Special To The Washington Post
When whistleblowers expose inconvenient truths, there are two prominent ways to discount the resulting revelations. One is to say that the information they’ve disclosed doesn’t really matter. The other is to argue that the whistleblower doesn’t actually get to count as a whistleblower in the first place.
The second option may seem improbable, especially when - as is the case with the recent White House whistleblower - subsequent reporting confirms the substance of the whistleblowing. Nevertheless, this is the tack that journalist Matt Taibbi seems to be taking. As he recently put it on Twitter, “Real whistleblowers expect to lose everything, and usually do, legal protection or no legal protection.” Given that the current whistleblower has not thus far faced consequences that we know about, and has apparently even returned to work with the CIA, Taibbi claimed that it was “self-evident” that they were a “fake” whistleblower. Expanding on this dubious contention in Rolling Stone, he argued, “The Ukraine complaint seems to be the work of a group of people, supported by significant institutional power, not only in the intelligence community, but in the Democratic Party and the commercial press.”
In other words, the argument goes, whistleblowing may be a long-standing American tradition, but the whistleblower can’t be real if they do not suffer persecution. And if they are not a real whistleblower, they must be hopelessly partisan. This is a line of thinking that resonates on the same frequency as the president’s own conspiracy theory that the whistleblower and those who corroborate his allegations are, by definition, partisan. It also plays into his wild allegations that impeachment proceedings are a “kangaroo court.”
While both Taibbi and Trump focus on undermining this whistleblower, they also threaten to undermine future whistleblowers and the entire system of government oversight designed to protect them. Their arguments misunderstand that whistleblowing in the United States, properly understood, is not partisan but patriotic, a vital safeguard of the rule of law.
It is certainly true that the standard trajectory for a national security whistleblower is to suffer gross retaliation and wind up sacrificing everything, as we saw with Bunnatine Greenhouse, Joseph Darby and Thomas Drake. But just because that pattern has often played out in the past doesn’t mean we should demand it in the future. Whistleblowers expose misconduct that they reasonably believe merits further investigation. When we act as if whistleblowers must be martyred to be real, we signal that whistleblowing is ill-advised, the opposite of protecting whistleblowers from retaliation, which is what the law requires.
Some of the confusion may derive from a failure to understand the distinction between whistleblowers and leakers. All whistleblowers are leakers, but not all leakers are whistleblowers. Leakers expose secrets, but exposing secrets doesn’t always mean exposing misconduct, even if their revelation can often embarrass individuals and destroy careers. In contrast, whistleblowers by definition expose lies and wrongdoing that their perpetrators would like to keep secret. Their motives in doing so are irrelevant. It is the content of their complaint that matters.
Just as not all leaking is whistleblowing, not all dissent is whistleblowing. Whistleblowers are certainly dissenters in that they refuse to accept current circumstances, but not all dissenters are whistleblowers. Whistleblowers reveal truths that the powerful do not want to be made public, whereas many dissenters simply disagree with the powers that be.
Defined in this fashion, whistleblowing is a cousin of civil disobedience, but the two are not one and the same. Whistleblowing differs from civil disobedience in that the former appeals to the law or constitution for justice, whereas civil disobedience directly challenges the legitimacy of particular laws. Whistleblowers are insiders. They are typically members of the elite who expose misconduct they see that may be illegal or even unconstitutional. In contrast, practitioners of civil disobedience are outsiders. By breaking unjust laws, they highlight the gap between the law and American ideals.
The political philosopher Hannah Arendt saw civil disobedience as uniquely American. Different as it may be from civil disobedience, the same could be said of whistleblowing, which often illuminates the gap between American ideals and the real world, where ideals too often remain unrealized. Whistleblowing, like civil disobedience, is ultimately an indirect call to renew the rule of law, either by insisting that the existing laws be enforced or by passing new laws to prevent future abuses of power. Congress created the inspector general system that has thus far protected the current whistleblower, for example, in response to President Richard M. Nixon’s obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress.
That national security whistleblowers must by definition disclose classified information to Congress is precisely the reason they have been previously persecuted. In light of that sad history, it is nothing short of a miracle that the IC whistleblower complaint reached Congress through the proper channels, as Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, a Trump appointee, has affirmed.
In the end, what both Taibbi and Trump miss is the gravity of the current standoff, where the picture whistleblowers have helped paint - and Trump’s responses - indicate that the president is a national security threat. The facts must be allowed to speak for themselves. Regardless of political affiliation, Americans need to focus on the shocking substance of the information being revealed and insist that genuine whistleblowers - judged by the content of their complaints rather than their motives or the consequences they suffer - be both celebrated and protected.
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Stanger is 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.”