At Tuesday morning’s hearing of the House Intelligence Committee, ranking Republican Devin Nunes appeared to attempt to get information that would lead to the exposure of the whistleblower whose complaint touched off the impeachment inquiry.

It was a disturbing moment in a set of hearings that have featured many of them, and it showed just how determined Republicans are to get that person’s name out into the public so they can initiate a campaign against them and distract the public’s attention from the substance of the impeachment inquiry.

It came during the questioning of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, one of many officials in the Trump administration who was shocked and appalled by President Trump’s fateful call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. Unlike others, Vindman was one of those listening in on the call.

Nunes asked Vindman whom he spoke to about the call; Vindman listed a number of officials with a “need to know,” including George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state in charge of Europe and Eurasia. He also mentioned “an individual in the intelligence community,” without giving a name.

Nunes then asked, “What agency is this individual from?” whereupon he was interrupted by Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff, who said he would not allow any line of questioning meant to expose the whistleblower. Nunes noted that Vindman has testified that he did not know the whistleblower so therefore couldn’t expose them, but Vindman said that his counsel had advised him not to give any details about any members of the intelligence community. Nunes was not pleased.

Identifying the whistleblower — and then releasing his or her name publicly — has become something of an obsession for Republicans, though their explanations for precisely why they want to do this run from the incoherent to the absurd. And it’s important to understand why this would be so dangerous.

Anonymity is absolutely central to the very idea of whistleblowing. We want people inside the government to expose misconduct when they see it — wasteful spending, fraudulent contracts, incompetence, corruption and any manner of wrongdoing. So we set up a system allowing them to report what they know while keeping their identity private, and then there can be an investigation to determine whether anything problematic actually occurred.

Whistleblowers regularly suffer retaliation from their superiors and others who don’t want the truth to get out, which is why the law that protects whistleblowers makes it illegal to retaliate against them. And there can be no doubt that exposure is a form of retaliation. That’s particularly true in this case, when we know with 100 percent certainty that if the whistleblower is exposed they will subjected to a campaign of vilification, harassment and threats from Trump’s supporters.

That of course will make every government employee who witnesses wrongdoing say to themselves, “I could blow the whistle on this. But why should I? It’ll just ruin my life.” That makes our tax dollars less secure and our government more corrupt.

It’s important to keep in mind that for all Republicans’ talk about Trump getting to “confront his accuser,” the whistleblower isn’t actually Trump’s accuser. None of the eventual articles of impeachment will rely on the whistleblower complaint. Instead, the evidence comes from Trump’s own words and the testimony of a parade of administration officials who saw the Ukraine scandal unfold.

At this point, the whistleblower’s identity is irrelevant. They’re the equivalent of the person who dialed 911 to tell the police that there’s a robbery in progress at the bank on the corner. Once the police arrive and catch a bunch of guys wearing masks and holding sacks of money, it doesn’t matter what motivated the person who made the 911 call.

So what are Republicans really after in their attempts to expose the whistleblower?

If the whistleblower is unmasked, the media will spend days or even weeks talking about them: who they are, what their history is, what their motivations might have been. Conservatives will kick their well-oiled smear machine into overdrive, with endless denunciations and condemnations. The person will, like others before them, probably have to go into hiding after all the death threats they receive from Trump superfans.

Republicans have recklessly floated names of officials they think might be the whistleblower, but so far the mainstream media has done the ethical thing and not repeated them. But Nunes and his colleagues know that if they can get somebody to put a name on the record in congressional testimony — or who knows, maybe get Trump to tweet an accusation at a particular individual — that will open the floodgates.

It won’t change any of the facts of the case, even if it ruins someone’s life and makes all whistleblowing less likely in the future. But as Republicans have shown, there’s almost nothing they won’t do to protect Trump.

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