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Trump’s Ukraine Scandal Shows Why Whistleblowers Are So Vital to Democracy

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have consistently demonized people who share information with the press and public.

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is just one in a long line of whistleblowers who risked life and liberty to tell the American people—and the world—about the corrupt and illegal practices of the U.S. government. (Photo: Laura Poitras)

Donald Trump is now closer than ever to being impeached by the House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has finally opened the door to bringing charges after Trump was caught pressuring a foreign country to help him win the 2020 election and trying to stifle a whistleblower complaint.

And if impeachment indeed happens, we’ll have not only that whistleblower to thank, but also leaks to the press.

As everyone now knows — and has been confirmed by a rough transcript released by the White House itself — Trump tried to push Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden’s son, Hunter. Trump even offered up the Justice Department’s services to Zelenskiy in any potential criminal investigation he wished to conduct into the younger Biden.

Up until a week ago, though, the public and Congress weren’t aware of any of these facts. We knew only that an unnamed intelligence official had filed a Trump-related complaint with the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), and the DNI had refused to hand over the whistleblower report to Congress, despite being required to by law.

While that initial controversy did get some media coverage, it wouldn’t have been anything close to the scandal it is today if not for some dogged reporting by several news outlets. Newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times soon started publishing bits of information allegedly contained within the whistleblower complaint.

First we learned that the complaint involved President Trump. Then we learned that it centered on a call with a foreign leader. Finally, we learned that it involved a call with the Ukrainian president and Trump’s alleged attempts to pressure Ukraine to help investigate Hunter Biden.

All of this information (which has since been made public by Trump himself) was almost certainly classified. The person or people who leaked it to the Washington Post and other newspapers were breaking the law.

Leaks to the press — which the Justice Department considers highly illegal — have always been vital to democracy. The Pentagon Papers leak in the 1970s sparked the Watergate scandal and, eventually, Nixon’s resignation. George W. Bush’s illegal warrantless wiretapping program and torture regime were exposed only because of those willing to break the law to tell journalists. We wouldn’t know anything about drone strikes or unprecedented cyberattacks under the Obama administration without leaks. And long before this scandal, classified leaks stopped some of Trump’s worst impulses.

"Lawmakers should commend not only the initial whistleblower’s bravery, but also those who had the guts to do the right thing and go to the press when the official process was being stifled."

Yet members of the national security establishment constantly condemn leaks as “damaging” to national security without considering the massive public benefit they have on accountability. Intelligence agencies have always claimed whistleblowers should only go through the internal whistleblower channels, which have always been badly broken and have left many whistleblowers retaliated against, fired, or worse. Many have now laid claim that this Trump case shows that the “proper channels” work. In fact, the opposite is true.

While the whistleblower did not leak anything themselves, a primary reason this is the biggest story in the country right now is because of the person (or people) who continued to give classified details about the whistleblower complaint to the press. The leaks pushed the story forward, rocketed it to the front pages of every major newspaper in the country, and led Democrats of all stripes to make the most forceful calls for impeachment yet — all of this before anyone even saw the rough phone transcript Trump released on Wednesday.

While the DNI was purposefully withholding the complaint from Congress, now, thanks to all the pressure, the office officially submitted it on Wednesday.

Thanks to massive public pressure, the whistleblower will likely be heard by Congress. And when that person does go before the intelligence committee, the lawmakers assembled should commend not only the initial whistleblower’s bravery, but also those who had the guts to do the right thing and go to the press when the official process was being stifled.

Trevor Timm

Trevor Timm

Trevor Timm is a co-founder and the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. He is a writer, activist, and legal analyst who specializes in free speech and government transparency issues. He writes a weekly column for The Guardian and has also contributed to The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy, Harvard Law and Policy Review, PBS MediaShift, and Politico. Follow him on Twitter: @TrevorTimm

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