At a time when we are watching an impeachment case unfold, we again are wrestling with the question of who is a whistleblower and who is not. You might think it’s a matter of one’s perspective, but Eric Feldman, one of the signatories to a letter penned by a group of former intelligence community inspectors general, said on Agency in Focus: Intelligence Community that following procedure, projecting integrity, and telling the truth are keys to making that determination.
“In my view, Snowden was not a whistleblower because if he, in fact, wanted to share information about what he believed to be inappropriate activity on the part of intelligence professionals at the NSA. He could have availed himself of that whistleblower protection by going to the NSA inspector general who would have kept classified information in appropriate channels and would not have put our national security at risk.”
Feldman is the former IG of the National Reconnaissance Office. His perspective on whistleblowing was formed early in his career at the Defense Intelligence Agency. When reviewing details involving use of a U.S. aircraft overseas, he determined it was not being used for its intended purposes. In testimony in front of the Senate intelligence committee, he provided the facts as they were. But for some, his report was not appreciated.
“Before I even got back to my office, I was summoned into the director’s office and read the riot act and asked, ‘What did you tell them?’ in a rather threatening voice. When three star generals speak loudly at you, you tend to listen,” Feldman said.
“My answer was, I told them the truth. What else would you suggest I should have done?” Feldman said his answer completely diffused the situation. “When it comes down to it,” Feldman continued, “either you’re gonna tell the truth to the oversight committees that have a right to the truth, or you’re going to lie. And there really is not much gray area in between.”
Outside the intelligence community, a person who identifies as a whistleblower has protections from retaliation under various statutes. In the intelligence community, Feldman said it’s even more critical to protect whistleblowers, while protecting national security.
“In the intelligence community we want to encourage people who have concerns to go within the process that’s been established to protect our information and protect our national security.”
Feldman explained how it works. After receiving a report, the inspector general has 14 days to determine if the concern falls within the definitions in the statute of being urgent and credible. If it does, it must be passed along to the head of the agency who has seven days to transmit it to the chairman and ranking member of both oversight committees. That is the agency’s only role.
In recent days, a whistleblower complaint centering on President Donald Trump and his interactions with Ukraine has created a lot of tension in the administration. The intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson, deemed the complaint an “urgent concern” that by law required his agency to pass along the information to the congressional intelligence committees. But Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire refused to do so on advice from the Justice Department. The move sparked the impeachment inquiry.
Critics of the current impeachment inquiry contend the anonymous whistleblower didn’t have first-hand knowledge of President Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president, because he was not on the phone. Feldman said there is a lot of misinformation swirling about the case and the process.
“That is a huge fallacy about what whistleblowers are all about. You need whistleblowers who have knowledge of a concern, suspect something is going on, maybe have heard from others that there is something going on, and you want them to raise that issue within the classified channels and have the appropriate people investigate to determine whether or not they believe it is true.“
Another matter of concern, according to Feldman, is the identity of the whistleblower. “We cannot in any way, shape or form compromise the anonymity of a whistleblower who has requested anonymity, or else we will never get people to come forward. That is absolutely critical to the process.”
Trust and integrity start at the top, according to Feldman. “I have been in situations where the tone at the top is so mission-driven that the message being sent to the workforce is we’re going to achieve this mission no matter what we have to do. And, in those kinds of environments, it’s very difficult to get the hearts and minds of employees thinking that they need to protect the organization when they’re being pressured from a performance perspective to get things done no matter what.”
Feldman said the message of the former intelligence IG community wanted to make was the importance of trusting the process. “If there’s no credibility in either the process or those who we entrust to execute that process … then you’re going to increase the risk of having another Edward Snowden. That’s why within the IG intelligence community as a whole, having inspectors general and staff who are of high integrity, well-trained and know their jobs and are objective in doing the work that they do is critical to encourage people to come up and say, ‘Hey, this just isn’t right.’”