Donald Trump, campaigning in Iowa in 2015, said that “I’ve had a lot of wars of my own. I’m really good at war.” For the past three years, we have witnessed Mr. Trump’s wars on governance, science, national security policy and public service. For the past several days, we have witnessed a new war — a war on whistleblowers that will make it particularly difficult for others to come forward in the future.
The president has said the White House is seeking the identity of the whistleblower who brought to light Mr. Trump’s phone call pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymer Zelensky to investigate former vice president and political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. He’s also called into question the whistleblower’s credibility and loyalty to the country.
It’s likely the White House already knows who the person is, however. The New York Times last week outed the whistleblower as an intelligence analyst from the Central Intelligence Agency. In my 24 years at the CIA, it was unusual to find more than one intelligence analyst assigned to the White House at any one time.
The whistleblower himself, unfortunately, was rather naive in taking his complaint initially to the CIA’s Office of the General Counsel, which quickly informed the White House. CIA lawyers are known for protecting the interests of CIA directors and not the interests of whistleblowers.
Whistleblowers are essential to our democracy. Since Mr. Trump’s inauguration, whistleblowers have recorded the improper granting of security clearances to members of his administration, the Department of Energy’s plan to secretly transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the removal of scientists from research on climate change, and the abuse of families and children in detention at immigration centers.
The congressional oversight committees, particularly the intelligence oversight committees, must be more aggressive in protecting the rights of whistleblowers. The Democratic House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff has certainly been so; his Republican Senate counterpart, Richard Burr, has been virtually silent along with most others in the GOP, making it difficult for the whistleblower to get a fair hearing, let alone protect his anonymity.
The laws to protect whistleblowers, particularly whistleblowers from the intelligence community, are inadequate. Most government whistleblowers may go directly to the appropriate congressional oversight committee after delivering their complaint to the Office of the Inspector General. Whistleblowers from the intelligence community, however, must coordinate their remarks to the intelligence committees with senior officials from the Office of National Intelligence or the Central Intelligence Agency. Private contractors, who play an increasingly important role in the intelligence community, have virtually no protection.
Attorney General William Barr’s role in the war on whistleblowers, moreover, will be particularly harmful to the national security interests of the United States. He is seeking the help of foreign intelligence officials in an effort to discredit the legitimate work of the intelligence community regarding the presidential campaign of 2016. This could make it more difficult for U.S. clandestine officials to collect essential intelligence from these same foreign intelligence officials who are essential in gathering information on terrorism and nuclear proliferation.
Mr. Barr’s efforts, as well as the investigation of the intelligence community by U.S. Attorney John Durham, are designed to intimidate the intelligence community. In a previous investigation, Mr. Durham gave a free pass to CIA officials involved in the destruction of the torture and abuse tapes, including the current CIA director Gina Haspel and the former director of the National Clandestine Service Jose A. Rodriguez Jr.
The mainstream media appear to be rallying in support of the whistleblower, but that is not always the case. When I testified as a whistleblower against the confirmation of Robert M. Gates as director of CIA, I provided background information to a reporter for of the New York Times in order to counter the misinformation from the White House designed to compromise my credibility. When it became apparent that Mr. Gates would eventually be confirmed, the reporter stopped reporting my information. She explained that whistleblowers are good sources only in the short run, while journalists had to rely on high-level government officers for long-term access and should not gratuitously offend them.
As long as Donald Trump appears to favor “repealing and replacing” the the First Amendment’s defense of free speech and free press, it will be up to whistleblowers in the intelligence and policy communities to ensure that any misuse of power does not go unreported. Whistleblowers are essential to government oversight, investigative journalism and the public’s awareness of the wrongful actions of federal officials. Only whistleblowers can challenge the secrecy that limits the debate on foreign policy and national security that deprives citizens of information needed to participate in genuine life-and-death issues.
Melvin A. Goodman (email@example.com), a former intelligence analyst at the CIA, is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy.