A Wildly Irresponsible Cover-Blowing Article on a Whistleblower, Brought to You by the New York Times

September 30, 2019

I had a feeling the whistleblower making headlines might be a CIA analyst because I recognized the writing style used in the complaint. The director of the Harvard Writing Center argued his college writing instructor should take credit. I disagree. The specific use of placing the analytic bottom line up front, active sentence construction, punchy bullets, and subheads all indicated we probably took the same battery of writing courses a long time ago. As a former Agency analyst, I can tell you this writing style is drilled into our souls in the service of the United States.

But the New York Times did itself, free speech, and the country no favors by running an article entitled, “Whistleblower is a CIA Officer Who Was Detailed to the White House.” It basically outs a member of CIA in all but name as the whistleblower responsible for impeachment hearings that might bring down a president. They lifted the veil enough to indicate he (and not a she) was a Ukraine-focused analyst who has since returned to his office in suburban Virginia. There are now enough datapoints available to potentially hundreds of people — members of the White House, the National Security Council, other members of the intelligence community, his colleagues, his neighbors who knew his professional passions — that his name is almost certainly about to be brought into the light, whether he likes it or not. This is terrible for the intelligence community, the media, and the country.

 

 

But it is not terrible for the president of the United States. Remember, this is a man who mused that the U.S. government should “handle” employees who talked to the whistleblower “like in the old days.” Perhaps it’s just the standard bluff and bluster.

Now, the Grey Lady handed this career intelligence officer on a silver platter to anyone who might wish him ill. One of the article’s reporters defended his piece, tweeting that people who critiqued their article were former Obama administration officials, and the Obama Justice Department aggressively prosecuted leakers of classified information. This is a classic instance of “whataboutism.” By providing classified information to reporters, those people broke the law.

On the other hand, this whistleblower did the opposite: he followed the law. He did what his country asked him to do — to follow correct procedures on what appeared to be a grave national security violation. Isn’t that what Americans should want?

I’m not trying to argue here whether the president should be impeached. It’s just this sort of cavalier treatment of a whistleblower’s identity by the New York Times is unacceptable no matter who occupies the White House or who it involves. This is especially true in the intelligence business.

This has happened before. In 2017, the New York Times released the name of the director of CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (I’m not naming him here, nor linking to the article). Executive editor Dean Baquet gave a long interview to Jack Goldsmith in Lawfare about his reasons for publishing his name, and they are similar to the rationales given now. In this current case, he noted, “The role of the whistle-blower, including his credibility and his place in the government, is essential to understanding one of the most important issues facing the country — whether the President of the United States abused power and whether the White House covered it up.”

No, it doesn’t. It does not serve the public interest to burn this CIA officer in all but name. Now America’s “paper of record” has handed the White House a club they can swing at him, the Agency, and other enemies, real and imagined. The President’s perceived enemies routinely receive death threats from rabid supporters — from members of Congress to football players to reporters to teachers.

Of course, reporters often require anonymous sources to get to the truth. But the New York Times and other publications regularly shield Trump aides’ identities on a near-daily basis, even when they spin and disseminate the administration’s line. They get the benefit of the doubt, but this CIA officer did not. Remember, this is the same outfit that allowed a senior Trump Administration official to publish an op-ed–anonymously!  When that op-ed was published, one New York Times senior editor noted, “We intend to do everything in our power to protect the identity of the writer and have great confidence that the government cannot legally force us to reveal it.”

The army of amateur Internet sleuths will soon be dropping all of his information online. This creepy manhunt is already occurring. We’ll quickly see this intelligence officer’s name, home address, college pictures, names of his children, and pictures up on the Internet. If it’s a fairly common name, expect a fair number of false positives, where uninvolved people are caught up in the maelstrom.

I hope the whistleblower told his whole extended family to lock down all their social media immediately, because the trolls are coming. Lord help him if he is an ethnic or religious minority. Lord help us all if someone eventually shows up at his door. It’s not hard to imagine there are other Cesar Sayocs out there.

Here’s a thought: what would have happened had this person gone and leaked to the New York Times instead of following strict intelligence community protocol? Would his identity have been better protected? I bet so.

More importantly, individuals who do real damage to America’s national security, like Edward Snowden, can exploit this incident and say “See? The White House, along with the press, will hound you if you try to blow the whistle. It doesn’t matter if you follow protocol. Your name will be dragged through the mud and your career will be over if you spot and report fraud, waste, and abuse.” And they would have a point.

It’s critical to have a robust adversarial media as part of a healthy democracy. It’s also crucial for the U.S. government to have strong whistleblower protections to allow people like this still-anonymous-but-not-for-long whistleblower to report real wrongdoing. Finally, we also need aggressive Congressional oversight over these issues to make the system work.

By going out of one’s way to determine his identity — for clicks, for eyeballs, for Facebook shares, and retweets — it creates a chilling effect for anyone who wants to come forth and say they see wrongdoing. This cannot be good for our country, and publishing his information does not advance the twin goals of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

Agency folks like to say they “speak truth to power.” I assume newspaper folks feel the same way. Sure, ascertaining the truth is usually a bit more complicated. But protecting whistleblowers is something we should all agree is essential for the functioning of our society. It is a real shame to burn a longtime patriot and likely wreck his career — or worse — for following the law.

 

 

Aki Peritz is a former CIA counterterrorism analyst and coauthor of “Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns that Killed bin Laden and Devastated Al Qaeda.” He is currently writing a book on the 2006 plot to destroy multiple passenger planes over the Atlantic, and how the US and the UK stopped the suicide bombers in the nick of time.

Image: Flickr (Photo by John Saeyong Ra)

Correction: This article originally claimed that “the whistleblower is already living under federal protection because he fears for his safety.” However, the source of that reporting has since retracted their claim. Consequently, that sentence has been deleted.