The first case directly involving a federal whistleblower is now before the U.S. Supreme Court, and experts say the high court's ruling in the Department of Homeland Security v. MacLean will have wide ripples that could reach into the health insurance industry.
Robert J. MacLean is a former Transportation Security Administration air marshal. In July of 2003, he and other air marshals were tapped for mandatory training to help thwart airline hijacking plots by al-Qaeda, The Washington Post reported.
But the TSA sent an unsecured, unclassified text message to the air marshals days later canceling long-distance assignments requiring overnight stay. MacLean believed this cost-cutting move would put the flying public at risk after the TSA received word of a possible terrorist attack, according to Whistleblowing Today.
Research and anecdotal evidence show that most whistleblowers report concerns internally before seeking outside help. MacLean voiced his concerns with an agency supervisor and the Department of Homeland security's inspector general's office about the issue; but he also leaked the information to MSNBC. Saying MacLean improperly disclosed sensitive information, TSA officials fired him.
But the agency didn't tag the information MacLean leaked as sensitive until three years after sending the text message. Now the high court will decide if MacLean's disclosure was "specifically prohibited by law."
The federal government says it was. Its lawyers argue that the lower court's unanimous decision in favor of MacLean was "wrong, dangerous and warrants reversal," The Post noted, since it reduced "the effectiveness of Congress's scheme for keeping sensitive security information from falling into the wrong hands."
MacLean supporters disagree. And many--including the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, six members of Congress, twelve former U.S. government officials, a civil rights organization, a government watchdog group, an employee union and two federal employee associations--filed friend-of-the court briefs backing the former air marshal.
"The implications of this case go well beyond MacLean," The Post wrote. "If he loses, Uncle Sam will have greater power to bully whistleblowers. Fewer federal employees might be willing to disclose waste, fraud, abuse and dumb decisions."