Ex-air mar­shal sues over the use of ‘SSI’ la­bel by Home­land Se­cu­rity

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Au­drey Hud­son

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.

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