The Supreme Court on Tuesday seemed inclined to rule in favor of a former federal air marshal who wants whistleblower protection for leaking information about aviation security plans.
Several of the justices indicated during oral argument that Robert MacLean did not violate the law when he revealed to a reporter government plans to cut back on overnight trips for undercover air marshals despite a potential terror threat.
MacLean said he leaked the information to an MSNBC reporter after supervisors ignored his safety concerns. His revelations in 2003 triggered outrage in Congress and the Department of Homeland Security quickly decided not to make the cutbacks, acknowledging it was a mistake.
But MacLean was fired from the Transportation Security Administration three years later, after the government discovered he was the leaker.
A federal appeals court ruled last year that MacLean should be allowed to present a defense under federal whistleblower laws. The Obama administration argues that whistleblower laws contain a major exception — they do not protect employees who reveal information "prohibited by law."
Deputy Solicitor General Ian Gershengorn told the justices that TSA regulations specifically prohibit disclosure of "sensitive security information," including any information relating to air marshal deployments.
But several of the justices pointed out that the Whistleblower Protection Act refers only to other laws, not agency regulations.
"So it is prohibited by regulations, let's not play games," Justice Antonin Scalia told Gershengorn.
Justice Stephen Breyer suggested that since no law seemed to ban the kind of information MacLean leaked, the president could simply issue an executive order to keep TSA workers from disclosing that kind of information.