Supreme Court Grants TSA Air Marshal Whistle-Blower Protection

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The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday to grant whistle-blower protection to an Orange County Transportation Security Administration (TSA) air marshal who was accused of leaking sensitive information to the press.

According to the Los Angeles Times, air marshal Robert J. MacLean was fired from his post in 2006 after revealing to a TV news outlet the agency’s plan to remove air marshals from overnight flights to save money on hotels.

The resulting MSNBC story, titled “Air Marshals Pulled from Key Flights,” caused a stir in Congress, which demanded that the TSA reinstate the policy. Within 24 hours, the TSA complied and dropped the plan.

The TSA did not know at the time that MacLean was the source for the MSNBC story, according to NBC News. It was only after he appeared in an NBC Nightly News segment in 2004 criticizing the air marshal dress code that the agency was able to identify him. The agency promptly fired him for leaking sensitive security information to the press.

In a 7-2 decision Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that MacLean must be granted whistle-blower protection because the information he leaked revealed “gross mismanagement and abuse of authority.”

Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the opinion, reportedly said that this was a prime example of a whistle-blower Congress was supposed to protect. He also said that the TSA should have gone to Congress or President Obama with their concerns about the leak of sensitive information, as either could have issued an executive order plug.

“Neither has done so,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “It is not our role to do so for them.”

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Anthony Kennedy dissented, with Sotomayor writing that the court had “left important decisions regarding the disclosure of critical information completely to the whims of individual employees.”

MacLean, who has since left the agency and now works in construction in Orange County, told the Times he was “very honored and grateful that the Supreme Court decided the case.”

“I’ve always believed with the information that I had, it was not illegal to do what I did,” MacLean told the paper. “Violating an agency rule or regulation does not trump the federal whistle-blower protection laws.”

Although the ruling represents a major victory for MacLean, he will not immediately be reinstated; according to the Times, he must first convince the Merit Systems Protection Board that his whistle-blower status should have shielded him from termination.