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Should whistleblowers be protected if they leak government secrets?

October 8, 2014

By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer

Robert MacLean was an air marshal for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) who believed that the agency was putting people’s lives at risk when it cut the number of air marshals aboard flights leaving Las Vegas.

It all started in July 2003, when air marshals were briefed about a possible hijacking plot. Not long after the briefing, the TSA sent an unencrypted text message to all air marshals canceling several months of missions to cut costs. MacLean thought that the cuts were a mistake and that they could potentially lead to the loss of lives.

After he protested the cuts to his superior and received what he believed was an unsatisfactory answer, MacLean went public with the information. He told the press about the cost-reduction plan, becoming a whistleblower.

MacLean was quickly identified as the leaker and was fired in 2006 for revealing security secrets.

In 1989, the Whistleblower Act became law. It protected federal employees from retribution if they brought to light government corruption, wrongdoing or waste. The law states that federal employees cannot be disciplined for exposing information that brings to light “a specific danger to public health and safety.”

The Whistleblower Act protects almost all federal employees; the only exceptions are government employees who leak information that is specifically protected by law from public exposure, essentially state secrets and top secret documents. The idea is that federal employees should have the right to expose government wrongdoing without fear of being fired or punished. Classified information that could undermine national security does not fall under the Whistleblower Act, and any employee who leaked such information could be held accountable.

The TSA, under the authority of the Department of Homeland Security, argues that MacLean broke the law, saying the Whistleblower Act protected the information that was leaked.

MacLean argues that he did not leak information that was protected, since it was sent via text, which was unclassified.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, a special federal court that hears claims by federal employees, sided with MacLean. It said that while the contents of the message could be classified information, the text itself was unclassified, meaning that the TSA could not terminate MacLean for leaking the information. It also ruled that “MacLean presented substantial evidence that he was not motivated by personal gain, but by the desire to protect the public.”

The Department of Homeland Security appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, saying it was “wrong, dangerous.” The Supreme Court will review the case, Homeland v. MacLean, this term.

What do you think?

Do you think MacLean leaked classified information? Does it matter that the TSA sent the news of the cuts via unencrypted text message? Should MacLean be protected under the Whistleblower Act? How do you balance government secrecy and public safety? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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Comments
12/17/2015
Glendora ca
Ray
Self school
I agree if they're leaking secrets People are not leaking secrets these people are leaking things are happening that should not happening also they are purging records We are Americans we could be upholding the Constitution in all it's facets So many cases right now with the government is charging espionage Challenge the government they will ruin you they will put you through hell and you never return

11/19/2015
Diamond Bar/ CA
ClaireP4
Wong/Lorbeer
I believe that whistle blowers could have protection depending on the information they leak. If they leak secrets or information that could compromise the security of the U.S., they should be faced with consequences. But if they shed light to wrong doings of the government they should be protected. Leaking secrets of corruption can actually help fix things or set things right.

6/5/2015
Stroudsburg
Mickenna
MR.Hanna/sjhs
Whistle blowers or information leakers should Not be protected if the do so because it's their fault for giving out secret government information. Government information that should be kept secret should remain a secret. Although when government is giving this information they should have a wajar to explain what will happen if you leak information and on how important the topic is.

11/16/2014
Irving/TX
Erik
Ms.Bradley/Nimitz High School
I believe whistleblowers should be protected if they leak government secrets that directly or indirectly violates the constitution that the government is sworn to uphold. The recent case of whistleblower Edward Snowdon is a perfect example of a whistleblower that should have been protected from the government because of the NSA files and practices Edward disclosed, have violated several amendments of the constitution. If snowdon had not disclosed the information he did, the NSA and US government would have continued to violate US citizens’ constitutional rights without the consent of the american people.

11/16/2014
Irving/TX
Gabriel M
Bradley/Nimitz
No, I do not think that MacLean leaked classified information because it was not in an encrypted message. Yes, MacLean should be protected under the Whistleblowers Act because it concerned the publics safety, not personal gain. Government security has been an issue since there has been government, but with the rise of easily accessible technology it has become a broader issue. If the government wants security then they should get better technology and be honest and candid with the public about why information is being withheld.

