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 John TrumpWatergate prosecutor says that Sondland testimony was 'tipping point' for Trump In private moment with Trump, Justice Kennedy pushed for Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination: book Obama: 'Everybody needs to chill out' about differences between 2020 candidates 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 GrahamFBI official under investigation for allegedly altering document in Russia probe: report Trump steps up GOP charm offensive as impeachment looms Graham requests State Department documents on Bidens, Ukraine MORE, Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulTrump steps up GOP charm offensive as impeachment looms Trump lunches with two of his biggest Senate GOP critics Senate approves stopgap bill to prevent shutdown MORE, Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanDiplomat seen rolling his eyes amid testy impeachment exchange with Jordan Live coverage: Impeachment spotlight shifts to Fiona Hill, David Holmes House GOP wants Senate Republicans to do more on impeachment MORE, Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsHouse GOP wants Senate Republicans to do more on impeachment Michelle Obama presents Lin-Manuel Miranda with National Portrait Award Sondland testimony looms over impeachment hearings this week MORE, Rep. Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyOn The Money: Trump signs short-term spending bill to avoid shutdown | Pelosi casts doubt on USMCA deal in 2019 | California high court strikes down law targeting Trump tax returns McCarthy blasts Pelosi on USMCA The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Witness dismisses 'fictional' GOP claims of Ukraine meddling 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 GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyTrump steps up GOP charm offensive as impeachment looms Congressional authority in a time of Trump executive overreach Overnight Health Care: Crunch time for Congress on surprise medical bills | CDC confirms 47 vaping-related deaths | Massachusetts passes flavored tobacco, vaping products ban 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.