Editor’s Note: Patrick G. Eddington, a former CIA analyst and House senior policy adviser, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. The opinions expressed in this commentary are the writer’s. View more opinion on CNN.
On Thursday, FBI agents in full combat gear and driving an armored car arrested Massachusetts Air National Guard Airman First Class Jack Teixeira for leaking dozens of classified U.S. government documents via the social media app Discord. The scandal has prompted the Air Force to strip Teixeira’s unit, the 102nd Intelligence Wing, of its intelligence support mission pending an inspector general inquiry.
Some of the reactions to Teixeira’s alleged actions have been, to put it charitably, unhinged.
The day after Teixeira’s arrest, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin asserting Teixeira was “a whistleblower exposing the corruption of the Biden Administration.” Fox News host Tucker Carlson proclaimed, “He revealed the crimes, therefore he’s the criminal. That’s how Washington works. Telling the truth is the only real sin.”
It is a distortion of the concept of whistleblower and truth-telling to describe what is alleged about Teixeira’s actions that way.
Whistleblowing, according to America’s executive branch of government, involves “disclosing information that you reasonably believe is evidence of a violation of any law, rule, or regulation; gross mismanagement; a gross waste of funds; an abuse of authority; or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.”
There is no evidence to date that Teixeira had – or believed he had – evidence of actual US government personnel, civilian or military, violating any law, rule or regulation, or otherwise engaging in misconduct or mismanagement.
Moreover, the examples from the leaked documents that the Republican backers of Teixeira point to as Biden administration transgressions were already publicly available. In her letter to Austin, Geene claims that the leak revealed the secret presence of about a dozen US troops in Ukraine – but the Pentagon had already shared this information last month.
While some on the far right and the far left assert that this troop presence proves that America is fighting an unauthorized war against Russia, there’s a huge difference between having a small training contingent of military personnel in Ukraine and actually putting full combat brigades on the ground in direct combat with Russian forces.
Carlson, meanwhile, contends the leaks reveal the Biden administration is “lying” about the war, with the situation on the ground far worse for Ukraine than the US is letting on. But in fact, every American has been able to see on TV for the past year that the war has had its ups and downs. And there’s no question that the war overall hasn’t been going well for Russia, undercutting Carlson.
Some of those defending Teixeira have also tried to elevate him by comparing him to past whistleblowers. But the 21-year-old IT worker’s alleged actions are in no way the same as those of actual whistleblowers.
In 1971, US Army Captain Christopher Pyle revealed massive evidence of unconstitutional domestic surveillance by the Army that targeted more than 100,000 Americans, according to the Senate’s Church Committee. His actions also triggered separate Senate hearings into the Army’s actions.
A few months later, the now-legendary Daniel Ellsberg provided the previously secret Pentagon Papers to the media. The massive study revealed that administrations under both parties had lied about how the US had gotten into the Vietnam War and how the war was likely unwinnable.
Just over three decades later, Justice Department attorney Thomas Tamm became a key source for The New York Times by revealing then-President George W. Bush’s Stellar Wind electronic mass surveillance program, which violated the Fourth Amendment’s individualized, particularized warrant requirement for such surveillance.
During the Iraq War, then-Army soldier Chelsea Manning, upon discovering evidence of US Army war crimes, provided the relevant data to Wikileaks, which released it globally.
Edward Snowden, who likewise released data revealing illegal US government mass surveillance on its own citizens in 2013, remains under indictment and living in exile after he exposed the breadth of National Security Agency electronic spying on Americans, to the chagrin of intelligence officials, who have attacked the revelations for causing damage to American counter-terrorism efforts even as they have provided relatively few details.
Pyle, Tamm and Snowden revealed unconstitutional US government surveillance targeting its own citizens. Ellsberg and Manning revealed evidence of U.S. government war crimes in Vietnam and Iraq, respectively.
Taken together, those episodes highlighted how the US government, as a pattern and practice spanning decades, routinely misuses the classification system to hide waste, fraud, abuse, mismanagement and even criminal conduct. At the same time, federal whistleblower protection laws in the national security arena are a bad joke.
We don’t yet know the full motivation behind Teixeira’s alleged actions, but as The New York Times noted, the charging documents so far don’t suggest motivations like ideological conviction or providing information to the public that typically propel whistleblowers.
Carlson got one thing right, though. The real truth tellers of Ellsberg, Manning and Snowden were prosecuted by their own government for revealing actual U.S. government misconduct. (Tamm managed to escape actual prosecution but was censured and almost lost his law license as a result of his whistleblowing.)
Get Our Free Weekly Newsletter
- Sign up for CNN Opinion’s newsletter.
- Join us on Twitter and Facebook
In contrast, Teixeira is rightly being prosecuted for leaks of battlefield intelligence gleaned from critical and perishable sources, leaks that his young friends and fellow videogame aficionados said were designed to impress their shared Discord group as much as inform them. The consequences of his childish alleged act may well cost many Ukrainians their lives.
As The New York Times noted, “The [Russian] military apparatus is so deeply compromised, the documents suggest, that American intelligence has been able to obtain daily real-time warnings on the timing of Moscow’s strikes and even its specific targets.”
Teixiera’s alleged actions all but ensure those sources will dry up, degrading the ability of the U.S. to offer such warnings to protect Ukraine in advance of attacks and increasing the likelihood that Ukrainian soldiers and civilians will die as a result. In contrast and to this very day, U.S. officials can point to no actual deaths of any individual from Manning’s disclosures despite their warnings to the contrary.
The claims by the likes of Greene and Carlson that Teixeira is an actual whistleblower or a speaker of truth to power loathed by the Washington establishment are as silly as they are pernicious. Such falsehoods and bogus claims diminish the real good done by true federal whistleblowers.