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A former federal air marshal whistleblower won a big victory Wednesday from the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that he didn't break the law when he complained in 2003 about the Transportation Security Administration canceling overnight missions from Las Vegas, a decision the government made shortly after issuing a confidential advisory about a potential hijacking plot.
The whistleblower, Robert MacLean, was the source for an msnbc.com story about the canceled missions, headlined "Air Marshals Pulled from Key Flights." That story prompted several members of Congress to criticize the cancellations, and within 24 hours the TSA reversed course and put the marshals back on the flights. (In 2012, NBC News acquired full control of msnbc.com from Microsoft Corp., and rebranded the website NBCNews.com.)
The TSA did not know who the source was, but MacLean appeared again in an NBC Nightly News story in 2004 to criticize the marshals' dress code, which he said made the officers too easy to identify. Though he was shot in silhouette, his voice was recognizable, and TSA began investigating him. He was fired for disclosing sensitive information without approval.
On Wednesday, the court said his disclosure about the overnight missions was not specifically barred by law. If TSA was concerned about dissemination of this kind of information, it said, the solution lies with Congress or the president, who could issue an executive order. "Neither has done so. It is not our role to do so for them," said the opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts.