Student Handcuffed for English-Arabic Flashcards Sues TSA, FBI

Nicholas George was just trying to get to college for his senior year. It was August 29, 2009, and he was attempting to fly from Philadelphia to Southern California to start up his senior year at Pomona College.

While he was going through the security line at Philadelphia International Airport, TSA agents put him through extra screening, according to his lawsuit, filed by the ACLU.

They asked him to empty his pockets, and he had some English-Arabic flashcards in them, as he’d been learning Arabic for three years and was a Middle-Eastern Studies major. After discovering the flashcards, the TSA agents kept him in the screening area for a half hour.

Then a TSA supervisor arrived and “immediately began questioning Mr. George in a hostile and aggressive manner.”

She asked about how he felt about 9/11.

“Mr. George responded that he though 9/11 was a terrible event,” says the suit, filed by the ACLU.

Then she noted a book he had entitled “Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions, “ by Clyde Prestowitz.

And she kept up the inquisition on 9/11.

TSA supervisor: “You know who did 9/11?”

George: “Osama bin Laden.”

TSA supervisor: “Do you know what language he spoke?”

George: “Arabic.”

TSA supervisor: “Do you see why these cards are suspicious?”

Then a Philadelphia police officer arrived and handcuffed George and led him
away to the airport police station.

“At no time did the officer inform Mr. George of any rights he retained, including the right to speak with an attorney, the right to remain silent, or the right to leave the airport rather than get on the flight,” the suit says.

Instead, the officer put him in a jail cell, with his handcuffs still on, and told him he was being detained.

After a couple of hours, two FBI officers arrived, and they led him to an interrogation room. They never informed him of his rights, either, according to the lawsuit.

They “proceeded to ask a large number of questions about his personal and educational background, his religious and political beliefs, his prior travels, and other personal matters.”

When George told them he didn’t know why he was being held, one of the agents called him a “fucking idiot.”

They asked him about his travels to Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Malaysia. (George had taken a semester abroad in Jordan, and spent five weeks after that traveling in northwest Africa. He also had visited Malaysia and Indonesia.)

“Are you Islamic?”

George told them no.

They followed up by “asking whether Mr. George was a member of any “pro-Islamic groups” on campus or any “communist groups.”

George said no.

After 30 minutes, they told him he wasn’t a threat and could go.

By this time, he’d missed his flight, and he couldn’t get another one until the next day.

George is suing agents of the TSA, the FBI, and the Philadelphia police force for violating his First and Fourth Amendment rights.

Messages left with the TSA and the FBI were not returned in time for this filing.

Says George, in an ACLU press release, “No one should be treated like a criminal for simply learning one of the most widely spoken languages in the world.”

Matthew Rothschild is the editor of The Progressive magazine. To subscribe for just $14.97 a year, just click here.