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Ukraine whistleblower under fire — Where are the first responders?

Ukraine whistleblower under fire — Where are the first responders?
© Greg Nash

Never in the history of this republic has a whistleblower been so publicly blowtorched. I refer to the intelligence community patriot who caught President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBlinken holds first calls as Biden's secretary of State Senators discussing Trump censure resolution Dobbs: Republicans lost in 2020 because they 'forgot who was the true leader' MORE red-handed, shaking down the Ukrainian government. 

Meanwhile, the first responders — Congress — are standing on the sidelines, gawking. Some are even grabbing their own blowtorches, gleefully joining in. How did this startling, upside-down reality show come about? And who’s going to do something about it?

Many in this town have spent ample blood, sweat and tears for decades building up an infrastructure to protect whistleblowers. The laws we passed were never adequate enough, so we came back again and again to tighten them up. The law protecting the identity of the Ukraine whistleblower was a long time in the making.

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Now, along comes a whirling dervish (Trump) and his torch and pitchfork mob (Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenators spar over validity of Trump impeachment trial Trump selects South Carolina lawyer for impeachment trial Democrats formally elect Harrison as new DNC chair MORE, Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenators discussing Trump censure resolution Senate GOP signals it's likely to acquit Trump for second time Trump ex-chief says Senate vote signals impeachment effort 'dead on arrival' MORE, Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden argues for legislative patience, urgent action amid crisis Portman's exit underscores Republican identity crisis Portman planned exit sets off Ohio free-for-all MORE, Rep. Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsTrump ex-chief says Senate vote signals impeachment effort 'dead on arrival' The Hill's 12:30 Report: Sights and sounds from Inauguration Day Trump leaves White House, promises to be back in 'some form' MORE, Rep. Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyFormer lawmakers call on leadership to focus on unity Cheney spokesperson on Gaetz: 'In Wyoming, the men don't wear make-up' Biden attends first church service as president in DC, stops at local bagel shop MORE, et. al.), scorching that very fragile structure with no respect for the integrity of what’s been built. It’s no different from every other institutional norm Trump has trampled since he took office.

The incessant vilification and threats not only harass and intimidate the messenger. It tells every other potential whistleblower about to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry that the same will befall them.

But there’s a much more insidious intimidation at play, here. It began well before the whistleblower’s complaint was even a gleam in his/her eye. It seems longtime whistleblower champions themselves have been chilled by Trump from doing anything meaningful in response.  

Yes, many members are fearful of being “primaried” by rabid Trump supporters. But there are other ways of intimidation by Trump — denying projects in states and districts, killing legislation, tweet-slaps. They know he’s a relentless and vindictive retaliator if they cross him.

That might explain the lukewarm support, at best, by Republicans for the whistleblower. The strongest statement came from Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleySenate sworn in as jurors for Trump impeachment trial GOP digs in on preserving Trump tax cuts On The Money: Treasury announces efforts to help people get stimulus payments | Senate panel unanimously advances Yellen nomination for Treasury | Judge sets ground rules for release of Trump taxes MORE (R-Iowa), longtime whistleblower champion and co-author of much of federal whistleblower law. When he issued a statement Oct. 1 defending the whistleblower and breaking with Trump, it was a shot heard round the country.

That said, Grassley’s initial public response suggested the whistleblower might not be legitimate. Someone must have whispered in his ear, reminding him he’s the Senate Whistleblower Protection Caucus chairman. A few days later, his strong defense of the whistleblower was released.

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Grassley well knows words of support, strong as they are, only go so far. I worked the whistleblower portfolio for him for two decades. He knows action speaks much louder.

The last time I worked a major whistleblower case for Grassley, in the late 1990s, he was a bulldog, as always. The case was the infamous FBI crime lab scandal. FBI agents had altered reports prepared by bureau scientists to gain convictions in court. Hundreds, maybe thousands of past cases were potentially tarnished.

The DOJ inspector general back then wrote an explosive report damning the bureau’s process, work product, and a dozen or so of its agents and scientists. The FBI successfully lobbied the IG to hold release of the report for a month while they prepared a response. What they really wanted was to fabricate a defense that would whack the whistleblower, Dr. Frederic Whitehurst, the bureau’s top lab chemist, and ruin his reputation to get rid of him.

Grassley didn’t wait. He went to work. While the bureau was plotting it’s scheme, we got hold of hundreds of the FBI’s own internal documents about wrongful behavior in the lab. During that month, Grassley went to the Senate floor twice a week with floor statements and documents for the record. He made a compelling case defending Dr. Whitehurst while contradicting the FBI’s statements using their own documents. 

Media coverage saturated the air waves. Meanwhile, the bureau was stuck on silent for the month and couldn’t respond. When they finally did, the public case was closed.

Grassley succeeded in defending Dr. Whitehurst. Whitehurst’s reputation remained intact, the FBI reformed the lab, and Whitehurst won a whistleblower case with the highest settlement ever awarded.

Grassley can show that kind of leadership again. The Ukraine whistleblower really needs it. Congress, too, appears desperate for leadership.

As chairman of the caucus, together with its sister caucus in the House, he has a standing army of supporters who should be willing to go to bat for a credible whistleblower in distress. The question is, go to bat for what?

Credibility is not the issue here. The ICIG has vouched for that. So has the DNI director. The CIA and NSC lawyers agreed enough that the complaint was referred to the Justice Department. Most important, the information has been corroborated by other witnesses. The whistleblower has done his/her job and is no longer needed by the process. This is a no brainer.

What the whistleblower does need, though, is for the mob to back the heck off of its zealous desire to expose his identity. He needs that protection. It’s not much to ask.

Outing him is a brazen political ploy to create a pinata for every agitated deplorable in the country to take a whack at. Trump and his bully mob would have their punching bag.

The stated purpose of the caucuses is to “raise awareness of the need for adequate protections against retaliation” of whistleblowers. From the sound of things, there’s a great need for some awareness training, both in Congress and the White House. The protectors need to create a phalanx of support around the whistleblower to repel the mob and send them packing.

At stake is not just this whistleblower, and not just other potential witnesses thinking of coming forward. At stake is the integrity and credibility of the whistleblower protection system Congress spent decades building and defending.

Without action by the whistleblower protectors — the first responders — that system will come crashing down like a house ablaze.

Truth in our government and our democracy is what’s at stake.

Kris Kolesnik is a 34-year veteran of federal government oversight. He spent 19 years as senior counselor and director of investigations for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Kolesnik then became executive director of the National Whistleblower Center. Finally, he spent 10 years working with the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General as the associate inspector general for external affairs.