Ex-air marshal sues over the use of ‘SSI’ label by Homeland Security
Aformerfederalairmarshalsaid he was filing suit against the government on Oct. 30 to challenge use of a nonclassified label that he says allows Homeland Security officials to cover up dangerous and inept policies.
Robert MacLean, an air marshal who was fired for blowing the whistle on a cutback of flight protections in the wake of a terrorist alert, is the first federal employee to challenge the validity of the “Sensitive Security Information” (SSI) label in court.
Asked why he is challenging the bureaucratic tool, Mr. MacLean said, “Vindictive retaliation like this makes agents unwilling to report gross mismanagement.”
Families of victims of the Sep- tember11terroristattacksandgovernment-watchdog groups have failed to obtain records classified as SSI.
The Government Accountability Office and Congress are critical of the label and say it is overused and stamped on everything from official correspondence to general items suchasgoing-away-partyinvitations.
AccordingtoaJune2005GAOreport, SSI “monitoring controls are weak”andhas“ledtoconfusionand unnecessary classification of some materials as SSI.”
“IdentificationofSSIhasoftenappearedtobead-hoc,markedbyconfusionanddisagreement,depending on the viewpoint, experience and training of the identifier,” the report said.
Mr. MacLean revealed to reporters and members of Congress on July 29, 2003, that air marshals weregoingtoprotectonlyflightsless than four hours long to reduce costs of overnight hotel stays for long-distance flights. The new order came just three days after the Homeland SecurityDepartmentissuedawarning that terrorists were planning more hijackings.
“Hijackers may attempt to use common items carried by travelers such as cameras modified as weapons,”saidtheJuly26,2003,bulletinfromtheDepartmentofHomeland Security. “Attack venues may include the United Kingdom, Italy, Australia or the East Coast of the United States due to the relatively high concentration of government, military and economic targets.”
“I risked everything to protect national security, but they terminated me for their own dangerous andinaneplans,”Mr.MacLeansaid.
“But I have no regrets. I did the rightthing,”saidMr.MacLean,who still serves as vice president of the Federal Air Marshal Service unit of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA).
“MacLean’s termination is a case study in the abuse of government secrecy,” said Nick Schwellenbach, investigator for the Project on Government Oversight. Mr. MacLean was fired in April and completed the Merit Systems Protection Board hurdles earlier in October. His suit was filed in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and challenges SSI as a nonbinding and abused classification.
“SSI was supposed to protect lives, but it is instead used to cover up mistakes or bad decisions,” Mr. MacLean said.
Conan Bruce, Federal Air MarshalServicespokesman,declinedto comment.“Ourstandardiswedon’t discuss personnel matters,” he said.
Unlike classifications of information as “secret” or “top secret,” SSI is an administrative tool designed to protect information that might endanger air security.
Bob Haefele, a lawyer with Motley Rice LLC, which represents the September 11 families, said SSI is used to “protect weaknesses in the systemfromdisclosure,ratherthan fixing the weakness.”
Adam Miles, legislative director for the Government Accountability Project, said Mr. MacLean’s case is on “solid ground.”
“The Federal Air Marshal Service is in blatant violation of the Whistleblowers Protection Act, which protects the disclosure of unclassified information that an employeefeelsendangerspublichealth and safety, and Robert certainly did that,” Mr. Miles said.