Whistleblowers hit turbulence; TSA ex-employees say they've been blackballed for revealing problems

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...


Waxman has sponsored legislation that would cover TSA screeners under the Whistleblower Protection Act for an array of disclosures.

"TSA employees must be allowed to sound the alarm on wrongdoing without fear of retaliation," said Waxman.

Citing privacy regulations, the TSA declined comment on the allegations of individuals named in this report, with one exception: the case of Robert MacLean.

AIR MARSHAL CUTS

MacLean, an Air Force veteran and a U.S. border patrol agent, became a federal air marshal based in Las Vegas a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A marshal's mission is simple, but dangerous: Fly undercover and armed in teams of two on commercial passenger airliners, and use deadly force if necessary to prevent a hijacking.

In July 2003, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned terrorists might again try to take over planes, after a plot was foiled overseas. Days later, TSA sent air marshals a text message on their government cell phones, declaring major cutbacks on marshals guarding cross-country flights, which required hotel stays.

MacLean said his superiors told him the reductions were imposed because TSA - which oversees air marshals - faced budget cuts and needed to save money. He said he considered the plan "foolhardy," given both the recent threat and that all four planes terrorists commandeered on 9/11 were cross-country flights.

The air marshal said he first raised objections with a supervisor, but was rebuffed. He said he then raised the issue with several officials within the DHS inspector general's office, but got no one to act.

MacLean said he was so concerned the public would be at risk with fewer air marshals in the skies that he decided publication through the media was the only other choice. Without revealing his identity, MacLean said he leaked the directive in late July 2003 to an MSNBC reporter, four days before it was to take effect so he would not compromise a plan already in progress.

"I was naive when I made that disclosure," said MacLean. "I had no idea there were no protections for somebody who revealed corruption or dangers or mismanagement."

Other media outlets picked up MSNBC's exclusive and members of Congress demanded TSA and DHS withdraw the directive. The agencies quickly relented, found the needed funds and restored air marshal coverage on long-distance flights.

MacLean was pleased, but nervous: He knew TSA officials would try to uncover who leaked the directive.

His apprehensions rose even more as he watched on TV as CNN's Wolf Blitzer questioned then-DHS Secretary Tom Ridge about the plan. He was sure he could tell Ridge was angry, as the secretary acknowledged the idea was a mistake that would be corrected.

"If they find out it's me, they're going to rip me apart," MacLean said he thought to himself. "And they did. They came after me full steam."

MacLean said Las Vegas air marshals were called to a meeting, where they were warned by local agency officials about making unauthorized disclosures. He said they also were told there would be an investigation and the U.S. Patriot Act - the post-9/11 law giving law-enforcement officials authority to use enhanced surveillance techniques to fight terrorism - would be used to find the source.

Eventually, the DHS Office of Inspector General reviewed the allegations of abuse by government investigators, including claims that air marshals were told they would be arrested if found to have leaked the directive.

The review found that "while the alleged threats made to air marshals may have been excessive," there was no evidence authorities had used or threatened to use the Patriot Act. Additionally, the review found the leak investigations conducted by TSA and the Federal Air Marshal service "were appropriate under the circumstances."

MacLean said he confessed in 2005 when confronted directly for the first time by DHS investigators, believing they had evidence against him. Finally, in April 2006, he was fired for releasing what the agency calls "sensitive security information," or SSI.

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