Can the TSA retroactively declare public information “secret”?

At the request of the government, the Supreme Court has agreed to review the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in favor of Robert MacLean, a TSA “air marshal” who was fired for telling a journalist, members of Congress, and the DHS Office of the Inspector General about an unclassified text message that the TSA,  three years later, would designate as “Sensitive Security Information” (SSI).

Mr. MacLean challenged his firing as being in violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act, which prohibits retaliation against Federal government employees for certain types of disclosures of information.  But the law has an exception for disclosures “specifically prohibited by law.”

A 3-judge panel of the Court of Appeals found that the ex post facto administrative designation of the text message by the TSA as SSI did not make its disclosure “specifically prohibited by law.”  The Court of Appeals unanimously denied the government’s petition for rehearing en banc.  Now the Supreme Court has decided to hear the case, DHS v. MacLean, during its 2014-2015 term.

The issue presented to the Supreme Court is the meaning of the phrase, “specifically prohibited by law,” in the Whistleblower Protection Act.  But the case is also necessarily about the extent of the TSA’s authority to create “secrets” retroactively and by administrative fiat.

Federal laws and regulations shouldn’t be interpreted by the courts as though they were written in Orwell’s Newspeak.  Information known to the public is not “secret”. The TSA cannot make it “secret” by retroactive administrative action, and should not be allowed to punish those who talk about or disseminate it.

Leave a Reply