The Supreme Court agreed Monday to consider the case of a federal air marshal who was fired after leaking information to the press about aviation security plans.
The justices will hear an appeal from the Obama administration, which claims Robert MacLean is not entitled to whistleblower protection for disclosing that the Transportation Security Administration planned to save money by cutting back on overnight trips for undercover air marshals.
MacLean was fired in 2006, three years after he told a reporter the cuts were being made despite a briefing days earlier about an imminent terrorist threat focusing on long-distance flights. MacLean said he leaked the information after his boss ignored his safety concerns.
When news of the planned became public, congressional leaders expressed their concerns and the Department of Homeland Security acknowledged that the plan was a mistake. No flight assignments requiring overnight hotel stays were canceled.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled last year that MacLean should be allowed to present a defense under federal whistleblower laws. But the government argues that the law does not protect employees who reveal "sensitive" security information.
MacLean asserts that no law specifically prohibited him from revealing the information because it wasn't considered sensitive when it was shared with him. The agency's decision to curb the overnight trips was sent as a text to MacLean's cellphone without using more secure methods. He says the law protects government employees who report violations of the law or specific danger to public safety.
But the Obama administration says allowing the appeals court ruling to stand will threaten public safety by encouraging other federal employees to disclose security information.
In court papers, the administration says the high court should decide "whether Congress has in fact invited federal employees to unilaterally expose security vulnerabilities publicly whenever their employing agency has allocated finite security resources in a manner different from what an individual employee might reasonably have preferred."
The case, Department of Homeland Security v. MacLean, 13-894, will be argued when the court's new term begins in the fall.