On August 12, an anonymous individual field a whistleblower complaint with Michael Atkinson, the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community. In a letter, addressed to House and Senate intelligence committee chairs, the whistleblower described a situation of “urgent” importance.
In the course of my official duties, I have received information from multiple U.S. Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election. This interference includes, among other things, pressuring a foreign country to investigate one of the President’s main domestic political rivals. The President’s personal lawyer, Mr. Rudolph Giuliani, is a central figure in this effort. Attorney General Barr appears to be involved as well.
At the heart of the complaint was a July 25 phone call between President Trump and Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, during which Trump, who was withholding aid to Ukraine that Congress had authorized, urged investigation of presidential candidate Joe Biden and Hunter Biden, his son. The author expressed concern “that these actions pose risks to U.S. national security and undermine the U.S. Government’s efforts to deter and counter foreign interference in U.S. elections.” (FactCheck.org)
On August 26, Atkinson informed Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire that the whistleblower’s complaint ‘appears credible.” Atkinson notified the House intelligence committee on Sept 9 that he had received the whistleblower’s complaint but Maguire did not forward the complaint to Congress, alleging the issues did not meet the whistleblower law’s definition of “urgent.” (FactCheck.org)
The public learned of the whistleblower complaint from a September 18 article in the Washington Post citing allegations from unnamed sources that a promise from Trump to a “foreign leader” was “so troubling that it prompted a formal whistleblower complaint. Days later, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched an impeachment inquiry against Trump citing the Ukraine call. On September 26, the House intelligence committee made public a redacted copy of the whistleblower complaint.
Lawyers Mark Zaid and Andrew Bakaj, who represent the Ukraine call whistleblower, subsequently reported they are representing a second whistleblower in the case.
Zaid told the Washington Examiner that the second whistleblower “spoke to ICIG” but “has not filed [their] own complaint” and “doesn’t need to.” Zaid said that this new whistleblower has “firsthand knowledge that supported the first whistleblower.”
It has been noticed that the original disclosure, reportedly by a CIA analyst, did not report wrongdoing by an intelligence agency. Rather, the disclosure alleged wrongdoing by an official outside the intelligence community (President Trump) who had threatened to “rein in” intelligence agencies.
Some observers—not all of them Republicans—question whether such a disclosure qualifies as “whistleblowing.” But, the motives of whistleblowers should not deter efforts to investigate and hold accountable government officials. If individuals take actions that meet the legal definition of “whistleblower,” we must recognize them as whistleblowers and investigate their claims because failing to do so invites attacks on the motives and legitimacy of all whistleblowers. All that is required of of a whistleblower is a “reasonable” belief that their claims are worthy of investigation by individuals with the power to do so.
The context of a disclosure is another matter; individuals and organizations may try to manipulate the situation for personal or political advantage, and that deserves close attention. A recent example is the “Open Letter to the American People,” signed by 90 former intelligence officers. Self-interest and hypocrisy are evident in the list of signatories. They include individuals who supported torture, promoted harsh treatment of other whistleblowers, misled Americans about illegal mass surveillance, and/or were threatened by Trump with revocation of their clearances. They allege the current whistleblower case is “proof” the system “works” when people act “responsibly” and use designated disclosure channels. However, history does not support that claim. Over the years, intelligence employees like Bill Binney, Diane Roark, Ed Loomis and J. Kirk Wiebe who acted responsibly in handling classified information nevertheless experienced savage retaliation.
As currently configured, the intelligence community whistleblower complaint process, “works” only when agencies want it to work, i.e., when it advances the interests and agendas of senior officials. That means employees who blow the whistle through “official channels” have little hope of holding their agencies accountable for wrongdoing or getting knowledge of that wrongdoing to voters.
The Open Letter is therefore a propaganda piece with two goals. First, it aims to snatch the mantle of public trust from whistleblowers whose disclosures embarrassed senior intelligence officials (including some of the letter’s authors), and drape it across the shoulders of a whistleblower whose disclosure, wittingly or unwittingly, advances the agenda of those officials who have been at war with the President. Secondly, it attempts to derail efforts to provide better protections for whistleblowers and more effective handling of their disclosures. In the interest of national security and democracy, voters and Congress should not let those efforts succeed.