Last week we posted Part I of our interview with Robert MacLean, the whistleblowing Air Marshal who reported a potentially huge chink in the fence of America’s defense against a terrorist attack. Here is Part II of that interview.
Whistleblower Insider: So when was the first time you went somewhere with your concerns?
MacLean: It was July of 2003. That’s when all of the Air Marshals were ordered to come into the field office to get a briefing and training on an emergency notice of a planned suicidal hijacking. There was an al-Qaeda plot discovered in which they were going to take advantage of a visa screening loophole and smuggle weapons inside of camera equipment to overtake aircraft and crash them into European and East Coast US targets. So we were briefed, management apologized saying, sorry – we know you’re under a lot of pressure, and now you have this. We said, can you at least lighten up on the pre-boarding procedures and the dress code so that these al-Qaeda suicide hijackers that you were warning us about won’t identify us? They said, absolutely not – the dress code stays – and the pre-boarding procedures will continue to remain in effect.
But even worse, we then received another order telling us to cancel all our hotel rooms – the missions would be cancelled. We would not be on any flights, despite the fact that we had all been warned of a credible terrorist threat.
Whistleblower Insider: So at that point —
MacLean: I called the field office and spoke to a supervisor and he said it was a headquarters decision. This is always what our field supervisors told us. This is out of our hands. This is a headquarters decision. There’s nothing we can do.
“My questions were met with awkward laughter and answers.”
WhistleblowerInsider: And this is in response to your asking why they were canceling missions even though we had this terrorist threat?
MacLean: Yes. My questions were met with awkward laughter and answers, like this is how things go, this is not our decision, this is headquarters once again, we don’t know what they’re thinking, but carry on with the mission.
Whistleblower Insider: What did you do next?
MacLean: I called the hot line for the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General. And they gave me a number in San Diego to call. So I did. I spoke to a person there and explained what was going on, and they said I needed to speak to a criminal investigative division office, because the San Diego office was an administrative audit office only. So they gave me the number for the Oakland office, and I spoke to a special agent criminal investigator, explaining to him what was going on, and he told me that there was nothing he could do about it.
Whistleblower Insider: So what happened then?
MacLean: There were two reporters at the time doing really good, responsible stories about the Air Marshal program. One was Blake Morrison with USA Today. The other one was Brock Meeks of MSNBC. I tried to contact both and eventually got in touch with Brock.
Whistleblower Insider: And when you spoke with Brock —
MacLean: He said he was in touch with congressional leadership who eventually was Hal Rogers (Republican, Kentucky), John Kerry (Democrat, Massachusetts), Chuck Schumer (Democrat, New York), and Hillary Clinton (Democrat, New York). After he investigated my allegations, confirming with air marshals in different offices, he told me that they knew what was going on and there would be a press conference in the morning with members of Congress. The story came out the night of July 29. I remember it very clearly. The story showed up a little bit before midnight, and Clinton, Kerry, Schumer, and Boxer did their press conference first thing the following morning.
Whistleblower Insider: Was your name in the story or were you anonymous at this point?
MacLean: I was anonymous, but MSNBC insisted that I identify myself to them, but they assured me that my identity would be safe with Brock Meeks and his editors.
Whistleblower Insider: So this story goes public, Congress comes out on it, but at this point in time you’re anonymous in the sense that the press is not saying, whistleblower Robert MacLean has told us all of this?
MacLean: Correct. Only MSNBC knows who I am. But the Federal Air Marshal Service senior executives launched their own USA Patriot Act investigation to find who the leakers were.
“We would not be on any flights, despite the fact that we had all been warned
of a credible terrorist threat.”
Whistleblower Insider: And at what point did your identity become known to them, or to the public?
MacLean: After I did my interview on NBC Nightly News a little over a year later.
Whistleblower Insider: So you gave an interview on NBC Nightly News in order to further push the issue into the public, or was it to —
MacLean: Dress code. That was the whole point. That was my interview with NBC News – it was me complaining about the dress code and how that exposed both the Air Marshals and the public to real threats.
Whistleblower Insider: And during that whole time the Federal Air Marshal Service was investigating, trying to figure out who leaked the information to MSNBC about a credible terrorist threat being received and yet the government pulling coverage from planes?
MacLean: This gets a bit crazy. The Federal Air Marshal Service was conducting their investigation to find the leakers. Meanwhile the Inspector General for Homeland Security launched an investigation to investigate the Air Marshals for conducting an internal investigation to find the leakers.
Whistleblower Insider: So Homeland Security was investigating to see if there’s some type of retaliation against whistleblowers going on?
MacLean: When the press came out with the story, management was just freaking out. We were all called into the office, the special agent in charge brought everybody in, and he said that if anybody involved in the story was in his office, he would find out who we were – because the USA Patriot Act would allow him to go through all our personal communications, and he would find out who we are. After we had that meeting, I spoke to Brock and told him about what was going on. Brock wrote another article saying that the Federal Air Marshal Service had launched a USA Patriot Act Investigation. And that’s when everybody in Congress freaked out. They said it was a witch hunt, and Barbara Boxer, I’ll never forget, she said she wanted to personally thank the Air Marshals that came forward with the truth, because this had been a plan merely to save money that endangered the public. Several dozen members of Congress got involved. Finally, Congressman Jim Turner (Democrat, Texas), who was the ranking member of the Aviation Security Committee, called the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General to launch the investigation of Air Marshal managers who were threatening Air Marshals with the USA Patriot Act.
“My daughter Googles me and reads articles that say I’m a terrible, dangerous person.”
Whistleblower Insider: What were you thinking when you were blowing the whistle? Everything we’ve talked about has been very professional – about the job or about public safety, but what about you, or your family? What were you thinking as you went through all of this?
MacLean: Well, my first child was just a baby at the time, 11 years later she’s now 12, and she is very confused. I’d say it is one of the most difficult things, explaining this to my 12-year old, because her school does a lot of patriotic stuff – for instance, they do reports on Paul Revere, and people that sacrifice their lives for the country – they’re patriots. So my daughter Googles me and reads articles that say I’m a terrible, dangerous person. So that’s been a very difficult thing for me. I’d say that’s one of the most difficult things for me, other than it’s hard to find employment.
Whistleblower Insider: Did you know, thinking back 11 years ago, did you have any inkling at that point in time that you were heading towards this situation where employers would be very skeptical of hiring you, your daughter would be confused about all of this?
MacLean: I thought everything was going to be fixed and the agency was going to continue on a path of doing the right thing, and that’s not what happened. I thought everything would be corrected and the public would be safer, and that’s not what happened. It just got worse.
Whistleblower Insider: Would you do it again? Would you do it differently?
MacLean: I think I did everything the right way based on the training and the information I had at the time. And I would do it again. I took a sworn oath as a law enforcement officer to risk my life to save other lives, and I’ve been lucky to get all of the support that I get. Most whistleblowers don’t get any support and throw in the towel. I just lost my job – better men and women than me have given up their lives to protect others. So my biggest regret is what my family has to deal with now. That’s what I regret now – what the oath I took is doing to them.
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