You can’t escape it. Whether you frequent Twitter, Reddit, and QAnon, or are more of a New York Times browser, the race for journalists and home sleuths alike to reveal the identity behind the White House whistleblowers has enveloped much of the Internet. And, honestly, I get it: the information these whistleblowers revealed could end Donald Trump’s presidency, land private citizens in jail, disrupt the U.S.’s already-contentious international relationship, and rattle the 2020 presidential race for Democrats and Republicans alike. This is juicy stuff. But that’s just it: The information the whistleblowers revealed is interesting — who the whistleblowers are don’t actually matter.
News of the most prominent whistleblower broke on September 9, and quickly unfurled from there. Here’s what we know: On August 12, an unnamed whistleblower sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Adam Schiff alleging that President Trump urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to dig up dirt on political rival and former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, and to investigate a conspiracy theory linked to the FBI inquiry of Russia’s 2016 election interference. The letter also said that Trump dangled a meeting with Zelensky as a reward if the Ukrainian President did help him. Finally, the whistleblower noted that the White House tried to bury the transcript of that call.
Upon hearing the news, Trump immediately fired back, likening the whistleblower to a spy and cagily threatening, “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart with spies and treason, right?” the New York Times reported. Since the initial report, there have been at least two Ukraine-related whistleblowers and another tax-related whistleblower, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity.
It would be naive to assume that such anonymity would be a given. We live in the 21st century, a time of social media feeds and 24-hour news cycles; most people have some sort of presence on the internet, and there’s a certain undeniable rush you get by hunting down information on Google. But just because this case feels like an internet stalking challenge, doesn’t mean we should strive to solve it.
“I don’t see any argument for revealing the identity because the identity is not important,” Allison Stanger, author of Whistleblowers: Honesty in America from Washington to Trump, told MTV News. “It doesn’t really matter who the person is. It’s really what information they are bringing to light — that’s what we should focus on.”
And the information that these whistleblowers released is pretty damning. One whistleblower provided possible evidence that Trump used “inappropriate efforts to influence” the IRS from auditing his personal tax returns, the Washington Post reports. It’s raised a lot more questions about what the heck Trump might be hiding in those tax returns, especially given that he broke presidential precedent as the first person to withhold that information since 1973 when — you guessed it — Richard “Not A Crook” Nixon underwent a bit of a tax return scandal.
“The president’s and vice president’s tax returns are kept in a top-secret vault,” one Justice Department veteran told Business Insider. “It’s codeword-protected, the whole nine yards, and not just anyone can get in there. There are very few people — the head of the Treasury, the head of the IRS — who have access.”
“The misconduct that was revealed — that’s where we should be judging. Not why the whistleblower did what they did.”
The whistleblower complaint with higher stakes is that regarding Trump’s call with Ukraine’s president. This one is so damning that the House of Representatives launched a formal impeachment inquiry into the president with the support of well over 200 members of Congress.
Despite there being plenty to focus on beyond the identity of the whistleblower — like, I don’t know, the fact that our president is very likely tainting his office with shady business practices — Trump, his supporters, and plenty of others quickly latched onto the unknown variable for a myriad of reasons. Some people believe that if they find out who the whistleblower is, they might be able to dig up enough dirt on them to discredit them. Look no further than how, on September 27, the president claimed via tweet that the whistleblower could be a “partisan operative.” He also called their information “Another Fake News Story” and their actions “a political hack job,” according to NPR.
But as Stranger points out, “motives don’t matter. The misconduct that was revealed — that’s where we should be judging. Not why the whistleblower did what they did.”
And in fact, the whistleblower statement, while helpful, isn’t all that necessary anymore. Trump himself admitted on live television on September 29 that he pushed Ukraine’s president for dirt on Biden. And on October 3, he called on China to investigate the Bidens, also in front of reporters. Then, on October 18, Trump’s chief of staff Mick Mulvaney admitted to quid pro quo and told the media to “get over it.” (Mulvaney has since tried to walk back his statements about quid pro quo, but the Trump campaign is selling “get over it” t-shirts.)
So that means one of the only repercussions of sharing a whistleblower’s identity would be to hurt the whistleblower themself.
David Colapinto, a lawyer and one of the founders of the National Whistleblower Center, told MTV News that whistleblowers risk losing their careers, damaging their reputations, and even “bodily harm.” Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee who leaked classified information from the NSA that showed the extent of the global surveillance programs in 2013, was sued by the U.S. government and now lives in asylum in Russia. Frank Serpico, a New York City police officer who confronted the corruption within the police department, lived through being shot in the face after his spiteful colleagues abandoned him during a botched drug raid.
“It’s an extraordinarily dangerous situation,” Stranger said. “We should be very concerned about the whistleblower’s safety.”
Technically, it isn’t illegal to attempt to uncover a whistleblower’s identity, but anonymity allows us to remove politics from genuine concern. The public and investigators can focus on the matter at hand — the complaint — without having to think about the politics at play. It makes sense, then, that most of the laws on the books pertaining to whistleblowers to begin with, including the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act of 1998 and the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012, don’t actually offer any protections for whistleblowers. Instead, they describe the process by which people can file complaints and share information. There are also two presidential policy decrees, made by President Barack Obama: The Presidential Policy Decree 19 and Intelligence Community Directive 120, both which also outline the process for reporting and prohibit retaliation against whistleblowers, but neither actually say anything about keeping their identities secret. So, the only thing keeping whistleblowers anonymous is that process and the discretion of the people who know the identity in the first place.
There’s one way to make sure that the whistleblower stays anonymous: a collective agreement to protect a civilian, by both the current administration and the public. It doesn’t appear that Trump will be doing that any time soon, as he has actively fought to discover the whistleblowers’ identity — but there might be some hope in the American people.
“It’s very important for the American people to insist that the whistleblower be protected,” Stranger said. “Because if the American people want that to be so, politicians will make sure it is. If they think the American people are indifferent about the whistleblowers’ fate, you could see very different outcomes.”