Start with the initial headline, in the story the Washington Post “broke” on September 18th:
TRUMP’S COMMUNICATIONS WITH FOREIGN LEADER ARE PART OF WHISTLEBLOWER COMPLAINT THAT SPURRED STANDOFF BETWEEN SPY CHIEF AND CONGRESS, FORMER OFFICIALS SAY
The unnamed person at the center of this story sure didn’t sound like a whistleblower. Our intelligence community wouldn’t wipe its ass with a real whistleblower.
Americans who’ve blown the whistle over serious offenses by the federal government either spend the rest of their lives overseas, like Edward Snowden, end up in jail, like Chelsea Manning, get arrested and ruined financially, like former NSA official Thomas Drake, have their homes raided by FBI like disabled NSA vet William Binney, or get charged with espionage like ex-CIA exposer-of-torture John Kiriakou. It’s an insult to all of these people, and the suffering they’ve weathered, to frame the ballcarrier in the Beltway’s latest partisan power contest as a whistleblower.
Drake, who was the first to expose the NSA’s secret surveillance program, seems to have fared better than most. He ended up working in an Apple Store, where he ran into Eric Holder, who was shopping for an iPhone.
I’ve met a lot of whistleblowers, in both the public and private sector. Many end up broke, living in hotels, defamed, (often) divorced, and lucky if they have any kind of job. One I knew got turned down for a waitressing job because her previous employer wouldn’t vouch for her. She had little kids.
The common thread in whistleblower stories is loneliness. Typically the employer has direct control over their ability to pursue another job in their profession. Many end up reviled as traitors, thieves, and liars. They often discover after going public that their loved ones have a limited appetite for sharing the ignominy. In virtually all cases, they end up having to start over, both personally and professionally.
With that in mind, let’s look at what we know about the first “whistleblower” in Ukrainegate:
- He or she is a “CIA officer detailed to the White House”;
- The account is at best partially based upon the CIA officer’s own experience, made up substantially by information from “more than a half dozen U.S. officials” and the “private accounts” of “my colleagues”;
- “He or she” was instantly celebrated as a whistleblower by news networks and major newspapers.
That last detail caught the eye of Kiriakou, a former CIA Counterterrorism official who blew the whistle on the agency’s torture program.
“It took me and my lawyers a full year to get [the media] to stop calling me ‘CIA Leaker John Kirakou,” he says. “That’s how long it took for me to be called a whistleblower.”
Kirakou’s crime was talking to ABC News and the New York Times about the CIA’s torture program. For talking to American journalists about the CIA, our federal government charged Kiriakou with espionage. That absurd count was ultimately dropped, but he still did 23 months at FCI Loretto in Western Pennsylvania.
When Kiriakou first saw the “whistleblower complaint,” his immediate reaction was to wonder what kind of “CIA officer” the person in question was. “If you spend a career in the CIA, you see all kinds of subterfuge and lies and crime,” he says. “This person went through a whole career and this is the thing he objects to?”
It’s fair to wonder if this is a one-person effort. Even former CIA official Robert Baer, no friend of Trump, said as much in an early confab on CNN with Brooke Baldwin:
BAER: That’s what I find remarkable, is that this whistleblower knew about that, this attempt to cover up. This is a couple of people. It isn’t just one.
BALDWIN: And on the people point, if the allegation is true, Bob, what does it say that White House officials, lawyers, wanted to cover it up?
BAER: You know, my guess, it’s a palace coup against Trump. And who knows what else they know at this point.
That sounds about right. Actual whistleblowers are alone. The Ukraine complaint seems to be the work of a group of people, supported by significant institutional power, not only in the intelligence community, but in the Democratic Party and the commercial press.
In this century we’ve lived through a president lying to get us into a war (that caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and the loss of trillions in public treasure), the deployment of a vast illegal surveillance program, a drone assassination campaign, rendition, torture, extralegal detention, and other offenses, many of them mass human rights violations.
We had whistleblowers telling us about nearly all of these things. When they came forward, they desperately needed society’s help. They didn’t get it. Our government didn’t just tweet threats at them, but proceeded straight to punishment.
Bill Binney, who lost both his legs to diabetes, was dragged out of his shower by FBI agents. Jeffrey Sterling, like Kiriakou, was charged with espionage for talking to a reporter. After conviction, he asked to be imprisoned near his wife in St. Louis. They sent him to Colorado for two years. Others tried to talk to congress or their Inspectors General, only to find out their communications had been captured and cc’ed to the very agency chiefs they wanted to complain about (including former CIA chief and current MSNBC contributor John Brennan).
The current “scandal” is a caricature version of such episodes. Imagine the mania on the airwaves if Donald Trump were to have his Justice Department arrest the “whistleblower” and charge him with 35 years of offenses, as Thomas Drake faced. Trump incidentally still might try something like this. It’s what any autocrat of the Mobute Sese Seko/Enver Hoxha school would do, for starters, to mutinying intelligence officials within his own government.
Trump almost certainly is not going to do that, however, as the man is too dumb to realize he’s the titular commander of an executive branch that has been jailing people for talking too much for over a decade. On the off chance that he does try it, don’t hold your breath waiting for news networks to tell you he’s just following an established pattern.
I have a lot of qualms about impeachment/“Ukrainegate,” beginning with this headline premise of the lone, conscience-stricken defender of democracy arrayed against the mighty Trump. I don’t see it. Donald Trump is a jackass who got elected basically by accident, campaigning against a political establishment too blind to its own unpopularity to see what was coming.
In 2016 we saw a pair of electoral revolts, one on the right and one on the left, against the cratering popularity of our political elite. The rightist populist revolt succeeded, the Sanders movement did not. Ukrainegate to me looks like a continuation of Russiagate, which was a reaction of that defeated political elite to the rightists. I don’t feel solidarity with either group.
The argument that’s supposed to be galvanizing everyone right now is the idea that we need to “stand up and be counted,” because failing to rally to the cause is effectively advocacy for Trump. This line of thinking is based on the presumption that Trump is clearly worse than the people opposing him.
That might prove to be true, but if we’re talking about the treatment of whistleblowers, Trump has a long way to go before he approaches the brutal record of the CIA, the NSA, the FBI, as well as the cheerleading Washington political establishment. Forgetting this is likely just the first in what will prove to be many deceptions about a hardcore insider political battle whose subtext is a lot more shadowy and ambiguous than news audiences are being led to believe.