The American newspaper published details that could identify the whistleblower behind the dismissal proceedings against Donald Trump.
Should details be published that could identify the agent who initiated the removal proceedings against Donald Trump? In doing so, the New York Times has sparked controversy and renewed debate on the protection of whistleblowers in a deleterious political climate.
After the publication of the report accusing Donald Trump of soliciting “foreign interference in the 2020 election”, the New York daily gave, on Thursday 26 September, some identifying information: it stated that he was a CIA agent, for a time posted in the White House, an expert on European issues and the political situation in Ukraine.
This whistleblower’s lawyers, like other people working in intelligence, considered these disclosures “dangerous” for their client, both professionally and personally.
Calls to cancel subscriptions to the powerful newspaper, under the diese word #CancelNYT, have multiplied on social networks, where some people were asking for the resignation of its managing editor, Dean Baquet.
“It’s a difficult decision.”
The latter defended himself. He explained that Donald Trump and his supporters had attacked the credibility of the whistleblower and that these clarifications should allow readers to “judge for themselves” his credibility.
But these explanations did not convince everyone. “It’s a difficult decision. The New York Times found itself caught between two competing ethical principles,” says Jon Marshall, a professor at Northwestern University’s School of Journalism. On the one hand, “seek the truth and publish it”, on the other hand, “limit the harm caused, which implies not endangering the sources,” he said. All this in a context of competition exacerbated by ever shorter information cycles, which give the media “little time” to weigh the consequences of their decisions.
Like others, Jon Marshall believes that “only one or two people” probably fit the description of the whistleblower in the newspaper. And that the latter has therefore “potentially endangered” him, especially since some of Mr. Trump’s supporters “sometimes act in an extreme way” against his opponents. For him, describing him as an experienced CIA agent would have been enough to establish his credibility.
While he too believes that this man could be in danger, Todd Gitlin, a journalism professor at Columbia University, considers the newspaper’s decision “justified”. As a CIA agent, he had to “know that there were risks and have taken his precautions”. In addition, “he works for an organization dedicated to safety”. If his hierarchy failed to protect him, even in the current polarized political climate, “heads would fall,” he asserts.
A future hero?
Unlike Edward Snowden, the NSA intelligence agency employee who revealed to the press the existence of a global communications and Internet monitoring system, or Chelsea Manning, a soldier who transmitted thousands of documents to WikiLeaks in 2010, this agent seems very cautious: he respected all the rules on filing complaints and worked in consultation with specialized lawyers,” says Kathleen McClellan, deputy director of the ExposeFacts NGO’s alert protection program.
But someone who comes forward with information is always at high risk of retaliation, she says. Unlike other professional sectors, he cannot take his employer to court and has no other recourse than to complain to the executive branch: if the president wanted him to pay for his actions, he could only complain… to the presidency, she said.
The “credibility” argument put forward by the New York Times does not hold up, she said, because the information inspector to whom the officer sent his report had already found it “credible”, an “unusual” fact.
In any case, Todd Gitlin expects that the identity of the whistleblower will soon be known, especially since Congress wants to hear from him. And when it is revealed, “his name will forever be in the history books, like Daniel Ellsberg”, the former military analyst who had leaked confidential documents on planning for the Vietnam war, historian Douglas Brinkley predicted on Friday in the “Washington Post”.