Although he and the whistleblower followed proper procedures, they have been subjected to criticisms as messengers of bad news. Trump considered firing Atkinson, the New York Times reported, because the inspector general found the whistleblower’s complaint credible.
Atkinson didn’t mention Ukraine, but his reference to “recent events” is clear.
The complaint, about Trump asking Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to find damaging information related to a political rival, former vice president Joe Biden, was substantially confirmed during two weeks of public hearings last month by the House Intelligence Committee.
Nonetheless, Trump has insisted his call with Zelensky was “perfect.” Republicans have adamantly defended Trump, as they did in a staff report issued Monday that repeatedly criticized the whistleblower.
Atkinson’s defense of whistleblowers comes with a dose of uncertainty.
“Time will tell whether whistleblowers’ rights and protections will emerge from this period with the same legal, ethical, and moral strength they had previously,” he wrote. “It is my hope that recent events will not have a chilling effect on the willingness of individuals within the Intelligence Community to continue to shed light on suspected fraud, waste, abuse, or malfeasance in an authorized manner.”
That chilling effect is real in a government that punishes whistleblowers even as it celebrates them.
Atkinson, along with the other 70-plus inspectors general throughout the federal government, issues twice-yearly accounts of audits, management concerns and other sleepy topics that generate more snooze than news. But Atkinson used his latest report to defend whistleblowers and inspectors general broadly in the face of right-wing attacks.
Calling inspectors general “first responders” to “the most egregious matters, abuses of authority,” Atkinson, a former Justice Department official, said they “are able to fulfill their critical oversight function because, by law, they are independent of the agencies they oversee.” It’s a passage administration officials should take as instruction.
Atkinson was not alone among inspectors general whose semiannual reports sent a message supporting whistleblowers.
Kristi M. Waschull, the Defense Intelligence Agency inspector general, used her opening message to champion anonymity for whistleblowers who want it, even as Republicans on Capitol Hill have sought to unmask the Ukraine informant.
“Overall, maintaining confidentiality is of the utmost importance,” she wrote. “We do not disclose the identity of any whistleblower without their consent — unless disclosure is unavoidable, as required by law.”
Glenn A. Fine, head of the inspector general’s office at the Pentagon, added by email that “whistleblowers need to be protected from reprisals for their protected disclosures.” Waschull’s and Atkinson’s messages were previously reported by Government Executive.
Atkinson received widespread support from his fellow inspectors general when almost all of them signed a letter backing him in his dispute with Trump’s Justice Department.
A Sept. 3 memo from Assistant Attorney General Steven A. Engel concluded that because, in his view, the Ukraine whistleblower’s complaint “does not involve an ‘urgent concern,’ ” it did not require transmittal to Congress, as Atkinson did.
The letter from the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency responded by saying Engel’s position “could seriously undermine the critical role whistleblowers play in coming forward to report waste, fraud, abuse, and misconduct across the federal government” and “has the potential to undermine IG [inspector general] independence across the federal government.”
Allowing other agency officials to second-guess decisions by inspectors general would be contrary to their independence and, the council’s letter added, “may impede the ability of Congress and taxpayers to obtain the objective and independent oversight they rely on from IGs.”
“That would be a grave loss for IG oversight and, as a result, for the American taxpayer,” the letter concluded.
To create safer spaces for whistleblowers, their supporters want Congress to approve additional protections for federal employees who expose waste, fraud and abuse.
Among other measures, advocates have called for legislation that explicitly prohibits revealing whistleblowers’ identities if they want confidentiality. One long-standing proposal would allow federal whistleblowers to have civil jury trials in lawsuits against agencies accused of retaliation.
Despite attempts to expose the Ukraine whistleblower’s identity and the Trump administration’s attempt to undermine Atkinson’s independence, he remains confident about the role of whistleblowers in the federal government.
“I am confident that those rights and protections will ultimately emerge stronger, and will not be diminished in any respect,” he wrote. “My optimism comes from my belief that the American people want an honest and effective government that reflects their hard-fought values.”