Federal investigators worked two years to find out who told the media about a plan to save money by cutting the number of air marshals on long-distance flights. When they finally zeroed in on Federal Air Marshal Robert MacLean, he feared lying would just make matters worse. So he confessed and was soon fired.
Thomas Bittler and Ray Guagliardi saw screeners at Buffalo Niagara International Airport send bag after bag onto planes without proper screening for explosives. But instead of receiving praise when they reported lapses to superiors, the two aviation security trainers were terminated two months later.
Kim Bricker was second in command at Oregon's Medford Airport, but was soon put on involuntary leave and eventually ousted after reporting that her boss had improperly brought an assault rifle to work to show some colleagues.
Investigative teams set up shop twice in three years at Newark Liberty International Airport to try to find the sources for stories about the high percentages of explosives that went undetected during covert tests at checkpoints. The probes continued despite criticism from local members of Congress, who said fixing security holes should take priority over plugging leaks.
When security breaches are exposed at airports around the country, the information frequently comes from TSA screeners or supervisors who see the problems firsthand, but making these disclosures often comes at a devastating personal cost, including harassment, reassignment, suspension and termination.
A total of 79 U.S. Transportation Security Administration employees have filed complaints since 2002 alleging retaliation by agency officials after disclosing shortcomings in aviation security, according to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, the body responsible for investigating federal employees' claims of whistleblower retaliation.
"Once they know you're going to stand up and question their authority . . . you're history," said James Griffin, a TSA lead screener dismissed at Long Island MacArthur Airport after telling a congressman screener shortages jeopardized passenger safety. "They will make it their business to make sure you leave - one way or the other."
Agency employees and critics say TSA screeners suffer a double-whammy: Federal regulations prohibit them from discussing agency operations with unauthorized individuals, including the media. But even telling their bosses about problems exposes the nation's 43,000 checkpoint and baggage screeners to retaliation because they are not covered by the federal Whistleblower Protection Act.
Retaliation, they say, came whether the disclosure was made to the media, a direct supervisor, further up the appropriate chain-of-command or to the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees TSA.
TSA officials call the allegations unfounded and say their practices keep critical information out of the hands of terrorists. Few cases, they say, have resulted in findings by the Office of Special Counsel that employees' rights were violated by TSA.
"TSA has always cooperated and worked closely with OSC to ensure whistleblowers are protected," wrote Christopher White, a TSA spokesman, in an e-mail response. "All allegations of reprisal are taken seriously by TSA."
White, however, said TSA must ensure that critical agency policies and procedures are "safeguarded in order to prevent harm to the nation because release of the information could threaten national security."
Much of that material is labeled "security sensitive information," which cannot be released to unauthorized persons, according to TSA.
But Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said he is concerned agencies like TSA may use labels like "security sensitive information" to keep their failings secret.
"It sounds right now like it's quite arbitrary," said Waxman.
Robert MacLean is the first federal employee to challenge the validity of the "Sensitive Security Information" (SSI) label in court.
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