A former federal air marshal filed suit Monday against the Transportation Security Administration for firing him after he revealed an unclassified plan to remove marshals from long-distance flights.
The 2003 disclosure by Robert MacLean came just days after the agency had warned airlines of a hijacking threat to overseas flights. News of the plan to remove marshals from long-distance flights generated outrage in Congress and forced the TSA to reverse its decision.
This April, the agency fired MacLean for leaking information to reporters. In his lawsuit, filed with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the former air marshal is challenging the agency’s contention that the information was sensitive and should not have been disclosed.
Whistle-blower advocates say the case could reaffirm protections for federal employees who release information, as well as set limits on the administration’s designation of some material as “sensitive but unclassified,” which limits access to that information.
The TSA’s plan to cut air marshal presence was at odds with federal law, which makes it a priority to place the marshals on long-distance flights such as the ones targeted by the Sept. 11 hijackers. The agency was trying to cut costs by keeping air marshals off flights that required a hotel stay.
On July 29, 2003, the TSA sent air marshals text messages on their cellphones ordering them to quickly cancel hotel reservations so as not to incur late cancellation fees, MacLean said.
Three days earlier, the agency had issued an “information circular” stemming from a foiled hijacking plot that outlined specific terrorist threats to U.S.-bound aircraft from Australia, Italy and Britain.
“It all comes down to money,” MacLean, 36, said Monday. “They made a dangerous decision to save money.”
MacLean, an Orange County resident, said the purpose of his suit is to regain his job.
TSA spokeswoman Amy Kudwa declined to comment.