Intelligence Community Whistleblowers

FBI whistleblower Michael German writes in today’s Washington Post about flaws in the system designed to protect intelligence community whistleblowers.

The intelligence agencies successfully lobbied for exemptions from whistleblower protections by arguing that these complicated reporting processes are necessary to protect classified information. But this is wrong on two counts. First, intelligence community whistleblowers and

As EU officials move toward better protection for whistleblowers, they are likely watching how our system is holding up. In April, the EU Parliament passed a much-needed law that would shield whistleblowers from retaliation. It also created “safe channels” to allow them to report breaches of EU law. Today, Transparency International’s released an analysis and recommendations designed to help EU nations adopt “best-practice national laws that will effectively protect whistleblowers and support anti-corruption efforts in their country.”

Like they do here, according to 90 people who should know.

From: An Open Letter to the American People

We are former national security officials who proudly served in a wide array of roles throughout the U.S. Government. We are writing about the Intelligence Community whistleblower’s lawful disclosure, which was recently made public. While the identity of the whistleblower is not publicly known, we do know that he or she is an employee of the U.S. Government. As such, he or she has by law the right—and indeed the responsibility—to make known, through appropriate channels, indications of serious wrongdoing. That is precisely what this whistleblower did; and we applaud the whistleblower not only for living up to that responsibility but also for using precisely the channels made available by federal law for raising such concerns.


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Joe Davidson of the Washington Post contacted three former national security whistleblowers whose stories of “official revenge are a frightful warning to the CIA staffer. Yet all three would do it again, in service to their country.”

One of them is Jane Turner, a 25-year veteran special agent with the FBI. She led the FBI’s  programs for women and children on North Dakota Indian reservations. After reporting problems within the child crime program, Turner was retaliated against.

From the Post

 She fought back. A 2015 Government Accountability Report critical of FBI whistleblower procedures said the Justice Department “ultimately found in her favor in 2013 — over 10 years later.”

“Was the destruction of my career and family worth the excruciating time and money, ostracism and vilification? No,” she said Wednesday. “Was standing up and doing the ethical, legal and moral whistleblowing the right thing? Yes. Would I do it again? My moral and legal compass would not allow any different course of action.”
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Every journalist who has ever worked with a whistleblower knows these are fraught relationships. The journalist wants the story. The whistleblower wants justice. Or, maybe revenge. Whistleblowers can be heroic, brilliant, paranoid or deceptive. Journalists can push for too hard for information that may not be in the interest of the whistleblower to share. Or, somebody makes a misstep and the whistleblower is exposed.

Still, the stories they produce are sometimes the best way to right a wrong. So, the NWC was happy to produce a list of tips for journalists working with whistleblowers. We also contributed to a compilation put together by the Journalist’s Resource, a Harvard project that aims to connect reporters with reliable sources of information.

For more on this topic, check out the upcoming Double Exposure film festival and symposium. A session on whistleblowing features Theranos whistleblower Erika Cheung.

The stakes are rising for whistleblowers across the globe. In the United States, whistleblowers are facing prosecution under the Espionage Act like never before, a charge that carries a potential life sentence for speaking up to expose wrongdoing. Elsewhere, whistleblowers face financial and professional ruin, smear campaigns and–in some countries–targeted assassination. What does this mean for the watchdogs in print and film?
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Sen. Chuck Grassley spoke out in support protecting the IC whistleblower on Tuesday. No surprise here. Below find his most recent remarks for National Whistleblower Day.

From Politico

The most senior GOP senator has fashioned a career on protecting whistleblowers during presidencies of both parties. And in the middle of one of the most tempestuous political storms in two decades, the seventh-term Iowan is sticking to his position even if it’s at odds with the president himself…

Last week, a number of Republicans mounted attacks on the whistleblower as a secondhand source with no direct knowledge of the inner workings of the administration.

“He’s not really a whistleblower, so it’s really more hearsay,” South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott said Friday.

