There's More Than One Whistleblower Worth Protecting

Photo: Win McNamee (Getty)

The reaction to the ongoing saga of the yet-to-be-identified whistleblower who blew the Ukraine scandal wide open has, predictably, depended on which side of the debate you find yourself. To Donald Trump and his bootlickers in the Republican Party, the whistleblower is a criminal. To Democrats like Rep. Eliot Engel, the House Foreign Affairs committee chair, “that person is a patriot.”

There’s no doubt that the whistleblower risked a lot to do what precious few others working in the federal government in the Trump era have been willing to do. The whistleblower is reportedly under federal protection, presumably because the president is openly saying that they may have committed treason. Eventually, we’ll find out the identity of the whistleblower, and his or her life is never going to be the same after that.

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But it’s a curious kind of thing to see the reaction to this whistleblower as opposed to other recent, high-profile whistleblowers. Reality Winner is set to spend more than five years in prison for leaking a report about a Russian military cyberattack. The one document she leaked launched a slew of investigations, including one by North Carolina and another by the elections software company that had been allegedly hacked.

After already spending nearly seven years in military prison for leaking documents that contributed an invaluable amount of information to our understanding of the war in Iraq, Chelsea Manning has spent nearly seven months in prison this year for refusing to testify in front of a grand jury. Edward Snowden, perhaps the luckiest out of all whistleblowers in recent years, is sure to be arrested if he ever steps foot in American soil again. Former FBI agent Terry Albury was sentenced to four years in prison last year; former CIA agent Jeffrey Sterling spent more than two years in jail.

One difference is that these five whistleblowers were prosecuted for leaking to the media and other entities outside of the government. The Ukraine whistleblower, meanwhile, took their complaints to Adam Schiff and the House Intelligence committee “after a colleague brought vague concerns to the CIA’s top lawyer, and became unsatisfied with that path.” But does anyone seriously believe that if Manning or Snowden or Winner had attempted to go through the proper channels that their allegations would have ever seen the light of day?

David Petraeus, meanwhile? No jail time at all for leaking secrets to both journalists and the biographer he was having an affair with. James Clapper? Never, ever going to face consequences for lying to Congress.

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So the other difference—and I’d argue more important one, as it relates to how the Ukraine whistleblower has been championed by Democrats (and also vilified by Republicans)—is that all of the aforementioned leaks are indictments of the system, not just one president and his administration. Trump’s abuses of power deserve the maximum amount of sunlight, but so do the abuses of power by the military or federal agencies like the NSA and the FBI and the CIA, which far too many people on both sides of the aisle—the actual aisles, in Congress—agree are just part of the way we do business.

So there’s not much of a chance of the Ukraine whistleblower case changing this years-long trend across multiple administrations of egregiously and viciously prosecuting whistleblowers for the crime of giving us information. That’s a damn shame. If there’s anything political leaders can seem to agree on anymore, it’s that the less the rest of us know, the better.

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