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The History Briefing on Whistleblowers: Historical Perspective on the Ukraine Scandal

Impeachment has dominated the news cycle in recent weeks. As Republicans continue to defend President Trump and other administration officials, many conservatives have gone on the offensive and attacked the whistleblower that started it all. 

Recently, Senator Rand Paul stoked controversy when he demanded that the whistleblower come forward under threat of public exposure of his or her identity.

But this isn’t the first time whistleblowers have made waves in American politics. Since the whistleblower’s revelation came to light, historians have discussed the parallels between the Ukraine whistleblower and informants from past scandals.

In September, President Trump publicly condemned the DOJ whistleblower as “close to a spy” and insinuated that he or she should be executed. The article “Whistleblower or spy? What the history of Cold War espionage can teach the US” contrasts this modern controversy and the history of espionage in Cold War America.

According to Cold War historian Marc Favreau, Trump’s accusation of treason is of particular note due to its inherent irony. Instead of “serving as a conduit of information in conjunction with a foreign regime,” the whistleblower merely followed established executive branch protocols in order to alert government officials that the president himself was doing just that. The article argues that this methodology precludes the use of the term “spy,” as an operative engaging in espionage would never risk exposure in this way. 

Favreau continues with a critique of Trump’s allusion to execution as a potential punishment, citing the controversy surrounding America’s only instance of spy execution—that of Soviet operatives Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in the 1950s. The death sentence served to the Rosenbergs was unprecedented in American history, and the decision remains controversial today. Although the Soviets were quick to execute citizens accused of espionage after holding them captive in the KGB dungeon in Moscow, execution was rarely an option for spies discovered in America.  

Favreau concludes that although Trump and his supporters clearly have an agenda in condemning the whistleblower in such a dramatic way, the president and his administration “will find no support for their cause in the history of espionage.”

Another piece, published in The American Prospect in October, presents a broad history of whistleblowing in America. Brittany Gibson writes in her piece “All the President’s Whistleblowers” that the history of government whistleblowing is “fraught with charges of espionage, inadequate protections, and real hardships for those who speak out.” She cites scholar Allison Stanger to highlight the Obama administration’s abuse of the Espionage Act of 1917 as a means of harshly punishing government whistleblowers. 

Gibson uses individuals such as John Kiriakou, who blew the whistle on waterboarding practices perpetrated by the Central Intelligence Agency, and Edward Snowden, who highlighted abuses of power in the National Security Agency, as examples of this. Although both were charged under the Espionage Act, she explains that they “also changed the national conversation…and in some cases changed laws on these respective government actions.” 

To Gibson, these high-profile cases are a far cry from the Ukraine scandal. Unlike Snowden and Kiriakou, who braved government retaliation in order to make their disclosures through non-protected channels, Trump’s whistleblower stuck to protocol established by the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 (WPA) and the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012 (WPEA). The individual in question was also careful not to release any classified information in his statement, which was specifically meant for public consumption. Gibson concludes that while the whistleblower should not be subject to retaliation through the Espionage Act, history suggests there’s no guarantee that they won’t be. 

A third article recently published in the Washington Examiner points out a likely parallel between Trump’s whistleblower and FBI Associate Director Mark Felt (otherwise known as “Deep Throat” of Watergate fame). In the piece, whistleblower attorney and Watergate historian Mark Zaid argues that the DOJ whistleblower will likely follow in Felt’s footsteps and remain anonymous for decades to come. 

“Our ideal ending,” Zaid told the Examiner, “is that the identity of the whistleblower is never known and the individual continues on with their personal and professional life.” Later on in the article, Zaid expounds upon Deep Throat’s commitment to privacy: “Basically his identity remained ‘secret’ until he decided otherwise. That was his right.”

It is unclear whether, like Deep Throat, the Trump whistleblower will be able to maintain his privacy. If the past is any indication, however, his disclosures have the potential to alter the course of American history.