Editor’s Note: Alexander J. Urbelis is a lawyer and self-described hacker with more than 20 years’ experience with information security. He is currently a partner in the Blackstone Law Group, CEO of a separate information security consultancy, and co-host of hacker-focused radio show and podcast “Off The Hook.” He has worked as a graduate fellow in the Office of General Counsel of the Central Intelligence Agency and as a law clerk at the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. He was also information security counsel and chief compliance officer of one of the world’s largest luxury conglomerates at which he was responsible for whistleblowing procedures and investigations. Follow him on Twitter @aurbelis. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
America has a history of prosecuting or destroying the character of its whistleblowers. With a possible impending impeachment and President Donald Trump painting the whole thing as a partisan hit-job, the multiple whistleblowers coming forward in the Ukraine probe are either historically naïve or extraordinarily brave.
I believe in their bravery, and I believe America has a chance to shape the future of whistleblowing in the United States.
Unlike Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning’s activities – which exposed thousands of sensitive documents, compromised ongoing operations and prejudiced US relationships with allies – the objective of the current whistleblowers is narrow: to expose the President’s possible abuse of power in inviting a foreign nation to influence the 2020 election.
And unlike Reality Winner, a US Air Force veteran whose singular disclosure to the media helped alert the public to Russian election interference, our current whistleblowers are only speaking through governmental channels authorized to receive their information.
Using official whistleblower channels, however, can result in disastrous consequences.
One need only look to the cautionary tales of Bill Binney and Thomas Drake, intelligence community whistleblowers whose lives were ruined by their disclosures. Long before Snowden, in 2002 Binney reported details about the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program to a House Intelligence Committee. Drake reported his concerns about the NSA’s wiretapping to the Department of Defense Inspector General, Congress, and – after those avenues proved fruitless – to a reporter at the Baltimore Sun.
After the New York Times ran a front-page story about the NSA’s activities in 2005 – years after their internal disclosures – Binney and Drake were suspected leakers.
In 2007, FBI agents with guns drawn entered Binney’s home, finding him toweling off after a shower. Four months after that, FBI agents raided Drake’s home in the early morning hours. Binney’s security clearance was revoked. Drake had his security clearance suspended, and he resigned and was charged with crimes that could have sentenced him to up to 35 years in prison.
Days before Drake’s trial, the Department of Justice dismissed its 10-count indictment, allowing him to plead to a minor misdemeanor, for which he received probation and community service.
These tragedies serve to explain why whistleblowers like Snowden had little faith in the system, and even less trust that their disclosures would not have repercussions.
Yet the current whistleblowers are meticulously following federal procedures. Indeed, the very first lines of the first whistleblower’s report make this clear: “I am reporting an ‘urgent concern’ in accordance with procedures outlined in 50 U.S.C. §3033(k)(5)(A).”
In this sense, the current whistleblowers are radically different in kind and degree from Snowden, Manning, and Winner. There was no dump of documents on the media, no dramatic escape from the country. Instead, motivated by what I can only assume are moral imperatives and a sense of patriotic duty, the current whistleblowers have put their trust in a federal system that has a history of destroying those with the best of intentions.
These are forms of bravery, faith, and fidelity that neither Snowden, Manning, nor Winner had, and these distinctions have not gone unnoticed.
Last week, Sen. Chuck Grassley, Congress’ most senior Republican, pushed back against Trump’s spin about the first whistleblower: “this person appears to have followed the whistleblower protection laws and ought to be heard out and protected.” Next came Sen. Joni Ernst, who stated, “I stand with Chuck Grassley on this. We have laws in place.”
Then on Sunday, in an open letter to the American people, 90 former high-ranking intelligence, defense, and foreign service officials from both sides of the political spectrum publicly supported the whistleblowers. That letter made the case that US government employees have an obligation “to make known, through appropriate channels, indications of serious wrongdoing.” It also applauded the initial whistleblower “for living up to that responsibility” and “for using precisely the channels made available by federal law for raising such concerns.”
From the outset and continuing to the present day, however, the President’s words suggest an ominous outcome. Trump has stated that those who provided information to the initial whistleblower are “close to a spy” and declared, numerous times, that the whole fiasco is the work of a “partisan operative.”
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Whistleblowers should never have to choose between self-destruction and criminal prosecution. Our country will be judged by how it treats these whistleblowers.
If our government intends to prevent future Snowdens, it must now seize the opportunity to demonstrate that we have learned from the past and that we will not repeat the mistakes we made with Binney and Drake.
Both sides of the aisle must recognize that their actions now will, for decades to come, foster either a mature sense of internal accountability or create several future generations of outlaws and exiles. Because unless, and until, human nature itself loses all sense of morality, whistleblowing cannot be stopped.