The United States has issued a written apology to a jet-setting billionaire businessman and philanthropist with close ties to former President Bill Clinton whose name was added to the no-fly list in the wake of the attempted Christmas day bombing of an American passenger plane.
Gilbert Chagoury, 64, a Nigerian citizen of Lebanese descent, was pulled off a private jet Jan. 15 at the Teterboro, N.J., airport and detained for more than four hours after federal agents discovered his name was on the then-recently updated no-fly list.
The private jet crew of two and four other passengers were detained for four and a half hours while agents questioned Chagoury. He and the others were ultimately allowed to continue their trip to Paris.
“I think a huge mistake is an understatement,” Chagoury said in a phone interview with the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News.
“I cannot accept being labeled a terrorist when I am known all over the world as a person who loves peace. It really hurt,” he said.
It took Chagoury, a well known philanthropist and an ambassador to the United Nations educational office, four months and thousands of dollars in legal fees to get the U.S. government to offer an apology and to give him a waiver to fly freely across U.S. airspace.
“Let us apologize for any inconvenience or unpleasantness you have experienced,” wrote Jim Kennedy of the Department of Homeland Security’s Traveler Redress Inquiry Program in an April letter obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.
“Please understand that in order to detect those international travelers involved in illicit activities, we must, at times, unfortunately inconvenience law-abiding travelers,” the DHS official wrote to Chagoury in April.
The formal waiver allowing him, his family and private jet pilots to travel again to the US was finally granted last week.
There was, however, no explanation of why Chagoury’s name had ended up on the no-fly list in the first place.
“I don’t know why me. I look at myself as a friend of America, I’ve always loved your country,” said Chagoury.
Chagoury said he he had regularly traveled to the United States without incident until this January. Given the timing, it appears Chagoury was ensnared by changes in the criteria for the antiterrorism list after the failed bombing attempt.
The accused bomber grew up in Chagoury’s homeland of Nigeria, and Chagoury said he was acquainted with the suspect’s father, a Nigerian banker.
“He has always been a great banker and a very nice gentleman,” said Chagoury of Abdulmutallab’s father, who had gone to the US Embassy to sound an alarm about his son’s possible recruitment as a terrorist before the December attempted attack.
“Practically everybody knows everybody in the business community in Nigeria,” Chagoury added.
Chagoury said the US agents asked him, “Which bank do you bank with in Nigeria?”
He told them that his corporation did business with at least six or seven different banks in Nigeria, he said.
“I still believe it was personal and until I find out the answer I will really not be happy,” Chagoury said with anger in his voice.
To make matters worse for Chagoury, the incident at the New Jersey airport received widespread international attention after it was first reported by ABC News, citing official documents.
“Everyone understands that after the December attempt, the government re-examined a lot of travelers. Ambassador Chagoury has no problem with the government taking a second look at him, and he’s pleased that he’s been cleared to fly to the United States,” Chagoury spokesman Mark Corallo said. “What he doesn’t understand is the decision by someone in the government to disclose his name to the media and to unfairly suggest that he was a potential threat.”
Chagoury said the episode was particularly painful because over the years he has provided significant assistance to the U.S. State Department in diplomatic and overseas matters, especially related to Nigeria.
“I did a lot of that at the American embassy in Nigeria. Always they used to come to me with one problem or another,” he said.
Chagoury’s case also raises a tantalizing question. If it was difficult for a politically-connected billionaire to restore his privileges to fly into the United States, what about ordinary people entangled in the enhanced screening for the no-fly list?
Ben Wizner, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said his group is working with seven Americans caught in the same no-fly list crackdown as Chagoury. Four are trapped outside the United States and unable to get home.
“If you don’t have a private plane or a yacht, it’s hard to know what these people are supposed to do,” Wizner said. “Some have tried to get in the back door flying to Mexico and Canada, and even that hasn’t worked.”
One of the ACLU’s clients, Steven Washburn, 54, a former Air Force officer from New Mexico, said he had been stuck in Ireland for three months, unable to return home because he appeared on the no-fly list sometime after his last U.S. trip in November.
Washburn told the Center in an interview he worked as a security expert at a company in Saudi Arabia for the last couple of years but wanted to return home with his wife, a Spanish citizen, in February after a brief visit in Ireland with his stepdaughter and new grandchild.
Washburn said he was halted from boarding a direct flight to the United States in February and told he was on the no-fly list. He was interviewed by FBI agents, who told him they had no concern about him and even suggested Washburn get around the no-fly list by flying to Mexico then driving across the border, he said.
