Looking back at US government watch lists, he has brought to light the regime of Mrs. Shipley. Her obscure office in the State Department decided which US citizens might be issued passports largely without any outside scrutiny from the 1930s through the 50s. Passports in that era were a novelty that only became essential for travel after World War I era controls somehow leached into the ensuing uneasy European "peace." Once the very idea of regulating individual's travel had emerged amid wartime fears, a government office took upon itself to decide which citizens might harm US interests by going abroad freely. Remembered victims include playwright Arthur Miller and the Communist singer Paul Robeson who were both denied passports, but there were thousands who found themselves so restricted, mostly anonymously.
As the anti-Communist paranoia of the 1950s receded, a series of legal decisions curtailed the arbitrary power of Mrs. Shipley's office; several of these were written by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who
Kahn describes the contemporary watch list system -- the Terrorist Screening Center, the Terrorist Screening Database, and their offshoots -- as less personal and even less penetrable than Mrs. Shipley's regime. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, officials charged with "security," felt exposed as failures and were determined never to let any danger slip past them again. All their incentives encouraged them to expand controls like a cancer.
The mushrooming lists quickly left the narrow regime of preventing threats to commercial flights and became an instrument of more general coercion. The various security agencies have taken advantage of their ability to prevent travel in order to bring pressure on, mostly Muslim, citizens they wished to investigate or recruit as spies among their communities. (I've chronicled the case of Air Force vet Saadiq Long and his is by no means the only such instance.)
Ah yes: "trust us" -- there's President Obama's mantra in response to Edward Snowden's documentation of the NSA's vacuuming collection of our lives; we'll give you cosmetic reforms, we'll study it, but trust us. If the history is to believed, trust in authorities is a mistake unless those authorities are also forced to explain and verify, even when they don't want to.
Kahn goes on to propose that an unrestricted right to travel without government permission should be considered a basic entitlement of citizenship in a democratic state, subject to the strictest scrutiny before officials can use their power to infringe on it. I don't know whether his legal arguments have any future. The Ibrahim case is the latest instance in a string of court decisions that seem to point to a judicial willingness to put some limits on the spooks -- and to the courts' inability to get much more of a grip on the bureaucracy than individuals enjoy.