Guest editorial: Why America needs whistleblowers
In accusing the intelligence community whistleblower of partisanship and treason, President Trump has redefined whistleblowing to serve his private interests rather than the rule of law. In the American tradition, whistleblowers expose illegal or unconstitutional acts that the powerful want to keep secret.
That the current game-changing official intelligence community whistleblower complaint has reached the American people is a miracle for which we should be grateful. Americans must focus on the content of the whistleblower complaint, which the White House has not denied. The president has obvious reasons to spin the complaint, but genuine whistleblowers are not partisans. They are stewards of our constitutional democracy.
Whistleblower protection is as old as the Republic itself. The Continental Congress passed the world’s first whistleblower protection legislation in 1778 in an effort to keep American elites honest.
The current whistleblower complaint shines light on an attempted cover-up and an intelligence community that sees the president advancing the Trump brand at the expense of American national security.
But the whistleblower is just the tip of the iceberg. In Mr. Trump’s presidency, there have been unprecedented disclosures from the intelligence community on his behavior. While overturning longstanding intelligence community norms, Mr. Trump has repeatedly charged it with partisanship. But members of the intelligence community swear allegiance to the Constitution, not the president. They serve their country regardless of the party in the White House.
From the start, Mr. Trump trampled on longstanding intelligence community ideals of nonpartisanship and the importance of presenting the unvarnished truth to politicians. As his conversations with both the president of Ukraine and the prime minister of Australia indicate, Mr. Trump sees Bill Barr, the attorney general — a man charged with dispatching impartial justice in the United States — as his personal lackey.
The experience with Mr. Barr is hardly an isolated case. For example, Mr. Trump had similar aspirations for James Comey. An F.B.I. director typically serves a 10-year term, spanning multiple presidential administrations. Barack Obama met only twice with Mr. Comey before his confirmation as F.B.I. director, once to interview him for the job and the second time to inform him of his imminent nomination. At their second private meeting, the president told Mr. Comey it would be their last, since impartial justice requires an F.B.I. director to be independent of the president.
In contrast, in the short four months before Mr. Trump fired Mr. Comey without informing him first on May 9, 2017, he met with him without others present no fewer than four times.
Because of Mr. Trump’s disturbing and unprecedented repeated attempts to secure loyalty to him from members of the executive branch rather than to the truth or to the Constitution, many have leaked — like Mr. Comey, who leaked some of the contents of his memos chronicling his interactions with the new president.
To be sure, some intelligence community leaks fall into a gray area when viewed in isolation, especially those that expose a departure from norms of national security policymaking. For example, some of the leaked transcripts of Mr. Trump’s early calls with foreign leaders, which inspired the lockdown of subsequent controversial conversations, revealed a shocking departure from the behavior of past presidents and a woeful lack of preparation for the leadership of the free world. But they did not rise to the level of whistleblowing.
National security whistleblowing is the most difficult kind, since all national security officials must protect classified information. One man’s whistleblowing can therefore be another’s insider threat. In the United States today, national security whistleblowing is possible in theory, but in practice is still a dangerous thing to do. The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012 provides protection to all government employees except national security employees.
The 1998 Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act and Mr. Obama’s executive order PPD-19 attempted to carve out a safe space for whistleblowing in the intelligence community despite the national security exception, but national security whistleblowers do not currently have full statutory protection. Had the contractor Edward Snowden lodged a formal complaint with the National Security Agency inspector general, for example, his disclosures would never have reached the American people.
It is hardly unusual for American presidents to punish leakers harshly. Mr. Snowden was the seventh person the Obama administration charged with violating the 1917 Espionage Act.
But Mr. Trump is the first American president, in this context, to encourage foreign electoral interference while actively seeking to intimidate and shut down the work of institutions intended to keep government accountable to the people. He is also the first president to incite his supporters via tweet to retaliate against a whistleblower whom both his own intelligence community inspector general and Congress deem legitimate.
Like the president, intelligence community employees swear an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. In insisting on speaking truth to power at great personal sacrifice, whistleblowers serve their country and challenge all of us to think for ourselves. What could be more American than that?
Alison Stanger is a political scientist and the Russell J. Leng ‘60 Professor of International Politics and Economics at Middlebury College and the founding director of Middlebury’s Rohatyn Center for International Affairs. She is also the technology and human values senior fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and the author of “Whistleblowers: Honesty in America From Washington to Trump.”