11/16/2014
Irving/ Texas
Lidia
Bradley/ Nimitz
I think that MacLean had every right to do what he did because he felt it was harming others. After all the Whistle blower Act was meant for those who have a feeling that many's lives could be affected by the decisions or the information being kept from the public. If the TSA did not want this information to be leaked than that information should have been sent in a more formal manner. I think that there should be a balance between government secrecy and public safety but if the government isn't doing a good job of keeping such information classified than they shouldn't be surprised when it is leaked.

11/14/2014
Irving/TX
Victor
Bradley/Nimitz
MacLean did not leak any classified information. It is like he said, the information was sent via text and it was unclassified. Because of this and the fact that he did it to protect the public he should be protected under the Whistleblower Act. He was trying to protect the public and was not doing it for personal gain.

11/14/2014
Belleville, New York
Eli Patterson
Ms. Colby
I firmly believe that we should change the Whistleblower act to provide more protection to the Whistleblowers. MacLean had every right to expose the information if he believed it potentially put lives at risk. Another issue similar to this is Edward Snowden leaking government information and was forced to leave the country to escape punishment for helping the people of America.

11/14/2014
Irving/Texas
Tyler
Bradley/Nimitz
Hijacking planes is a very touchy subject in America and all over the world today in this era of post 9/11 flight. That being said, it is the air marshal's duty as an employee of the government to protect people in the air just the same as it is the duty of a police officer to fight crime and a fireman to fight fires. All for the good of the public. If the marshals had information that a possible hijacking could take place they should be tripling the security in the skies not cutting it in half. That is a danger to the public safety and in my opinion I say hats off to Mr. MacLean for trying to save lives. That's his job as an air marshal and his job according to the oath he took to protect Americans, and if the government is trying to get in the way of that the public has a right to know.

11/13/2014
Stroudsburg,PA
Adjoa
Mr.Hanna/ Stroudsburg, PA
I don't think whistleblowers should be protected. It is unacceptable that the government trusts certain people with information, and they take it into their own hands to try and protect people (by sharing the information). People that have betrayed the government and released personal information should be punished. If an opposing country ever heard about America's plans from whistleblowers, they could easily sabotage us and ruin everything. The citizens that are sharing information would be putting more people's lives in danger than the government ever could.

11/13/2014
Stroudsburg, PA
Allendy
Mr.hanna
Yes i think the should be protected. If they arent then it will lead up to more crimes in the long run. Unless the goverment is horrible which i don't believe. There is no reason for the goverment to not protect that person. It can be a storng person or a weak person doesnt matter everyone should be protected. But on the other hand if it is anyomous then no one will know so it dosnt matter if they are protected or not.

11/12/2014
Irving/Texas
Jorge
Bradley/Nimitz
From what its sound like yes MacLean should be protected under the Whistleblower Act because he didn't do anything that would hurt the public on the contrary he was trying to protect the public. How could he know this was suppose to be classified information if the text wasn't even encrypted and it was a text. People can see our text on the phone. Yes there are some things that the public shouldn't know, but if someone believes it may hurt the people of these united states then please be a whistleblower.

11/12/2014
Irving/Texas
Flor
Bradley/Nimitz
MacLean did not leak classified information. The thing that does concern me however, was that the TSA had sent news or information like that just via a simple unencrypted and unclassified text message. It does matter because if the Transportation Security Administration was to want to say a message that apparently important to all air marshals, and not want it to go to the public, they should have done it in a way other than via text. So definitely, especially after this case, I believe that whistleblowers should be protected if they “leak” government secrets, to whichever that may regard and to a certain extent.

11/10/2014
Murrieta, California
Justin Reed
Jabro /Creekside Highschool
I strongly believe that the information that had been leaked was not a classified government secret, he sent the text to reduce the loss of lives aboard the airplane. It does matter that the TSA sent that unencrypted text message, because it would help save lives. MacLean should definitely be protected by the Whistleblower act because he leaked information that was a necessity to saving lives from a potential hijacking. You should balance government secrecy and public safety just enough to make sure that everyone will be safe, but also just enough to not cause and spread panic.

11/9/2014
Sidney/Montana
Adam Lake
Mr. Faulhaber/Sidney High School
Like my fellow student Mark, I to believe that MacLean should be protected under the Whistleblower Act. The information that he leaked was in the best interest of the public. Due to the fact that it was sent via text it clearly was not classified. If it was to be classified information then they would not have taken the chance in text and would have either hand written and delivered or ,in a briefing, told the people which the text was sent. Whether the information should or should not be leaked depends on the time or information. If the information that is being leaked is in the idea of public safety or could potentially save lives or the economy, then it should not be information that is being hidden or classified anyway. In the case of defense and in some cases protection of the citizens, then some cases may be reasonable to be classified information.

