Police Chief: I Was Detained at JFK Airport Over My Name

A former police chief says that he was detained at JFK International Airport because his name appeared on a government watch list.

Frank Johnston/Getty

Hassan Aden had all the right paperwork. The 30-year law enforcement veteran’s passport proved his U.S. citizenship; the frequent flier even had pre-check clearance with the Transportation Security Administration. But when Aden landed in New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport last week, customs officers allegedly detained him. In President Donald Trump’s America, Aden had the wrong name.

A former chief of police in Greenville, North Carolina, Aden now works as a consultant on criminal justice reform issues. The job has him traveling weekly and typically without incident, Aden wrote in a Saturday Facebook post. But when Aden landed at JFK after visiting his mother in Paris last week, the warm welcome he had come to expect from customs agents was gone. Instead, he was hustled into a makeshift detention room, where he believes he was wrongfully detained, all because his name had allegedly been flagged on a watch list.

“On all of my prior trips, I was greeted by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers with a warm smile and the usual, ‘Welcome home sir,’” Aden wrote in his Facebook post. “Not this time.”

This time, a CBP officer allegedly took issue with something in Aden’s U.S. passport. “Are you traveling alone?” the officer allegedly asked him. When Aden answered yes, the officer allegedly told him “Let’s take a walk.”

The invitation was not optional, Aden soon learned. “I was taken to a back office which looked to be a re-purposed storage facility with three desks and signs stating, ‘Remain seated at all times’ and ‘Use of telephones strictly prohibited,’” Aden wrote, “my first sign that this was not a voluntary situation and, in fact, a detention.”

Contacted by The Daily Beast on Sunday, CBP declined to comment on Aden’s case, citing privacy regulations.

“Due to the Privacy Act, we cannot comment on specific cases, but all travelers arriving to the U.S. are subject to CBP inspection,” a CBP spokesperson said. “At times, travelers may be inconvenienced as we work through the arrival process to ensure those entering the country are doing so legitimately and lawfully.”

But Aden contended that parts of his detention were unreasonable.

When Aden pressed a CBP officer for details on his detention, the officer allegedly told Aden that his name had been flagged as suspicious. “He explained that my name was used as an alias by someone on some watch list,” Aden wrote.

Hassan Aden is a fairly common name. Nearly 100 Hassan Adens live in the U.S., public records indicate. But no-fly lists are notoriously opaque, with many members unaware that their names have been added. After 9/11, these lists ballooned from small databases of several dozen people, to sweeping catalogues that contained some 47,000 names in 2013, the Department of Justice reported. And for people mistakenly included on the no-fly list, or people mistaken for others on the no-fly list, the consequences can be serious.

Rahinah Ibrahim, a Malaysian architect with four children and a doctorate degree from Stanford University spent a decade fighting to clear her name from the watch list. During the ten-year legal fight, Ibrahim was added and removed from the list multiple times, for reasons that are still unclear to her. Authorities were never able to explain why she may have posed a terrorist threat.

In other instances, an innocent person can be barred from travel due to their name’s similarity with another name on a watch list. Former Sen. Ted Kennedy was stopped at airports multiple times in 2004, due to the inclusion of a different “T. Kennedy” on a government watch list. In other incidents, authorities have flagged babies and toddlers as potential flight risks, as was the case when JetBlue blamed a computer “glitch” for barring an 18-month-old girl named Riyanna from a flight.

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Kennedys aside, these cases of no-fly mishaps disproportionately affect people with Muslim-sounding names, like Hassan Aden.

For ninety minutes, Aden says he waited in the makeshift detention area, while officers forwarded his information to a different agency “so that I could gain passage into the United States….my own country!” he wrote. While he waited he asked officers how long a detention was considered reasonable. An officer allegedly responded that Aden was not being detained.

“But I’m not free to leave-how is that not a detention?” Aden responded. He had missed his flight, his passport had been confiscated, and he had no access to his phone. Eventually a shift change saved him, when a new CBP officer took charge of his case and cleared him to enter the U.S. Ironically, he said, he was able to speed through security and board the next plane to D.C., due to his special TSA pre-check clearance.

If someone with Aden’s level of clearance can be targeted at the border, anyone with a Muslim-sounding name can be, he wrote.

“Prior to this administration, I frequently attended meetings at the White House and advised on national police policy reforms—all that to say that if this can happen to me, it can happen to anyone with attributes that can be ‘profiled,’” Aden wrote. “No one is safe from this type of unlawful government intrusion.”

“This experience has left me feeling vulnerable and unsure of the future of a country that was once great and that I proudly called my own. This experience makes me question if this is indeed home. My freedoms were restricted, and I cannot be sure it won’t happen again, and that it won’t happen to my family, my children, the next time we travel abroad.”