Trump’s War on Whistleblowers

Photograph Source: Private Manning Support Network – CC BY 2.0

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. I love war….”  Well, for the past three years, we have witnessed 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 whistleblowers to come forward in the future.

The President and everyone else on the White House’s national security team must know the identity of the whistleblower so we must stop pretending that his anonymity can be protected.  With the outing of the whistleblower by the New York Times last week as an intelligence analyst from the Central Intelligence Agency, the identity of the whistleblower had to be known immediately to the White House.  There are very few CIA intelligence analysts who serve at the White House or the National Security Council at any one time so it would not be difficult to learn the name of someone who just returned to his parent agency.  In my 24 years at the CIA, it was unusual to find more than one intelligence analyst seconded 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 and not anticipating that CIA lawyers would immediately inform the White House of a potential whistleblower.  CIA lawyers are obligated to inform the Department of Justice of a whistleblower complaint; they are not obligated to inform the White House.  When the target of the complaint is the president himself, it is even more important to exercise extreme discretion in handling the matter.  CIA lawyers are known for protecting the interests of CIA directors and not the interests of a whistleblower.

The mainstream media appears 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 Elaine Sciolino 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 Gates would eventually be confirmed, Sciolino 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.

Whistleblowers are essential to our democracy.  Since Trump’s inauguration, whistleblowers have recorded the improper granting of security clearances to members of Trump’s administration; the Department of Energy’s illegal plan to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; the transfer 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.  House intelligence committee chairman, Adam Schiff, has certainly been so; his Senate counterpart, Richard Burr, has been virtually silent.  Republican members and staffers of the intelligence committee will make 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.

Barr’s efforts as well as the investigation of the intelligence community by John Dunham are designed to intimidate the intelligence community.  In a previous investigation, Dunham 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 Rodriguez.

As long as Donald Trump appears to favor “repealing and replacing”  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 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. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for