Just the fact that there is a whistleblower in the intelligence community makes the situation extraordinary. We now know just how extraordinary: The president of the United States asked a foreign leader for derogatory information on a domestic political foe, something no federal employee should be able to overlook. It is difficult to overstate how great the reluctance of an American intelligence officer would be regarding becoming a whistleblower, but clearly, this was beyond the pale. Members of the Clandestine Service are trained to be … well, clandestine. This is as true for CIA analysts as it is for CIA case officers. We do almost nothing publicly, and, indeed, if the identity of a member of the Clandestine Service does becomes public, it is usually not a good thing. (Recall, for example, the outing of my former colleague Valerie Plame by Washington politicians, which effectively ended her CIA career.) We are trained to stay away from the news media and the limelight.
CIA officers also understand that, despite the protections against reprisals that the whistleblower statutes provide, blowing the whistle poses significant risk. Perhaps because CIA officers have met with great success over the years when stealing the secrets of foreign adversarial governments, we are understandably skeptical as to whether our own government can really keep all its secrets. Or perhaps the constant stream of denigration of the intelligence community from the president has made this whistleblower even more concerned. Any whistleblower in the intelligence community would probably admit there was a good chance that eventually, their identity might leak out. They would still be technically protected against reprisals, but their colleagues would find out. Even in the most justified case of whistleblowing, as this clearly is, there could still be a chilling effect on an intelligence officer’s career. Whistleblowers might be judged by their peers as either indiscreet or, worse, politically motivated. Neither is a trait an intelligence officer wants to be associated with within our world.
The second reason I was never aware of a whistleblower during my time at the CIA is because that is how the system is supposed to work. When a U.S. government employee sees something he or she suspects is illegal or inappropriate, they can report it formally, in a special protected channel. The key element, of course, is protection against reprisals by more senior officials in the whistleblower’s chain of command. There have been whistleblowers in my world, but I never heard about them at the time.
That is the great and unique beauty of how the whistleblower system works. We live in a democracy, an open society in which transparency, especially inside the federal government funded by all Americans’ taxes, is highly valued. There is nowhere else in our government where the natural tension between open society and the work of the federal government is greater than in the intelligence community, where secrecy is required. This is the very reason our system has mechanisms governing intelligence work, mechanisms such as the Office of the Inspector General, two permanent intelligence oversight committees on intelligence and the whistleblower laws. Even the most secret government activity is not exempt from the whistleblower statutes, and if we want this particularly powerful brake on bad behavior inside the intelligence community to remain meaningful, maintaining a whistleblower’s anonymity remains paramount.
That is a unique system, and in plenty of places Trump seems to like, whistleblowers are treated quite differently. Look at Russia, though you cannot check with Alexander Litvinenko, as the Russians killed him with polonium-laced tea. You could ask Sergei Skripal, but he is in well-needed hiding after the Russians tried to kill him using a nerve agent. Or North Korea, where Trump has “fallen in love” with a leader who has those critical of him killed using antiaircraft guns. Then there is Saudi Arabia, where those voicing skepticism about the government are subjected to bone saws or, as in a scene out of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” ritually hanged in public.
But Trump and his allies and aides appear not to recognize how important are the protections our government gives to whistleblowers. Instead, one of his senior advisers in the White House, Stephen Miller, recently stated that as a result of his extensive (three years’ worth) of work in the federal government, he was sure the CIA whistleblower was a “deep state operative.” (For the record, another thing I never saw during my 30 years at CIA was any evidence whatsoever of anything resembling a deep state or its operatives.) Trump has recently proclaimed he should have the right to confront his accuser, apparently completely missing the point that the rule of law in the United States carves out a special space for whistleblowers to avoid that very confrontation.
The whistleblower statutes contemplate in a very nonpartisan way a situation where a more junior official needs to call to attention the unacceptable behavior of his or her bosses. The nonpartisan element is a critical part of the statute, because while our current president is at least nominally a Republican, the next one might be a Democrat. When it comes to whistleblowing, it is indeed country before party, as it should be.
It is of course chilling to hear Trump — the commander in chief of the military and the national security agencies such as the CIA — effectively calling for the death penalty for whistleblowers and their sources, because in Trump’s view, they are all spies. It continues to be remarkable how much more Trump seems to have in common with the leaders of autocracies where dissidents can be easily killed. If the whistleblower statutes and the protections they offer did not exist, then under this president, it would be highly unlikely anyone would have come forward. But one gets the strong sense that that is precisely the way Trump would prefer it.
We can now perhaps better understand why Trump is so convulsively worried about whistleblowers. He is loath to have the details of his conversations with foreign leaders be made public, because in these conversations, he is engaging in behaviors that are eroding American democracy. The president does not want us to know the lengths to which he will go to protect not America, but his own ambitions. And Trump will not permit who he and his supporters call a treasonous, death-deserving whistleblower to keep him from protecting himself.
Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly identified Alexander Litvinenko as Sergey. This post has been corrected.