Author Tom Mueller on the ‘Minefield’ Facing the Trump-Ukraine Whistle-blower
President Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on September 25. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Since a U.S. intelligence official filed a complaint documenting concerns that President Trump was pressuring Ukraine to investigate his political rivals, Americans have heard a lot about the process of whistle-blowing — but unfortunately, much of it is incorrect. President Trump has called the whistle-blower a “fraud” and a “spy,” threatened to punish him for a treasonous act, and done his best to expose the anonymous intelligence source’s identity.
For his new, impeccably timed book, Crisis of Conscience, author Tom Mueller spoke to hundreds of whistle-blowers in the public and private sectors. He found that we’re living in a “golden age” of whistle-blowing: People who come forward to expose wrongdoing have become “the government’s best weapon against corporate misconduct and the citizenry’s best defense against government gone bad.” Unfortunately, the moment didn’t emerge in a vacuum: Mueller argues that it’s a result of a “rise in institutional corruption and normalized fraud.” As this golden age intersects with the Trump administration, Intelligencer spoke with Mueller about the president’s willful misunderstanding of the scandal, the process of intelligence community whistle-blowing, and the dangers the anonymous official still faces.
Is there any validity to the Trump team’s claim that this official is not a proper whistle-blower, or that their information is tainted by political bias?
I think there’s no reason to assume anything of the sort. This person followed legal channels rigorously throughout the whistle-blowing process, and that’s very carefully laid out by law. The fact that they consulted the House Intelligence Committee for advice on how to proceed is a very standard thing that happens with many whistle-blowers because the whistle-blower laws are a minefield: If you don’t get the right path, you may blow up.
The assumption that because someone is a Republican or a Democrat they’re a political partisan, I believe there are public servants out there who are Republicans and Democrats — when they see signs of wrongdoing, misconduct, or violations of the Constitution, they will speak up. All this talk about their political affiliations and everything else, being a “spy,” a “traitor,” all of this is intended to deflect public attention from the facts they have brought forward, many of which have already been corroborated by the White House and other sources. There are very strong indications of illegal and unconstitutional behavior by the president.
What is that minefield you mention, and how could it undermine the claim being brought forward?
Particularly in the intelligence community, if you go through the wrong channels you can and will be prosecuted under the Espionage Act.
That’s exactly what happened to Reality Winner, Jeffrey Sterling, John Kiriakou, Thomas Drake, and a bunch of others. They were following protocol — in Reality Winner’s case and John Kiriakou’s case, perhaps not following protocol — outing severe, grotesque wrongdoing. They leaked it to the press, where they believed it needed to be, where the public needed to know, and then were prosecuted as spies and as traitors under a 1917 Espionage Act, which is simply a blunt force instrument of intimidation. It’s a totally outrageous piece of legislation to be used in this context. It was passed in WWI to be used against German spies and now we’re using it against people who really do have patriotic motives in 99 percent of cases.
So unlike these examples, the Ukraine whistle-blower went by the book to deliver actionable information to whoever could act on it, which ended up being the House Intelligence Committee.
Quite often whistle-blowers are rules people. They follow procedures. They typically, almost invariably, surface their concerns inside their organization first. The anti-whistle-blower lobby always says things like, “They’re traitors to the organization, they’re trying to blow up the organization.” That’s simply false, almost invariably, and in this case, too: Whistle-blowers bring their concerns to the attention of the proper authorities.
And remember, there are examples of intelligence community whistle-blowers who brought their concerns to the proper authorities and were squashed like bugs — Diane Roark and the NSA Five, as I call them in my book. They were longtime public servants in the NSA, they followed everything by the book, and their anonymity was guaranteed to them when they filed their whistle-blower complaints, and then the Defense Department inspector general gave them up to the Department of Justice, and the FBI came to their doors and pointed guns at their faces and they were subjected to years of legal retribution. Tom Drake was actually on trial and faced 35 years in jail for following protocol. This Ukraine whistle-blower took their life in their hands by following protocol, because that doesn’t always work out. But I guarantee you, if you go to the New York Times with that, you will end up in jail, they will prosecute you under the Espionage Act.
Now that the official has come forward in the proper fashion, are the laws in place robust enough to protect them, and to protect whistle-blowers in general?
By no means. They are very weak and they do not protect against retaliation or reprisal. In the intel community in particular, and for public employees in general, the protections are sorely wanting and desperately in need of improvement. You can bring your concerns to the agency, which is essentially accusing the agency itself of wrongdoing, and putting your name on the accusation. And giving them all of your evidence. You basically hope that they do the right thing. In this case, the inspector general did the right thing, and he got it, under considerable political pressure, to Congress. But in many cases, the IG does not do they right thing, they’re more of a cheerleader for the agency than an actual watchdog, and those whistle-blower complaints get swallowed. Then, in the agency, you are known as the person who surfaced this and they may come looking for you.
What does retaliation look like in this scenario? Could the whistle-blower be fired under false pretext, face some sort of exposure within the agency, or even prosecution?
In the hundreds of cases I looked at, there was everything from public humiliation in the office to being downgraded to dead-end jobs. Getting your desk moved to the basement next to the toilet. These are very standard ways of humiliating people. Then there’s removal of security clearances for intel people, which is death — you can’t do your job anymore. Being marched out by an armed guard in front of everyone. It’s not only punishing a person, it’s sending a message: If anyone else in this office speaks up, this is the treatment that you’re going to get. There’s also a permanent blackballing within the industry, so you will never work again in your chosen field. This is so standard, it’s almost rule number one of retaliation.
How do you think additional whistle-blowers coming forward might affect the scandal over Trump’s Ukraine call?
I think when you have multiple witnesses to a murder who all say the same thing, your evidence grows. I’ve seen in my research, a group of people who are inside of an organization, and who are not good with what the organization is doing, only one may be willing to take the risk. Maybe because they’re close to retirement, or they’re young enough to take the risk — once this person comes forward, they immediately become a clearinghouse for all of the concerned, who will come up to them privately and say: “Also mention this.” These people want to surface information, but for whatever reason, they can’t make that leap because it’s career suicide in many cases.
That complaint that this person wrote is no more than a bullet-pointed list of to-do items for Adam Schiff and the House Intel Committee when they investigate. This is why the testimony is so important, to flesh out the very bare-bones information that was laid out in the complaint. It’s invaluable as a starting point, but now it’s up to Congress to vet this, to prove that these facts are correct.