Twitter went stone-cold bonkers on Thursday in response to a New York Times story that outed the whistleblower in the Ukrainian affair as a CIA officer who had once been detailed to the White House. Although the Times did not name the whistleblower, the newspaper’s critics accused the article of doing great harm to him and his career by supplying the sort of details that would eventually lead to his unmasking.
“Astonishing for the NYT to essentially out the whistleblower in a story that doesn’t advance what we already knew on the same day the President threatened retribution,” wrote former Obama administration adviser Ben Rhodes. “It’s time to replace Dean Baquet,” wrote think-tanker Norm Ornstein in a vote of no-confidence for the newspaper’s executive editor. “I cannot think of a good reason for the Times to publish information about the whistleblower’s identity,” offered Vox’s Zack Beauchamp. “Wow, at face value this seems wrong,” tut-tutted the Atlantic’s James Fallows.
Without a doubt, the Times story has complicated the CIA whistleblower’s life by poking holes in the cloak of anonymity he used to shroud himself from exposure. But if he’s as seasoned as the Times sketch makes him out to be, he had to know that the contents and style of his official complaint to the intelligence community’s inspector general would draw arrows pointing directly to him and eventually puncture his anonymity. As the Times piece points out, the language of his complaint revealed him as someone “steeped in details of American foreign policy toward Europe, demonstrating a sophisticated understanding of Ukrainian politics and at least some knowledge of the law.” It was never going to take much sleuthing by the White House to ferret him out.
Brookings Institute senior fellow Tom Wright, who criticized the Times for making its disclosure, made this point in a Thursday afternoon tweet. “Rumors that the whistleblower was an IC officer detailed to the NSC were circulating widely yesterday [Wednesday]. I still think they should not have published it, but I doubt it was news to Trump and his associates,” Wright wrote. Evidence that the whistleblower was hiding in plain sight came a few hours after the Times story went online, when the Wall Street Journal confirmed its salient details.
Even if the discovery hadn’t been inevitable, the Times (and the Journal) would have been justified in blowing the whistleblower’s cover. It’s not the job of the press to protect the identities of official whistleblowers who prefer anonymity. Journalists can—and do—offer anonymity to all sorts of sources. But nowhere is it written that just because an official tipster desires anonymity, a reporter is obligated to grant it. Anonymity is generally given to sources by reporters as a transactional good in exchange for information. In the absence of a negotiation, a reporter has no automatic obligation to keep a whistleblower’s identity secret, no matter how noble the whistleblower’s motives. The only special protections that can be rightfully claimed by government whistleblowers are the legal protections that prohibit government retaliation against them.
Nor is it the duty of the press to suppress news—that’s how the press works in authoritarian societies. No matter where you stand on the Times’ decision to publish, you’ve got to admit that a story about a CIA officer documenting criminal wrongdoing by the president is big news. Writing in the Times of London in 1852, John Thadeus Delane put it best: “The duty of the press is to obtain the earliest and most correct intelligence of the events of the time, and instantly, by disclosing them, to make them the common property of the nation.”
Former CIA analyst Nada Bakos and others knocked the Times because, they said, its story would deter future whistleblowers from calling out wrongdoing. That might prove true, but I doubt it. Whistleblowers aren’t babes in the wood. They know from observation that whistleblower programs don’t work like witness protection programs that whisk tattletales away to some new life. Most of them understand the risks and draw on motivations to do the right thing that the rest of us can only imagine. They’d rather make a sacrifice than allow injustice to continue.
The counterargument can be made—and I’ll make it!—that the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have done the whistleblower and the country a service with their aggressive coverage of the Ukraine affair. Thanks to the incessant noise of the nosy parkers in the press, an unspeakable scandal has been thrust to center stage where the president can’t hide from it.
Isn’t that the dream of every whistleblower?
I don’t recall the same outrage accompanying the slew of attempts made in 2018 to expose “Anonymous,” the Trump official who wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about his efforts to monkeywrench the White House. Send monkeywrenches via email to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts are anonymous. My Twitter feed has never spoken to a reporter. My RSS feed speaks only for attribution.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine