No, We Shouldn’t Be Outing Whistleblowers

It jeopardizes their safety and threatens the integrity of congressional investigations that should result.
October 1, 2019
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(Photo illustration by Hannah Yoest)

It’s annoying for people in the intelligence community when classified information appears in the press. Information is usually classified for very good reasons: to protect the identities of sources, to safeguard details of technology that the government has spent millions—even billions—to develop, or to risk alienating important allies.

Sometimes “leaks” (it’s more accurate to call them “targeted disclosures” because they’re rarely accidental) cause real, irreparable harm to American national security. More often, though, they result in needless time, energy, and resources being deployed to mitigate harm and refocus on the original objective of the operation.

But ask most intelligence professionals, and they will grudgingly accept that while their job is to keep U.S. government secrets under wraps, it’s the legitimate job of journalists to unearth them. There are a relatively small number of reporters whose stock in trade is to publish classified information that they believe the country has a right to know, and that is their prerogative under our Constitution. It’s one of the features of America that separates us from a lot of less desirable countries.

But the New York Times’ feverish effort to unmask the anonymous intelligence community whistleblower that dropped the dime on Donald Trump is troubling for a variety of reasons. The Times did not name the official in question but did report details such as that he was a CIA officer at one time assigned to the White House.

First and foremost, publishing the whistleblower’s identity serves no real public interest. Journalists regularly use vague euphemisms like “senior government official” to describe people providing information. Moreover the NYT’s efforts in this case are a stark, hypocritical contrast to its decision a year ago to publish an anonymous op-ed from a “senior White House official” assuring the American people that there were folks in the administration that were working at cross-purposes to the president in order to protect the country. It beggars belief that one would be entitled to source protection while the other one has to be unmasked for some supposed reason of establishing credibility. Is the editorial leadership of the NYT really this tone deaf?

In the case of federal employees who work for certain agencies, being identified in the New York Times could place them in the crosshairs of hostile foreign intelligence services or even terrorist organizations when they next travel overseas. If the past few years have taught us nothing else, we have at least learned that (a) it is easier than ever to dox (that is, identify the personal details of) someone, and (b) there are fringe elements out there who will casually inflict physical violence on people they disagree with. It’s a dangerous combination: Ask Steve Scalise.

The New York Times should realize that printing the name of the whistleblower would defeat the very purpose of the statute that was created to encourage whistleblowers to come forward with accounts of illegal activity by government officials. Apparently the New York Times only wants illegal activity reported through its channels.

Intelligence professionals know that no matter who is in the White House, they’re at the head of the queue when the administration needs a foreign policy scapegoat. But this kind of reckless reporting risks discouraging intelligence community employees from taking responsible action when they see malfeasance. If you know that the government can’t or won’t shield your identity from journalists, why report suspicious activity according to the law? Just skip established regulations and send it straight to the next Wikileaks or Intercept

Beyond any negative effects on the whistleblower personally, unmasking him (or her) threatens to undermine the congressional investigation that should be the true result of the report. Publishing even potentially identifying details merely invites digression, confusion, and grandstanding. Congressional investigations are circus-like affairs as it is; why add more gratuitous opportunities for drama?

Finally (and I know this is woefully old-fashioned—please indulge me), publishing the whistleblower’s information is the wrong thing to do. This is one of those pivotal moments when we’d expect an outlet as influential as the New York Times to exercise restraint, even if it means foregoing a scoop or passing on an exclusive. Just because you can, does not mean you should. The media is often referred to as the “Fourth Estate.” While the government is supposed to be accountable directly to the people who vote, it’s undeniable that the American press has a role in shaping good policy and guiding public debate, which means it must also share the burden of making responsible publishing decisions.

Unmasking the whistleblower would do little if anything to further illuminate the public discussion about the president’s actions, but it creates great risks for the individual involved and could even have a deleterious effect on national security.

Marc C. Johnson

Marc C. Johnson is a security consultant, writer, and former CIA case officer. His Twitter handle is @blogguero.