"When we went to board the plane they told me 'I'm sorry, we can't let you get on the plane. You're on the U.S. no-fly terrorist watch list,'" said Washburn. "That was the moment I found out for the first time I was on the no fly list."
He later contacted the FBI who told him they had no concerns about him and even suggested Washburn get around the no fly list by flying to Mexico then walking across the border, he said.
When contacted about Washburn's ordeal, the FBI would not comment on his or any other person's experience involving the no fly list.
Washburn says he took their advice and boarded a flight to Mexico. However his wife – a Spanish citizen with a visa – was not permitted to fly with him although she was told she is not on a no fly list.
Three hours into his flight, the pilot was ordered to return to London Heathrow Airport where Washburn 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. airspace, triggering the no fly list restriction.
Washburn, a Muslim convert, said he has never committed a crime and served honorably in the Air Force and at NORAD. He finally made it to the U.S. last month after a carefully scripted 72 hour journey through Germany, Brazil, Peru and Mexico to avoid U.S. airspace. He was detained and questioned overnight in Mexico by officers.
Once in El Paso, Texas, Washburn said he was held at U.S. Customs for seven hours and was handcuffed to a chair while they asked him questions that previous FBI agents had asked and he had answered.
"You feel abused and you get angry because you're thinking, 'This is injustice,'" he said. "No one will tell you why or how you got on the list. Growing up in America we're taught the great American system in that you're innocent until proven guilty."
Another recent addition to the no fly list is Adama Bah, a 22-year-old caregiver who was accompanying the family she works for on a trip to Chicago earlier this year. When she attempted to check in for her flight at LaGuardia Airport at the automatic ticket window, she received the message, "See an agent." The agent scanned her ticket and immediately called her supervisor.
"I didn't know what was going on," said Bah who was has lived in the U.S. since she was two. She was granted asylum in the U.S. in 2007 on grounds she would be persecuted if deported to her native Guinea. "NYPD officers and the Port Authority police officers came over and told me I was on the no fly list."
Bah says no one has yet to tell her why she is on the no-fly list.
"I honestly don't know why. Nobody tells you why," said Bah. "It is upsetting but it's more of confusion. I didn't do anything wrong and no one's giving me an answer as to why I'm on this list."
Bah is also one of the plaintiffs in the ACLU case and hopes the lawsuit will bring attention to her plight.
While not involved in the ACLU lawsuit, Gilbert Chagoury, a jet-setting billionaire businessman with close ties to President Bill Clinton, was also added to the no-fly list in the wake of the attempted Christmas day bombing. Chagoury, 64, a Nigerian citizens of Lebanese descent, was pulled off a private jet on January 15 at Teterboro airport in New Jersey and detained for more than four hours after agents discovered his name was on the then-recently updated no-fly list.