Grassley said “the distinctions being drawn between first and secondhand knowledge aren’t legal ones.” He did not mention Trump or his attacks on the whistleblower specifically in his statement, instead asserting that “no one should be making judgments or pronouncements without hearing from the whistleblower first and carefully following up on the facts.”

Here’s Grassley’s full statement. 


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From The Washington Post on concerns over protections for the IC whistleblower.
Dave Colapinto

Federal laws offer only limited protection for those in the intelligence community who report wrongdoing — even when they follow all the rules for doing so. Trump and his allies, analysts said, might face few, if any consequences, for outing the whistleblower or otherwise upending the person’s career… Notably, analysts said, the law puts the president in charge of enforcement — which is particularly ironic in this case, given Trump is the subject of the complaint.

“So, what kind of protection is this whistleblower going to get through this system?” said David K. Colapinto, the co-founder of the National Whistleblower Center. “But you got to understand that prior to 2014, there was nothing on the books. This is considered an advancement.”

If whistleblowers are fired, demoted or otherwise punished, they can now at least pursue internal remedies, though they cannot go to court, Colapinto said. Such cases, he said, “usually end poorly for the whistleblower.”


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Rep. Adam Schiff confirmed on ABC’s This Week that the Ukraine call whistleblower will testify before a Congressional committee. Lawmakers plan to ensure the anonymity of the witness,  said the California Democrat, who is chair of the House Intelligence Committee.

Adam Schiff

Now, we are taking all the precautions we can to make sure that …we allow that testimony to go forward in a way to protect the whistleblower’s identity. Because as you can imagine with the president issuing threats like we ought to treat these people who expose my wrongdoing as we used to treat traitors and spies and we used to execute traitors and spies, you can imagine the security concerns here.

Schiff also defended the whistleblower’s integrity and challenged those who say the complaint is based on hearsay.

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Can the Ukraine call whistleblower remain anonymous? And, who is obligated to protect his or her anonymity?

Two pieces this weekend explore those questions.

The Washington Post reports that the effort to identify the whistleblower has become “a fixation” on both social media and conservative news sites.

The looming battle over President Trump’s potential impeachment has sparked an online hunt in the far-right corners of the Web as self-styled Internet sleuths race to identify the anonymous person Trump has likened to a treasonous spy.

Their guesses have been scattershot, conspiratorial and often untethered from reality…


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The past day’s demonization of the intelligence community whistleblower has been harsh. But, not surprising. Whistleblowers always face blowback.

And calls for the whistleblower to come forward suggest a lack of understanding of the need for anonymity.

Tom Mueller is author of the forthcoming booAge of Fraud. He writes in Politico that

9/25 update: David Colapinto, general counsel of the National Whistleblower Center, spoke about the disputed intelligence community case on NPR and C-SPAN’s Washington Journal.

Click here for the NPR audio.  

“If you work in the intelligence community you must bring your concern to the inspector general before you can go to Congress,” he says. But an employee at Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, “can go right to [their] member of Congress or the committee that has jurisdiction over housing,” and report their concerns. “Those are two major differences, as we’re seeing play out,” Colapinto says.

Click here for C-SPAN  video.

(The case) is testing the system set up by Congress…It is a failure if they don’t transmit the complaint to congress. it would be the worst possible outcome to have a whistleblower who did everything right, obeyed the law, did not leak to the media, had the complaint verified, and not have it go where congress said it should go.


Whistleblowers from the intelligence community face a different set of rules than other government insiders. The information they have about wrongdoing may be classified. Protection may be limited. Congress should be involved.

David Colapinto, general counsel of  the National Whistleblower Center, explained this and more to The Washington Post  and The Atlantic. The stories were two in an ongoing flood of reporting about the decision by director of national intelligence to withhold details about the Ukraine whistleblower complaint from Congress.

Colapinto called this move unprecedented and said it could further erode trust in the intelligence community.

 “The system of whistleblowing will fail in the intelligence community if that complaint is not transmitted to Congress,” he said. “To have a whistleblower complaint verified as credible and urgent and not end up where it’s supposed to go would be the worst possible outcome. There would be a crisis in confidence in the intelligence community.”
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