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Case shows torturous route of a whistleblower

After bringing to light a series of public safety threats, air marshal Robert Maclean was fired in March 2019 for the second time.

His story shows the sometimes tortuous path the career of a whistleblower can take.

Complaints in 2003

Maclean was an air marshal in 2003 when he received an unencrypted text message from his bosses at the Transportation Security Administration that ended the practice of sending air marshals on long-distance flights so the TSA could save money on hotel rooms.

Maclean disputed the new procedure since terrorists – including the 9/11 attackers – target long-distance flights because they carry more fuel. He complained up the chain of command and, frustrated by inaction, went to a reporter at MSNBC. Unable to withstand the scrutiny of public exposure, the policy was rescinded and long-distance flights with air marshals continued.

In 2006, while Maclean was complaining about the dress code for air marshals, officials discovered he was the 2003 whistleblower. The document was retroactively classified as “sensitive” and Maclean was fired.

Maclean’s claim he deserved whistleblower protection went unheeded until 2015 when the U.S. Supreme Court determined he deserved to be safeguarded through the Whistleblower Protection Act.

Next phase

Maclean was hired back by the TSA, but his security clearance took months to process. He was put back on flights as an air marshal but was ineffective because of his many television appearances after he won his Supreme Court case. He was reassigned to an office with no duties. He was then reassigned to a team examining aviation, rail and marine facilities while the TSA required him to get a psychiatric evaluation.

Meanwhile, he filed more whistleblower complaints. He said:

  • Secondary barriers were missing between cockpits and passengers
  • Crews were not equipped with Narcan to neutralize fentanyl and carfentanil, dangerous drugs that can elude TSA screening
  • Trucks containing religious airline meals were not inspected even though they had access to secured areas of airports

Meanwhile, TSA officials claim Maclean watched six seconds of pornography on his government-issued cellphone and made abusive remarks about TSA officials in a closed Facebook chatroom. They also say he took a photo of a visitor’s logbook to see who the TSA interviewed during one of the probes into his behavior.

In March, Maclean was fired again.

His lawyer says the pornographic video was a pop-up that was stopped as soon as Maclean was aware of it, that the comments are protected speech, and that the logbook is a public document.

What is clear throughout Maclean’s saga is the importance of having an attorney who believes in your case and who will fight for you against massive government bureaucracies all the way to the Supreme Court.

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