Attempts to smear and identify the whistleblower who filed a report regarding President Trump’s phone call with President Zelensky of Ukraine are both dangerous and threaten to distract from serious allegations of corruption.
The Ukrainegate scandal has once again highlighted the enormous importance of whistleblowers in revealing abuses of power. At the same time, it also shows exactly why whistleblowers around the world need strong legal protection.
Since the story broke, President Trump has questioned the whistleblower’s motives, loyalty, integrity and patriotism on multiple occasions, describing them as a “fake whistleblower”, and asking “Is he on our Country’s side (sic.).”
On Monday, President Trump told reporters in the Oval Office that the White House is trying to find out the whistleblower’s identity. Previously, he has threatened members of his administration who may have passed information to whistleblower, saying:
“I want to know who’s the person, who’s the person who gave the whistleblower the information? Because that’s close to a spy. You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”
Inflaming reactions against the whistleblower is a classic strategy, with two main objectives. One, to discredit the whistleblower, so that people doubt the veracity of their disclosure; and two, to redirect attention away from the message and onto the messenger.
Such rhetoric has two additional negative consequences: exposing the whistleblower to personal attack and deterring other potential whistleblowers from coming forward. Lawyers for the whistleblower have said that President Trump’s demands to identify their client have prompted safety concerns. Others have warned that such rhetoric is deliberately seeking to intimidate other potential whistleblowers.
In these circumstances, it is important to move the discussion back to the issue raised by the whistleblower. So, for the record, the whistleblower report alleges that President Trump abused his office by attempting to pressure the President of Ukraine into investigating a political rival.
One of the most effective ways to prevent retaliation against a whistleblower is to ensure that potential retaliators do not know their identity. Revealing their identity can shift the focus from the concerns raised to the individual themselves. In a move that shocked many in the whistleblower protection community, an article in the New York Times included enough information to identify the whistleblower. The Associated Press have confirmed the Times’ reporting.
The New York Times and Associated Press argue that they published the information to allow readers to make a judgement about the credibility of the whistleblower. There are two reasons that this argument does not hold water. First, answering concerns over credibility should not supersede the need to protect the whistleblower. Otherwise whistleblowers may become unwilling to make use even of confidential reporting channels, potentially leading to serious wrongdoing going unreported.
Whistleblowers in the US intelligence services have to identify themselves when they make a formal report through the available dedicated channels. Anonymous reporting is not an option in such cases. However, their identity should remain confidential. This should include “identifying information”. The identity of whistleblowers should not be disclosed without their explicit consent.
Second, the Inspector General of the intelligence community, knowing the identity of the whistleblower and having access to relevant classified information, determined that the allegations were of “urgent concern”, which in itself speaks to the whistleblower’s credibility.
In April, investigative journalists agreed a set of 12 principles for protecting the whistleblowers they work with. They begin: “First, protect your sources. Defend anonymity when it is requested.” As others have pointed out, the New York Times regularly publishes reporting based on anonymous government sources and protects their identity. In publishing identifying information about the Ukrainegate whistleblower, it applied a double standard.
However, this too should not distract from the serious and credible allegations of corruption against the President raised by the whistleblower. The institutions responsible for holding political power to account must be able to assess and act on the whistleblower report, without the individuals themselves becoming the centre of the story.