Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community, arrives at the Capitol Oct. 4 to answer lawmakers' questions about the whistleblower complaint that exposed a July phone call President Trump had with the Ukrainian President.

Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the intelligence community, arrives at the Capitol Oct. 4 to answer lawmakers' questions about the whistleblower complaint that exposed a July phone call President Trump had with the Ukrainian President. J.Scott Applewhite/AP

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Intel and Defense IGs Reaffirm Commitment to Protecting Whistleblowers During 'Searing Time'

“Time will tell whether whistleblowers’ rights and protections will emerge from this period with the same legal, ethical, and moral strength they had previously,” one watchdog wrote.

In the wake of President Trump’s verbal and Twitter threats concerning the whistleblower who sparked the impeachment investigation, key government watchdogs publicly reaffirmed their commitment to protecting whistleblowers even as some of Trump’s supporters in Congress have pushed to unmask the individual, whose identity is protected by law. 

In their semi-annual reports to Congress on Monday, the Intelligence Community and Defense Intelligence Agency inspectors general said they are committed to protecting the integrity and safety of whistleblowers.

“The past few months have been a searing time for whistleblowers’ rights and protections. Much has been written and much has been said about whistleblowers recently, some of it accurate and helpful, and some not,” wrote Michael Atkinson, intelligence community inspector general, in his report. “Time will tell whether whistleblowers’ rights and protections will emerge from this period with the same legal, ethical, and moral strength they had previously. For my part, however, I am confident that those rights and protections will ultimately emerge stronger, and will not be diminished in any respect.”

Atkinson said those who speak up when they suspect wrongdoing benefit the government and they “should not suffer from or fear reprisal.” He added that the future of whistleblowers’ protections depends on the federal agencies and workforce being “consistent in word and deed,” as in “agencies cannot ignore the reports or block the channels” for whistleblowers’ reporting.

Defense Intelligence Agency Inspector General Kristi Waschull had a similar sentiment. “Our office continues to rely on employees and others who report concerns of fraud, waste, abuse, and gross mismanagement,” she wrote in her report. “Overall, maintaining confidentiality is of the utmost importance. We do not disclose the identity of any whistleblower without their consent—unless disclosure is unavoidable, as required by law.”

Both Waschull and Atkinson outlined steps their respective agencies have taken to protect whistleblowers' reporting process and well-being. Atkinson said since he became inspector general in May 2018, the intelligence community established the Center for Protected Disclosures to receive and process whistleblower complaints through a hotline, provide guidance on protections and review allegations of reprisals. Also, a Whistleblowing Subcommittee was created for experts across the community to work together on related issues. 

Waschull said her agency has worked to remedy incorrect reprisal actions, some of which were for whistleblowers. Additionally she said, the agency’s chief of staff reissued a directive on whistleblower protections and created an unclassified website unaffiliated with DIA to provide “additional assurances of confidentiality and protections for individuals who report wrongdoing,” which “increases our independence while enhancing transparency with our nation’s citizens.”

The timeframe covered by the reports—April through September—includes the public release of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, President Trump’s Ukraine call, the whistleblower complaint about the call, acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire’s congressional testimony on handling of the complaint and the start of the impeachment inquiry. Additionally, it includes the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency’s repudiation of the Justice Department’s memo that argued the whistleblower’s complaint was not urgent, contrary to Atkinson’s determination.

In the wake of the Ukraine whistleblower complaint, experts have repeatedly noted that intelligence community whistleblowers have less statutory protection that non-intelligence community whistleblowers, which can lead to increased chances of retaliation. Diplomats have also warned the President Trump’s intimidating rhetoric around the whistleblower could have a chilling effect on public servants’ willingness to expose wrongdoing. 

“I testified under oath that I would work with Congress ‘to encourage, operate, and enforce a program for authorized disclosures within the Intelligence Community that validates moral courage without compromising national security and without retaliation,’” Atkinson wrote in his introduction letter to the report. “It is my hope that recent events will not have a chilling effect on the willingness of individuals within the Intelligence Community to continue to shed light on suspected fraud, waste, abuse, or malfeasance in an authorized manner.”