My first interaction with the FBI was based on a lie.
In August 2018, I got a call asking me to go to City Hall to clear up a city permit violation, and gladly complied to resolve any issues. It turned out to be a ruse.
When I arrived, I was led into a conference room, where two FBI agents were waiting. I was immediately caught off guard, not having any idea why the FBI would want to talk to me. I’m a husband and father of two young kids, and I have always focused on building a good life with my family, both as a business owner and as an engineer in Michigan’s automotive industry.
Although the FBI agents told me I could leave whenever I wanted, when the door closed and they started questioning me, it certainly didn’t feel that way. They told me they wanted my help in looking for people in my community who might want to harm this country. They thought I’d be useful to the FBI because of my language skills (in addition to English, I speak Arabic), my Lebanese heritage, and my engineering expertise. I felt unsettled because becoming an informant in my community would violate my personal ethics. Still, I maintained my calm, told the agents my primary obligation was to my family, and that I didn’t want to work for the FBI. But the pressure continued.
The FBI agents asked me about my political and religious beliefs, associations, and the years I spent living in Lebanon as a student. I answered all their questions truthfully. I was born in Chicago, and completed high school and three years of college in Lebanon before returning home to Michigan to finish my education.
I repeatedly insisted I did not want to work for the FBI, but they kept increasing the pressure. I was shocked when the FBI agents accused me of affiliation with a terrorist group. I vehemently denied their false accusations, but it didn’t seem to matter. My anxiety level rose even more when the agents threatened my family and me. They said that if I didn’t agree to become an informant, my family would be investigated, my wife and I could be arrested, my children could be taken away, and my wife’s immigration status could be at risk.
Eventually, the FBI agents told me I faced a choice: I could stay in America and become an informant — and their suspicions about me would “go away” — or I could leave the country. If I stayed and did not become an informant, my family and I would be subjected to more surveillance and investigation, specifically threatening to reach out to my family, friends, and employer.
It’s hard to fully describe my inner turmoil after that meeting. As a Muslim in America, I know from firsthand experience that our government too often views us with discriminatory suspicion. But it’s different when FBI agents sit across a table from you, with all the power of the government behind them, accusing you of things you have never done and would never do. I was scared, and I was especially scared for my family’s safety.
The FBI kept asking to meet with me, and under their pressure, I did not think I could refuse. Meanwhile, the anxiety and stress meant I couldn’t sleep or eat properly. For two months, the meetings, threats, and harassment continued until I felt I had no choice but to send my family away to protect them. I booked my wife and children on a flight to Lebanon, where we have family. I joined them a few weeks later, after my employer agreed that I could temporarily work part-time from abroad. I hoped this break would make the FBI leave me alone. About a month later, I attempted to return home.
That’s when the consequences of my refusal to work for the FBI as an informant hit. When I got to the airport, the airline agent said I couldn’t board my flight and needed to contact the U.S. government. I knew the government had a No Fly List, which bans people from flying, and feared I was on it. I immediately sought answers and a month later, I got official confirmation: I was on the No Fly List.
In the two years since then, I’ve tried to get off the No Fly List using the redress procedure the government provides. But the government won’t even give me its reason for putting me on the No Fly List, any evidence it thinks might justify an indefinite flying ban, or a hearing to clear my name. This is wrong, and it violates my rights as an American to basic due process. I’ve learned that this purgatory is not unusual. I was shocked to learn U.S. citizens and residents on the No Fly List can spend years seeking answers and information, without even learning why the government put them on the list in the first place.
For my family and me, this entire ordeal has been devastating. I exercised my right not to work as an FBI informant in my community and the government punished me. Because I’m on the No Fly List, I cannot visit family and friends abroad, or travel for work or to fulfill my religious pilgrimage obligation as a Muslim. My wife and I worry that her naturalization application is at risk. I worry that government officials who claim to protect all Americans equally can violate our constitutional rights with impunity.
Now with the help of the ACLU, I’m bringing a lawsuit to challenge the government’s actions and placement of me on the No Fly List. I want a fair process to clear my name. And I want to make sure no one suffers what my family and I have suffered.
“I’m relieved to be off the No Fly List, but still reeling from the government’s abusive use of the list against me and its violations of my constitutional rights,” said Mr. Chebli. “I was placed on the list after I refused to become an FBI informant despite frightening and intimidating threats against me and my family. For over two years, I sought a fair process to clear my name, and the government failed to provide me with one. As a Muslim in this country, it can be easy to feel like a second-class citizen and be afraid to stand up for your rights because of the way our own government treats us. But now I feel vindicated and want my story to encourage others to stand up for their rights, because when we do, good things can happen.”