11/9/2014
Sidney/MT
Kory
Mr. Faulhaber
I do not believe that MacLean leaked classified information. I also believe that he is protected under the Whistleblower Act of 1989. If the TSA sent the news over an unencrypted text message, then the information should not be classified or there is a problem with our national security. This would apply under the Act as he was informing the public about the government doing something wrong and the information was not classified as Mark stated. Balancing this ability to protect the public through leaking information and the issue of national security creates a very vague line. I believe it must be determined by the U.S. Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court whether or not someone is protected under the Whistleblower Act as with Homeland v. MacLean.

11/7/2014
Sidney, Montana
Mark
Mr.Faulhaber/Sidney High School
I believe that MacLean did not leak classified information. However, I believe that it was a matter of making the government transparent. The fact that the texts were sent through unencrypted text message makes me realize that they obviously did not consider what they were sending classified. I believe that MacLean should be protected under the Whistleblower Act. He was showing the public more about their government. I believe that the government should inform the public more and protect the public's privacy rather than their own privacy. I agree with Jessica in that Maclean was protecting the public. No, information is how the public makes decisions. In addition, if people's lives were at stake then he had the protection of the Whistleblower Act because death would be considered a wrongdoing. Overall, Maclean should be protected under the Whistleblowing Act and the government should become more transparent so the public will know what is going on. I will end with a quote from Texas Congressman Ron Paul, “I maintain that government becomes more secret and the people’s privacy is being destroyed. We should protect the people’s privacy and we should make the government much more open.”

11/7/2014
Irving/TX
Lee
Bradley/Nimitz
The U.S. Court of Appeals, professional experienced judiciaries, sided with MacLean. The Department of Homeland Security failed to remember that MacLean not exposing that unclassified government information would have also been “wrong, dangerous”. The difference is that MacLean was accused of a moral transgression against the government by the Transportation Security Administration. The TSA was accused of endangering the general public by MacLean. MacLean absolutely should be protected under the Whistleblower Act. Insubordination in the name of the people and lack of concern for public welfare are not really comparable.

11/7/2014
Irving/Texas
Rachel
Ms. Bradley/Nimitz
The government should be held accountable for the mistakes it makes. The point of the government is to represent and fulfill what is best for the people, and so they should ensure that all of their actions do this. If the government felt it was fulfilling what is best for the nation, then it wouldn't matter if somebody "leaked" information about what they're doing. Of course there are issues of national defense which I understand should be kept quiet (things like the Manhattan project.) However, the issue in question here regards budget cuts to a program designed to protect a sector which in September of 2001 proved to be very weak. MacLean was trying to protect the citizens of the nation from the decisions of those who run it, and he should not be punished.

11/4/2014
Irving,TX
Martin
Ms.Bradley/ Nimitz High School
Whistleblowers should be protected only if what they leak is going to be beneficial to the public. In MacLean's case he was doing the right thing and should have been protected. He leaked the information because he knew it was wrong and for the benefit of the people.

10/31/2014
Irving,TX
Miguel
Bradley/Nimitz
Robert MacLean revealed a very controversial state secret in 2003. The secret he revealed though, did not get him in a lot of trouble. True, he did get fired from his job, but in the end, because of the Whistleblower Act, he was not imprisoned. This act, which was passed in 1989, guarantees protection to federal employees if they reveal secrets that brings to light federal wrongdoings. If a person does like the act allows, to reveal secrets for the safety of the public, the government such not hesitate to protect them. Anyone who leaks a governmental secret that is for the well being of the country, should not be harmed. This obviously is not the case for all secrets, since some are much less needed to be public, and more needed to be classified. These people should be improsed for revealing important classified information. These classified secrets will make the whistleblower a criminal for revealing secrets that can actually cause more harm than good. Secrets that if revealed cause more harm than good should not be made public. In this case, again, the government has the right to imprison them.

10/27/2014
Irving/Texas
Carolyn
Ms. Bradley/Nimitz
MacLean shouldn't be punished for helping the public. MacLean being an employee of the TSA, employees must go beyond their required job to assure the safety of passengers. MacLean first plead his concern to his superior, and since that didn't work out, he voiced the situation to the public. He didn't leak classified information, since the information was sent unprofessionally via text. MacLean should be protected under the Whistleblower Act because he exposed a concern for public safety, and it was not classified information. Though it is good for the public to know certain information about the government, there should always be a balance between government secrecy and public safety, and in this case, there wasn't an issue of secrecy, but only public safety.

