Whistleblower advocates warned the New York Times' decision Thursday to publish identifying details about the official who filed a complaint on President Donald Trump's phone call with Ukraine's leader may have put the anonymous individual in danger and could deter other potential whistleblowers from coming forward in the future.
Jesselyn Radack, a human rights lawyer who represented government whistleblowers Edward Snowden and John Kiriakou, said the Times story "recklessly narrows the universe of suspected whistleblowers" by identifying the person as a CIA officer with expertise on Ukraine who was assigned to work at the White House.
"This has a very chilling effect on anyone who is even thinking of blowing the whistle and thinking of doing so through the proper channels," said Radack.
The Times story came just hours before the Los Angeles Times published leaked audio of Trump suggesting the whistleblower and officials who informed the person are "spies" guilty of "treason," a crime punishable by death.
Bloomberg on Thursday night published a video of the president's remarks, which came during a private meeting with world diplomats in New York:
"That's close to a spy."
WATCH: Trump demands to know who gave information to the whistle-blower in the #UkraineTranscript that has spurred the #Impeach45 drive. More @business: https://t.co/lmgTALLGsi pic.twitter.com/WTFeEX7K96
— Bloomberg TicToc (@tictoc) September 27, 2019
Danielle Brian, director of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), said the series of events highlights the dire need for strong whistleblower protections in the United States.
"First the NYT gratuitously put a target on the whistleblower's back, then the president threatens to go medieval punishing the 'traitor,' and finally some goons offer a bounty to 'out' him/her," said Brian. "Still wonder why we need real national security whistleblower protections?"
First the NYT gratuitously put a target on the whistleblower’s back, then the President threatens to go medieval punishing the “traitor”, and finally some goons offer a bounty to “out” him/her. Still wonder why we need real national security whistleblower protections?
— Danielle Brian (@daniellebrian) September 27, 2019
In a statement, Times executive editor Dean Baquet defended the newspaper's decision to publish information about the whistleblower in response to a flood of criticism from readers and advocates.
The president and some of his supporters have attacked the credibility of the whistleblower, who has presented information that has touched off a landmark impeachment proceeding. The president himself has called the whistleblower's account a "political hack job."
We decided to publish limited information about the whistleblower—including the fact that he works for a nonpolitical agency and that his complaint is based on an intimate knowledge and understanding of the White House—because we wanted to provide information to readers that allows them to make their own judgments about whether or not he is credible.
Other commentators voiced support for the Times' decision.
News organizations have to protect their own sources, but I don't think they can be in the business of protecting the government's sources by default. By all means, consider the person's safety, confer about what to do, but don't make the default that they're off limits.
— Andrea Pitzer (@andreapitzer) September 27, 2019
Jack Shafer, Politico's senior media correspondent, argued in a column Friday morning that the Times had a duty as a news outlet to publish the information it obtained.
"It's not the job of the press to protect the identities of official whistleblowers who prefer anonymity," wrote Shafer. "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... Nor is it the duty of the press to suppress news—that's how the press works in authoritarian societies."
"A reporter has no automatic obligation to keep a whistleblower's identity secret, no matter how noble the whistleblower's motives," added Shafer. "The only special protections that can be rightfully claimed by government whistleblowers are the legal protections that prohibit government retaliation against them."
But as journalist Tom Mueller argued in Politico Thursday, official layers of protection have not "proven able to keep whistleblowers safe from professional and public retaliation."
"Especially in an unstable, emotionally charged, politically polarized era like the one in which the current whistleblower is operating, government truth-tellers are all too easily vilified as traitors, deflecting attention from the problems they are attempting to reveal," said Mueller, the author of a forthcoming book on the history of whistleblowing in the United States.
"Even national security whistleblowers who rigorously follow protocol often undergo vicious legal and professional reprisal," said Mueller. "It's not clear how much longer the whistleblower will stay anonymous, but losing that anonymity is almost guaranteed to bring professional and personal pain—an unfortunate reality of whistleblowing in every occupation, but above all in national security."