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...


"Your unauthorized media appearance and unauthorized release of SSI information to the media raise serious doubts about your judgment and trustworthiness," a TSA official wrote to MacLean in his termination letter.

"Moreover, the disclosure of SSI had the potential to reveal vulnerabilities in the aviation security system, and as such, was extremely dangerous to the public we serve," the official added.

MacLean is challenging the designation of the material as SSI and is suing to regain his job, while government watchdog groups say he should be protected under federal law as a "whistleblower."

MacLean's case is pending before the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals. Nearly a year and a half after being fired, he says he cannot get another job in law enforcement. He has moved his wife and family to California, where they now live with his parents, and is starting an "environmentally safe" pressure-washing business.

"I'm done in federal service," said MacLean. "I've been completely blackballed."

MacLean, now 37, has some ad vice for others who might leak government information they believe puts the public at risk: "It really isn't worth it, unless there's protective measures in place."

UNCHECKED BAGS

Rep. Waxman said the House of Representatives "has not been swayed" by arguments that strengthening the Whistleblower Protection Act will weaken security and it showed this by passing his measure 331-94.

But while Waxman's bill would extend coverage to TSA screeners, the current Senate version - which awaits a vote - does not. And even if the Senate adopts coverage for TSA screeners, the legislation still faces a potential veto by President Bush.

While MacLean's case is spotlighted by whistleblower groups, many other cases also show the tensions between TSA and those who report its failings.

At Buffalo Niagara Airport, two security training officers, Thomas Bittler and Ray Guagliardi, said they became targets within TSA after they reported in the fall of 2003 that baggage screeners were routinely violating procedures when checking for explosives.

"Bags were going through unchecked - period," said Bittler. "And bags that were checked weren't being checked properly."

Guagliardi said the pair tried to do the right thing by going through official channels instead of the media.

"We sent it up the chain-of-command," said Guagliardi. "When nothing was done, we sent it up to (TSA's Virginia) headquarters."

They said they found themselves excluded from staff meetings, ostracized, moved to less desirable offices, had their e-mail accounts shut down and were told they couldn't work the holidays.

"Then two weeks later, we were fired - police-escorted out," said Guagliardi.

The pair also filed a whistle-blower retaliation complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, which did not pursue their case.

In October 2004, The Star-Ledger, citing confidential inspection reports it obtained, reported that screeners at Newark Liberty missed 25 percent of explosives and weapons during weekly internal covert tests over a three-month period. In October 2006, quoting unnamed federal officials, the newspaper reported that screeners missed 20 of 22 explosives and weapons during tests by undercover TSA agents.

In each case, the TSA sent teams of internal affairs agents to Newark Liberty in an effort to find the newspaper's sources. Dozens of screeners were interviewed. Some airport personnel described the probes as intimidating. One individual familiar with the 2004 probe said investigators threatened some employees with jail time for releasing the test scores, which are labeled "se curity sensitive information."

White, the TSA spokesman, offered a nuanced response. He disputed that agents threatened jail time for releasing "security sensitive information," but acknowledged employees were told they could be prosecuted for lying to investigators about whether they released the information.

"Thus the discussion about criminal penalties related to providing false information in a sworn statement and not to the improper release of security sensitive information," the spokesman added.

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