Washburn took their advice and boarded a flight to Mexico City. Three hours into the flight, the pilot was ordered to return to London’s Heathrow Airport, where Washburn said he was detained, fingerprinted and tested for DNA by Scotland Yard officials. Washburn said he learned the plane was forced to return because it would briefly enter U.S. air space as it approached Mexico, triggering the no-fly restriction.
Washburn, his family and his lawyer said the FBI questioning gave some hints of what might have landed him on the list: the agents discussed his conversion to Islam after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, his recent work in Saudi Arabia, his opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the fact that he hailed from New Mexico where the Yemeni-American imam Anwar al-Awlaki — linked by US. officials to the failed Christmas Day terror plot — once taught years ago.
Washburn told the Center he loves America, has never supported extremism, has never committed a crime and served honorably in the Air Force. He has yet to get an explanation from the U.S. government and has lost thousands of dollars in airline tickets.
“I thought America is supposed to be the country that stands up for people’s rights, not the country that takes them away,” Washburn said. “America is supposed to assume you’re innocent before proven guilty, not force you to prove your innocence while assuming you’re too guilty to fly.”
Washburn said he is making another attempt to return home this weekend, a 72-hour journey through Germany, Brazil and Mexico carefully scripted to avoid U.S. airspace.
“This is a secret, unchecked executive power with absolutely no due process for people who are on the list,” said Wizner, a longtime critic of the no-fly list. “You can wake up one morning and find yourself unable to fly without ever being told why and without any meaningful opportunity to challenge it.”
The Homeland Security Department’s website for its Traveler Redress Inquiry Program is where those denied access to flights can appeal. But Wizner said his clients have filed appeals on the website and are still waiting for a resolution.
The Terrorist Screening Center, which manages the government’s various terrorist databases including then no-fly list, referred a reporter seeking comment to recent testimony by the center’s director, Tim Healy.
“Our Redress Unit researches the complaints, coordinates with the agency that nominated the complainant to the Terrorist Watchlist, and, if warranted, corrects any Terrorist Watchlist data that may cause the individual difficulty during a screening process,” Healy told lawmakers back in December.
Healy testified that less than one percent of the complaints filed with the unit actually involve the terror watchlist. Of those, about 51 percent are appropriately watch-listed, 22 percent have been modified or reviewed prior to a complaint, 10 percent involved people with similar names, and 15 percent are completely removed or downgraded due to the redress process.
In Chagoury’s case, he wasn’t seeking permission to fly on commercial planes to the United States. He simply got an FAA waiver for his family to fly aboard his corporate jets into and out of the United States.
Chagoury’s biography reads like a rags-to-riches tale. He was born in Nigeria to a family of Lebanese descent, got a job in an industrial conglomerate as a teen-ager, and quickly climbed the corporate ladder to become a sales executive at age 17. He married the daughter of a wealthy industrialist and by 1971 formed a firm called the Chagoury Group that today is one of Nigeria’s largest companies with multi-billion dollar assets in construction, manufacturing, real estate and hotels, according to Chagoury’s official website.
He travels on a British passport and his philanthropy work spans the United States and the globe, his spokesman said.
His generous support for the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Tennessee, founded by actor Danny Thomas, also of Lebanese descent, has won him several humanitarian awards. He and his wife have donated to the Louvre Museum in Paris and by the mid-1990s they also became major supporters of Bill Clinton.
Chagoury attended a December 1996 dinner at the White House after donating nearly a half million dollars to a Democratic Party-backed voter registration group. His political donation became the subject of scrutiny during the fund-raising investigation into unlimited “soft money” donations in the 1996 election and the system of donor rewards created by the Clintons.
Chagoury’s relationship, however, continued with the Clintons. He donated at least $1 million to Clinton’s presidential library and last year made a historic $1 billion commitment to Clinton’s global initiative to help combat climate change related erosion in Africa.
Chagoury said he never talked to Clinton or his other powerful friends about the no fly episode nor sought their help.
“I am ashamed to call any of my friends and tell them this thing is happening. Because I’ve never done anything to justify this,” he said.
Along the way, Chagoury has won audiences with Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict, former President Ronald Reagan and other world leaders. In 1995, the Caribbean island of St. Lucia named Chagoury to be its permanent ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
And with global fame and wealth came controversy. Chagoury was identified in a Wall Street Journal article as having close ties to former Nigerian military dictator Sani Abacha during the years he landed lucrative business contracts in that country. After Gen. Abacha died in 1998, Swiss and other European authorities froze a number of bank accounts, including some related to Chagoury. The matter was settled and he has never been charged with any wrongdoing.
Additional reporting by Aaron Mehta
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Chagoury requires a green card. The article has been updated to reflect the fact that he does not.
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