential revelation to date was a 2014 leak, published by The Intercept, about its size and characteristics. Disclosures in a lawsuit from 2017 established that the watchlist had grown to 1.2 million people, the vast majority of whom were neither U.S. citizens nor permanent residents. Being placed on the watchlist can have any number of effects on a person, such as preventing them from traveling to suffering abuse and detention in foreign countries. Khan believes his placement on the list caused him to be personally ruined by suspicions of association with terrorism.“It’s easy enough to put someone on a watchlist and forget about it. The fact that it has continuing impact on a person’s life is meaningless to them.”
“People get put on these lists and just get left there. There is no pressure to take them off; in fact there is pressure to not take them off in case one day in the future they possibly do something,” said German, the former FBI agent. “It’s easy enough to put someone on a watchlist and forget about it. The fact that it has continuing impact on a person’s life is meaningless to them.”
Khan is still in Pakistan. His past life of frequent visits to the U.S. and elsewhere are now a distant memory. Though he used to enjoy traveling, he has only left Pakistan once since his encounter with the FBI. He has not attempted to return to the U.S. since his last trip, for fear of what might happen when confronted by U.S. authorities. The experience of boarding an international flight and confronting the possibility of a border crossing anywhere in the world fills him with anxiety. Unaware what type of rumors have been spread about him by the U.S. government with foreign authorities, let alone people in his own life, he has become wracked by depression and paranoia. Nearly a decade after his fateful morning visit from the FBI, his life has not returned to normal.
A year after Ahmed’s wedding ceremony in Italy, which he did not attend, Khan ran into his childhood best friend at a party in Karachi. The two had not spoken or seen each other for nearly two years. In the meantime, Khan had heard from others that Ahmed had told some friends that he had felt pressured to sever their friendship because “the U.S. government is after him,” and that his absence at his wedding was to protect the other guests from the possible consequences of being associated with him.
When the two saw each other at that party, Ahmed took him aside to talk. After a few moments, Ahmed broke down and cried.
“He said he didn’t want any bad feelings with me, and that when I had gotten into trouble, he just got scared. It was a hard conversation for us to have,” Khan said. “I had never felt hurt in my life like I had when he cut me off without saying a word. But I told him it was OK. It is what it is.”
“‘You believed what they said about me, and you got scared. I get it. You thought I was a terrorist.’”