10/23/2014
Irving/State
Kierria S.
Bradley/Nimitz
If the message was considered unclassified than there is no way that MacLean could be counted for leaking out information private for the government. TSA is suppose to provide a safe and calm environment for passengers, and since they cancel missions that could protect people, they should be punish or dealt with for their lack of care for the people and their day to day job. To be apart of an governmental agency is to be aware of citizens problems and to make sure they are secured. MacLean saw an opportunity to tell higher authority that TSA was not doing their job; the Whistleblower Act should guard those who want to guard others. A balance of government secrecy and public safety is hard to define. If there is great danger then the people should know, but if there is an issue that will help the people and yet they would be angered by it then perhaps it is best to keep it secret.

10/23/2014
Murrieta/California
Derek C.
Mr.Jabro/Creekside High School
The information he leaked was not a classified government secret and he should not have been disciplined for it. But in the case of someone leaking government secrets that are not supposed to be public knowledge then yes i believe they should be punished but not severely, but if they only leak information that hurts company or a specific area of government like robert maclean did then they should be protected.

10/20/2014
Irving, TX
Jonathan
Bradley/Nimitz
The information MacLean leaked was secretive but not classified information, because the public would eventually find out. I believe that the Whistleblower Act should cover Maclean because it all revolved around the safety of the public, and his action helped prevent anything bad or hazardous from happening. All in all the way to keep the public safe and balance the secrecy of the government is to know what the public can handle and can't.

10/20/2014
Irving/TX
Colton
Bradley/Nimitz High School
Whistleblowers should be protected by because of ethics. In Robert MacLean's case, he was doing the ethical thing by warning the public of potential danger. Saving lives through this action he took, MacLean should be protected under the Whistleblower Act. There are certain issues that are big and should be kept in secrecy, but not when something threatens the lives of the public.

10/19/2014
Irving/TX
Hillary
Bradley/Nimitz
I don't think MacLean leaked the classified information. If it was sent via text then it could've been anybody. All MacLean wanted to do was protect the public. I think he should be protected under the Whistleblower Act because what he did wasn't wrong. Instead of sending out texts or using technology, they should record the "classified information" on a document of some sort.

10/17/2014
Irving/TX
Briana
Bradley/Nimitz
Whistleblowers should only be protected if what they leaked is part of the Whistleblower Act. McLean did not leak classified information because the message was sent in a public matter. It is highly important that the the news about the cuts was not considered important enough to be classified therefore McLean had the right to talk about the information. He should be protected because he did not leak information that was spread in an unclassified manner. If the information would have been in a more secure way then he shouldn't be protected but that isn't the case. He also spread the information in order to protect the well being of the people so therefore he should not be punished if what he did was for the greater good of the people.

10/17/2014
Irving/Texas
Peyton
Bradley/Nimitz
I think that MacLean did not leak classified information. Yes, he leaked information, but it was not classified, but rather unclassified since it was in the form of a text message. I think that he should be protected under the Whistleblower Act because he did not reveal this information for personal gain, but rather public safety reasons instead. If this government information was truly top secret and not to be leaked it should have been carried differently through a sealed envelope or on a secret document and not through a text message which just honestly seems kind of sketchy. Stronger measures need to be taken and the information needs to be kept more secret if they want it to stay private. I think that MacLean had good intentions and should not be punished.

10/17/2014
Irving/Tx
Jocelyn
Ms.Bradley/Nimitz
A text message isn’t classified information, considering how easily it can be leaked. If the information was classified then the TSA should have been more careful with their form of communication towards their employees. A meeting would have been the best choice to keep information from leaking, if they were that concerned about keeping it discrete. MacLean has a right to be protected under the Whistleblower Act, considering how he was the one who brought the “secret” to light about the cuts. Afterall, he was just trying to do what he believed was just. MacLean was sure that those cuts would be a terrible mistake and he was looking after the public’s safety. To balance government secrecy and public safety there has to be a certain line to which choice is most important and the consequences have to be kept in mind. In other words, is it more important to keep a secret or to keep the public’s lives out of harms way? It’ll have to come down to priorities. The Whistleblower Act is a great way keeping of balance between government secrecy and public safety, since it has the power to judge if a whistleblower should kept under protection or if they are just another gossip.

