The Washington Post’s Renewed Attack on Whistlblowers

The Washington Post’s schizoid approach toward whistleblowers continues unabated.  On the one hand, its news staff has effectively used authoritative leaks to expose the bizarre and possibly illegal contacts between senior members of the Trump administration and high-level Russian officials.  On the other hand, its editorial writers maintain an ugly campaign against U.S. officials who have kept the Post and the New York Times aware of the dangerous antics of Donald Trump and his senior staff.  Post oped writer Michael Gerson has provided the latest example of the paper’s criticism of those whistleblowers who allow investigative reporters to do their constitutionally-sanctioned job.

First of all, some background on Gerson.  In January 2002, President George W. Bush told Gerson, his chief speechwriter, that the U.S. public had to be prepared for war.  Gerson immediately instructed David Frum to “provide a justification for war” by linking the 9/11 attacks to Saddam Hussein.  Gerson and Frum drafted the most memorable speech of the Bush presidency, the 2002 State of the Union address, which falsely linked North Korea, Iran, and Iraq in an “axis of evil” that threatened world peace.  Frum’s original draft referred to an “axis of hatred,” but it was Gerson, an evangelical Christian, who substituted “evil” for “hatred” in order to pander to Bush’s ideological orientation.

Last week, Gerson assaulted all whistleblowers in an oped column that pretended to explain “why leakers leak.”  In Gerson’s world, leakers are “nut jobs” who are undermining the “authority of the institutions they serve.” Or they are trying to “kneecap a rival.”  Or they are “embittered” and “want to look and feel important.”  Gerson conceded that there were circumstances where whistleblowing was justified, but even then he argued that such activity had to follow the “proper sequencing for such actions” after “normal processes fail.”

Gerson believes that the United States has “regular-order processes” for whistleblowers, inanely citing a “special counsel and congressional investigations” as the proper vehicles for delivering information that would prevent “immediate and irreparable damage to the country.”  Gerson needs to be reminded that the investigation of Iran-Contra, which harmed the United States and violated U.S. laws, took more than six years and never resulted in the punishment of those senior officials responsible for serious crimes.  Has Gerson forgotten the pardons issued by another president named Bush?

Fortunately, there was a whistleblower or truth-teller, as I like to call them, on display last week.  Her name is Sally Yates, the whitleblowerciaformer acting attorney general, who explained why leakers leak and why certain people are inclined to blow the whistle.  In Yates’s case, it was a surprising and crucial moment when “law and conscience intersected.”  Speaking to the graduating class at Harvard Law School on May 24, Yates explained that such “defining moments…don’t come with advance warning” and don’t come with the “luxury of a lot of time for you to go inside yourself for some serious introspection.”

There have been other truth-tellers at crucial moments, such as Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden, who have had the courage to inform the American people of illegal actions.  Without whistleblowers, there would have been no way of learning about the torture and abuse conducted by the military at My Lai or Abu Ghraib or the CIA’s torture and abuse at secret prisons.  My own whistleblowing regarding the CIA’s politicization of intelligence in the 1980s didn’t allow for serious introspection.  It was simply a decision to correct a wrong. Like Yates, I knew there would have been great regret over the long term if I hadn’t acted.

Sadly, Gerson has joined a long line of conservative and so-called liberal writers at the Washington Post who have maligned every act of whistleblowing.  Richard Cohen, who beat the drums for war against Iraq in 2003, called Chelsea Manning a “cross-dressing Little Red Riding Hood.” Manning exposed war crimes in Iraq. Ruth Marcus referred to Snowden’s “unattractive personality,” and gratuitously maligned all whistleblowers as “the difficult ones, the sort who need to feel freer to speak out precisely because they don’t fit in.”  David Ignatius, an apologist for the CIA for the past three decades, charged that Snowden was an “intelligence defector,” not a whistleblower.

Gerson and his colleagues at the Post fail to understand that the government’s oversight system is broken, and that it is often only the whistleblower who can inform the American public of transgressions in the field of national security that require greater scrutiny and debate. Nor does Gerson understand that whistleblowers know that they are taking a serious step and, in Snowden’s case, even breaking the law.  But they strongly believe that the crimes or transgressions they are exposing are more serious than the laws they are breaking.

If such sources cannot speak up, then key information will dry up and the nation as a whole will be the loser.  We cannot allow the public to be told only those things that any administration, particularly a Trump administration, would like it to know.

Gerson concludes that leaking classified information is the “abrogation of a professional standard.”  He is legally and morally wrong! The most important duty of any public servant is to reveal the truth about misconduct.  Sally Yates, like all public servants, took an oath to the U.S. Constitution, not to a U.S. president.


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Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. His latest book is A Whistleblower at the CIA. (City Lights Publishers, 2017).  Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.

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