by Bogdan Dzakovic and Robert MacLean
After the Christmas attack on flight NW253, many legislators are scrutinizing the Transportation Security Administration and demanding expanded operations with more federal air marshals on long distance flights. Much has been made of the lack of an air marshal team on this flight that narrowly avoided catastrophe. Not enough has been made of the TSA’s continual assault against its own employees, who expose serious safety lapses only to be fired.
The TSA fired one author of this piece, a former federal air marshal, for revealing a 2003 cost-cutting plan to cancel air marshal coverage from long-distance flights on the eve of a confirmed al-Qaeda suicidal hijacking plan. The type of targeted flight in that case was exactly like flight NW253.
The TSA plan never went into effect after Congress protested — based solely on the whistleblowing disclosure. TSA justified the firing with a single charge of “Unauthorized Disclosure of Sensitive Security Information” — an unclassified “hybrid secrecy” label the TSA retroactively applied to the disclosure.
While the problem was first widely exposed in 2003, it has not been fixed — an anonymous TSA official recently shared with the media that air marshals were not on NW253 because of “budget issues.”
There’s a reason the official is choosing to remain anonymous.
This type of unjust retribution for performing one’s job duties is not an isolated example.
The other author of this piece was a former leader of the Federal Aviation Administration’s counter-terrorism unit “Red Team,” which, prior to 9/11, tested aviation security in airports around the world. The security system failed 90 percent of the time, but FAA censored any written records of the failures, and banned retesting.
After the attacks, the Red Team was grounded. When the TSA was created and took over airline security duties in the wake of the attack, the author was retaliated against in the first week of its existence and reduced to performing administrative work. In short, the state of airport security, now as it was then, is chalked full of holes and ripe for taking advantage of.
Our intention is not to alert citizens about our personal cases to bolster support. Our intention is to inform citizens that problems addressing threats against America are known by the TSA and could be prevented. Christmas day was a sober warning for the public that, despite this knowledge, the agency has not taken the necessary actions to thwart future terrorist plots.
The problem is that the TSA is reactive instead of proactive — only after major foul-ups occur are any parts of the system considered for change or updating. Employees who keep their mouths shut about possible problems are rewarded. Those who fight to improve the infrastructure are muzzled.
The TSA is trying to spin itself more positively. In July 2008 it announced a “Zero Tolerance of Retaliation against Whistleblowers” policy, specifying that any manager who retaliates would face possible termination. The TSA has no office for an employee to report any alleged retaliation, however, and the environment of fear lives on. This type of bureaucratic deceit permeates the agency.
Federal officers with inside knowledge of malfeasance want to make good-faith disclosures in order to save lives. The current system, though, makes federal employees commit professional suicide to warn of preventable tragedies. That means unnecessary disasters will occur as the rule, not the exception.
The most obvious cornerstone for any solution is restoring credible federal whistleblower protections to shield freedom of speech when it counts. In 1994, after Congress unanimously strengthened the Whistleblower Protection Act, it was the strongest free speech law in history — on paper. But in practice it has become a trap — an efficient mechanism that rubberstamps retaliation, because it denied normal court access to enforce the rights. Courts have ruled against whistleblowers in 204 out of 207 cases since 1994. Our so-called “rights” are the primary reason whistleblowers remain silent observers.
Congress is on the verge of restoring all the free speech rights erased since 1994, including providing court access with jury trials to enforce them. But it is essential that this legislation extend rights to all government workers — including contractors and those at national security agencies, whose warnings are most significant to fight terrorism.
This last item is currently a sticking point in the legislation. It shouldn’t be. As long as whistleblowers must be career martyrs to defend the public against government breakdowns, the real victims are all Americans.
Bogdan Dzakovic is former leader of the FAA Red Team. Robert MacLean is a former Federal Air Marshal.