10/16/2014
Irving/TX
Marilynn
Ms.Bradley/Nimitz
MacLean did not leak classified information because it was sent through an unencrypted text message. It does matter that the TSA sent the news of the cut of air marshals through an unencrypted text message, because it represent that the information sent was unclassified. If the message was sent encrypted, then it would have been considered classified. MacLean should be protected under the Whistleblower Act because he presented unclassified information for the safety of the public.It is difficult to balance government secrecy and public safety but their should be certain guidelines at which should be reasonable for both sides.

10/16/2014
Irving TX
Alex R
Ms.Bradley Nimitz High School
No i don't think that MacLean leaked classified information because the message was unencrypted. If it was so secret it would have been an encrypted message. And yes is does matter because the TSA should have said something in person or with something more formal like an email. And i think Maclean should be protected since he was considered a "whistleblower".

10/16/2014
Irving,TX
Noemi
Bradley/ Nimitz High School
It is evident that MacLean leaked classified information. However, MacLean did so with no ill-will and did so in order to protect the good of the public. There are more clandestine and covert ways of communication. Perhaps the TSA sent information via text message due to its speed and efficiency. However, text messages are easy to hack, now with advanced technologies and secret organizations looking through our messages. MacLean has a right to be protected under the Whistleblower Act because not only did he not reveal state secrets or classified documents but also revealed information with no goals of personal gain. Balancing government policy and public safety is a challenging matter because secrets can’t be revealed, so both parties can’t develop a compromise. One way to keep secrets would be to avoid electronic documents and utilize a code of some sort. Paper, after all, can be absolutely eliminated.

10/16/2014
Irving,TX
Claudia
Bradley/Nimitz
MacLean did not leak classified information because it was never specifically stated or labeled as classified information. Since the TSA sent the news of the cuts via unencrypted text message, it further proved that the information was not classified. MacLean should definitely be protected under the Whistleblower Act because his intentions were to look out for the safety of the public, and did not break any rules or laws while doing so. Government secrecy and public safety should be balanced by setting a definite line of what is allowed and what isn't allowed to be publicized to make sure that everybody feels comfortable enough to aware others if they feel there is a potential risk for the public. At the end of the day, the main priority should be the well being and safety of the general public.

10/15/2014
Irving/Texas
Carlos
Bradley/Nimitz
MacLean didn't leak classified information because it wasn't classified anymore. If TSA didn't send the news of the cuts via unencrypted text message then things would be diffrent but they did. MacLean should be protected under the Whistleblower Act. He did what he thought was right and informed the public about what's going on. Government secrecy and public safety should be balanced by protecting the people who do expose the wrongful doings of the government.

10/14/2014
Irving/TX
Jessica
Ms. Bradley/ Nimitz High School
I think that MacLean did not leak classified information. The way that the information was sent was showing that it was not so important to have it sent in a secret way. If it was truly important, then the message should have been sent to specific and trustworthy people. The way the TSA sent the information makes a big difference and is clearly shown in the Homeland v. MacLean case. I think that MacLean should be protected under the Whistleblower Act, because he had a good reason to leak classified information to the public. He was actually saving peoples lives and wasn’t thinking about himself, so he should be protected for doing the right thing. Why should he be punished for possibly saving lives? There is not a way that I can think of to balance public safety and government secrecy. They just have to know what they are putting at risk when they are hiding something from the public, and if it’s actually worth the loss

10/14/2014
Irving, TX
Mark B
Bradley/ Nimitz
While I believe that the information MacLean leaked was classified, it was only brought to public attention in order to protect from danger. Furthermore, the TSA sending an unencrypted text demonstrated that the information within the message itself was not classified. MacLean simply wanted to bring this matter up in order to prevent any kind of incident. I believe that government secrecy should be maintained so long as it is information kept classified to protect the government and holds no proof of government corruption.

10/9/2014
murrieta CA
bianca
mr. jabro/creekside
In my belief, MacLean did somewhat leak classified information. now these days there is not much privacy and you can't tell anybody anything anymore due to lack of trust. When it comes to federal stuff being involved, you should definitely keep it to yourself even if it is a via text. But if he says he didn't do it then i do not think he should be blamed for breaking the law. He should be protected under the whistleblower act unless the U.S. court has some other evidence

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