Did the New York Times Blow the Whistleblower’s Cover?

The New York Times last month faced withering criticism from national security professionals who said the paper was potentially jeopardizing the personal safety of the Ukraine whistleblower by publishing details about him, including his employment at the Central Intelligence Agency.

In a note to its readers, Dean Baquet, the editor in chief of the Times, defended the decision as merited “because we wanted to provide information to readers that allows them to make their own judgments about whether or not he is credible.” The lawyers for the whistleblower sharply disagreed: “Any decision to report any perceived identifying information of the whistle-blower is deeply concerning and reckless.”

The Ukraine story is of enormous significance, and as a result is incredibly competitive—national news organizations are racing against one another every hour to break the latest story that could impact the a rapid-moving impeachment inquiry into the president. Newsroom discussions about whether to publish details about the whistleblower have had to grapple with the value to the public of knowing who the individual is and where they come from against the potential that harm could come to that person. The ethical considerations are freighted with a prisoner’s dilemma mindset that often captures the editorial decision-making process: If we choose not to publish, surely someone else will?

Federal whistleblower law is designed to provide for anonymity protections for intelligence employees so that they will feel emboldened to speak up about concerns of wrongdoing without fear of retaliation. But enforcing those protections can be difficult, according to national security lawyers, and relevant protections generally apply to inspectors general and certain members of Congress and their staff but not to other agency officials or the public. They do not apply to journalists, who would be protected under the First Amendment and may argue that their responsibility to inform the public prevails over any obligation to the whistleblower. Still, in addition to the possible harm that could come to a whistleblower by revealing his or her identity, journalists must consider any chilling effect such a disclosure would have on future sources who may want to come forward.

The Wall Street Journal quickly followed the Times’ reporting by confirming that the whistleblower was a CIA employee, as did other outlets including the Washington Post. But that was an easier decision: Once information has been made public, it is difficult for news organizations to pretend it does not exist.

Read more at Columbia Journalism Review.