PHILADELPHIA – A college student detained at Philadelphia International Airport and questioned about his Arabic language flash cards filed a lawsuit Wednesday against police, the FBI and the Transportation Security Administration.
Nicholas George, 22, of Wyncote was questioned, handcuffed, marched through the airport and kept in a holding cell for about four hours after the seemingly routine screening turned up the flash cards.
Officials questioned him about his religion, his views of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and a foreign policy book he was reading, and asked if were a terrorist or Islamist, according to the suit.
"The FBI agents' questioning ... strayed far from any conceivable criminal activity," the suit states. "For example, the FBI agents repeatedly asked Mr. George why he had chosen to study physics at a liberal arts college."
George, a senior at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., missed his Aug. 29 flight back to school — although he said his checked luggage made it onboard.
"If I had been a terrorist, I would have been the luckiest terrorist around, because my bag would have blown up and I would have been sitting in a jail cell," George told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from school Wednesday.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which represents George, has filed several suits over what it sees as aggressive or misguided airport security measures. One involved an architect denied boarding for wearing a T-shirt that said, in Arabic and English, "We Will Not Be Silent." Another involved a political fundraiser allegedly grilled by TSA agents after carrying a metal box of cash through security.
"Their job is to secure air travel, not to harass air travelers," said Ben Wizner, an ACLU lawyer in New York who works on TSA cases. "We've seen a pattern of abuse of their authority in situations that have nothing to do with flight safety."
The FBI, TSA and Philadelphia police each declined to comment on George's federal lawsuit. However, TSA spokesman Ann Davis previously suggested the flash cards were a red herring.
She told a Philadelphia newspaper last year that George caught the eye of agency behavioral specialists, who watch for "involuntary physical and physiological reactions that people exhibit in response to a fear of being discovered."
George studies Arabic and has traveled to the Mideast and North Africa, sometimes through university-sponsored programs. The approximately 200 flash cards included about 10 with words such as "bomb" and "explosive" — words commonly used in Arabic-language news reports he hoped to read, he said.
"Once they searched my person and my bag and established that I was carrying nothing remotely dangerous, they had no right to hold me," he said.
Wizner fears that most Americans don't know their rights at airports.
"Travelers don't give up their Constitutional rights when they decide to fly, and TSA employees don't get a blank check to conduct fishing expeditions for any kind of suspicious activity," Wizner said.
In the T-shirt case, the airline and TSA settled Raed Jarra's lawsuit in January 2009 for $240,000, the ACLU said.
And the group has a pending suit over the detention of political fundraiser Steven Bierfeldt at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport in March 2009. Bierfeldt was the development director of the Campaign for Liberty, a group that grew out of Rep. Ron Paul's presidential campaign. He audiotaped the TSA encounter on his iPhone.
George plans to take the Foreign Service exam and may pursue a diplomatic career. He finds a certain irony in the fact the FBI, the military and other U.S. agencies have been desperate to hire more Arabic-speaking Americans. George calls himself conversant, but far from fluent.
His suit seeks at least $75,000 in damages, and perhaps something more.
"An apology would certainly be a nice start," said Mary Catherine Roper, the ACLU lawyer who filed the suit in Philadelphia. "It would be nice if they just came clean and said, 'This is an error. This is not how we want to direct our national security resources."'