Trump attacks raise concern about whistleblower protections

By on 03/12/2019
President Trump has encouraged people to expose the Ukraine whistleblower, telling reporters they’d “be doing a public service” if they published his name. (Image courtesy: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff/flickr).

US president Donald Trump and his allies have made repeated attacks on the whistleblower whose complaint led to the impeachment inquiry, prompting intelligence agency chiefs to reaffirm their commitment to protecting federal employees who expose government wrongdoing.  

The public attacks against the whistleblower, which began when the impeachment inquiry was announced on 24 September and continued well into November, have included threats, attempts to discredit him and demands that he be named, despite his identity being protected by law and the risks to his safety that would accompany exposure.

The impeachment inquiry centres on a 25 July phone call – disclosed by the whistleblower – in which Trump allegedly asked Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former US vice president and 2020 presidential campaign contender, Joe Biden, and his son Hunter.

Many of the central claims from the whistleblower’s complaint have been corroborated by the partial transcript of the call between Trump and Zelensky and testimony from Trump administration officials.

For example, witnesses say that, at a White House meeting between US and Ukraine officials two weeks before the phone call, the Ukrainians were told that their country’s relationship with the US, and nearly US$400m in military aid, was contingent on the investigation into Biden being undertaken.

It came to light last week that Trump was made aware of the whistleblower’s complaint in late August, before the White House transferred the military aid to Ukraine – but Trump denies there is a link between the two events.

The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence – the panel leading the impeachment inquiry – released a report on Tuesday, designed to lay out the case for removing Trump from office. It said there was “overwhelming” evidence for impeaching Trump for misconduct in office. The report now goes to the House Judiciary Committee, which will begin proceedings today and consider formal impeachment charges against the president.

Trump has said that whoever provided the whistleblower with information about the call with Zelensky is “close to a spy” and that “in the old days” spies were dealt with differently. He also told reporters they’d “be doing a public service” if they published his name. 

Meanwhile, members of his inner circle have gone so far as to tweet what they say is the whistleblower’s name.

Cease and desist

This intimidation led the whistleblower’s lawyer to send the White House a ‘cease and desist’ letter last month.

“I am writing out of deep concern that your client, the president of the United States, is engaging in rhetoric and activity that places my client, the Intelligence Community Whistleblower, and their family in physical danger,” Andrew Bakaj wrote to White House counsel Pat Cipollone in a letter obtained by CNN‘s Anderson Cooper.

“I am writing to respectfully request that you counsel your client on the legal and ethical peril in which he is placing himself should anyone be physically harmed as a result of his, or his surrogates’, behaviour.”

His defenders and experts in government accountability also argue that naming him would flout the legal protections – which include the right to anonymity – for government employees who come forward about alleged wrongdoing.

One law governing whistleblowers, the Inspector General Act of 1978, empowers federal agencies’ respective watchdogs to investigate tips about potential wrongdoing and lays out protections including confidentiality, according to The Guardian. It explicitly forbids the identification of a whistleblower unless “the inspector general determines such disclosure is unavoidable during the course of the investigation” into the whistleblower’s allegations. The law also forbids other government employees from taking action that could be viewed as retaliation against the whistleblower.  

Separate laws are also in place for intelligence agency employees, although these are widely thought to be open to interpretation and experts have repeatedly noted that intelligence community whistleblowers have less statutory protection than non-intelligence community whistleblowers.  

John Kostyack, the National Whistleblower Center’s executive director, told The Guardian that “considering all the threats that are being made against the [Ukraine] whistleblower”, naming him would constitute a reprisal.

Previous whistleblowers also told The Guardian that Trump and his supporters’ handling of the situation will have a chilling effect on others who want to come forward to expose misdemeanours. 

Sherron Watkins, who blew the whistle on accounting fraud at Enron, told the newspaper that “the more we persecute them, ruin their lives, let their name [be published]”, the more likely it is that whistleblowers’ important role as a “check and balance of last resort” will be wiped away.

Pledge to protect whistleblowers

In reports to Congress last week, the Intelligence Community and Defense Intelligence Agency inspectors general said they are committed to protecting the integrity and safety of whistleblowers, according to Government Executive.

“The past few months have been a searing time for whistleblowers’ rights and protections. Much has been written and much has been said about whistleblowers recently, some of it accurate and helpful, and some not,” wrote Michael Atkinson, intelligence community inspector general, in his report. “Time will tell whether whistleblowers’ rights and protections will emerge from this period with the same legal, ethical, and moral strength they had previously. For my part, however, I am confident that those rights and protections will ultimately emerge stronger, and will not be diminished in any respect.”

Atkinson added that the future of whistleblowers’ protections depends on the federal agencies and workforce being “consistent in word and deed,” and argued that “agencies cannot ignore the reports or block the channels” for whistleblowers’ complaints.  

Defense Intelligence Agency inspector general Kristi Waschull, agreed. “Our office continues to rely on employees and others who report concerns of fraud, waste, abuse, and gross mismanagement,” she wrote in her report. “Overall, maintaining confidentiality is of the utmost importance.”

Both Atkinson and Waschull outlined the steps their respective agencies have taken to protect whistleblowers. These include establishing the Centre for Protected Disclosures, a whistleblowing subcommittee, and a website designed to provide assurances of protections for individuals who report wrongdoing.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

One Comment

  1. Waugh

    04/12/2019 at

    What whistle blower? If there was one, he conspired with Shiff before he released his statement and Shiff said he never met the person. Something fishy here. Now they can’t seem to find the guy. I hope they impeach the President so we can finally call the witnesses that the Democrats did not want to call because they did not have a case. When this is all said and done, this will be egg on the face of the Democrats. I think they will just help Trump get re-elected.

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