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Keep the Whistle-Blower Safe and Anonymous

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Andrew Rosenthal
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(Bloomberg Opinion) -- My father, A.M. Rosenthal, longtime editor of the New York Times, published the Pentagon Papers 48 years ago. For 35 years, until he died, I never heard him acknowledge that it was the Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg who provided the papers to the Times. Dad had given his word to keep the source’s identity secret.

Similarly, it was not until Mark Felt, the former FBI official, declared at age 91 that he was the Watergate source known as Deep Throat, that reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and the Washington Post as an institution felt free to acknowledge that he was indeed the informant.

Yet it only took a few days for news organizations, including the Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Examiner and others to inform readers that the original whistle-blower in the Ukraine scandal was a CIA officer who had been detailed to the White House and worked on Ukraine issues — facts that many feared would lead to President Donald Trump unmasking and punishing the person.

Reputable news organizations have long protected the names of informants and whistle-blowers — on issues large and small. These might be officials who talked about not necessarily consequential meetings with the president, gave briefings in the White House in which their names were withheld from the public but known to everyone in government, or who offered anonymous spin on current events. Reporters have gone to jail to protect sources. Newspapers have been threatened with legal action over the same issue. And each time, they have fought back.

So why risk exposing this whistle-blower?

Editors have defended the decision as a judicious act, a way to give readers some information to assess the credibility of the source.

That sounds reasonable, but why does that standard apply to this whistle-blower and not to others? Why not provide similar clues to all anonymous sources as a matter of practice?

Even in the recent Ukraine coverage, newspapers have kept secret the names of anonymous officials and others who have provided information about the inquiry or Trump’s actions. The Washington Post is maintaining the anonymity of the person who helped it break the Ukraine whistle-blower story in the first place. CNN continues to protect an anonymous source who said Trump knew of the now famous meeting in Trump Tower with Russian agents.

Indeed, the Times itself has protected the identify of an anonymous administration official who wrote a scathing but also self-serving op-ed article titled, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” even though that person is about to publish a book, anonymously, about the White House.

I believe that revealing the first Ukraine whistle-blower’s name, or those of the later ones, would be harmful to them. There is no plausible reason for President Trump to want to know their names other than to subject them to the wrath of his torches-and-pitchforks mob online, which I fear would threaten their physical safety as well.

It also would do a disservice to journalism in general because the credibility of reporters and editors with their sources rests on sources being able to trust the word of journalists.

The usual reason journalists give for exposing government officials’ actions and publishing documents the government wants to keep hidden is that there is an overwhelming public interest in sharing the information. Often, that involves some official wrongdoing or coverup. It is hard to see such an interest in these names. The information they provided has been aired thoroughly. We don’t need to rate the initial whistle-blower’s credibility because his or her account was confirmed by documents released by the White House itself and by subsequent testimony before Congress.

Certainly, this is not a case of malfeasance or corruption that must be exposed. The whistle-blowers were carrying out their sworn duty to report wrongdoing to their superiors through a system designed to protect them — at great risk to their careers, at the least.

I hope journalists leave this and similar cases alone — because Trump shows no sign of doing that, and his Republican proxies in the Senate are starting to demand that Congress force the whistle-blower to testify publicly. Our understanding of what happened with Ukraine policy will not be enhanced by knowing the first and last name of the person who tipped off the world to the phone call in which Trump sought help from a foreign power to promote his own reelection.

I also hope that if the whistle-blowers are eventually unmasked, they maintain their anonymity, neither confirm nor deny their role, and refrain from using their act of patriotism for self-aggrandizement or profit-making, as others have.

Newspapers rely heavily on anonymous sources, some say too heavily, and give explanations for the anonymity that are rarely enlightening and sometimes almost comical. The source discussion is a good one to have — but it will be moot if would-be informants don’t trust individual reporters or believe the broader industry is selective about whom it protects.

I’ll never forget asking my father, in what turned out to be one of our last conversations, to finally say it was Ellsberg after all. He smiled and changed the subject.

To contact the author of this story: Andrew Rosenthal at andyrosenthal269@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrew Rosenthal is the former editorial page editor of the New York Times, where he participated in one Pulitzer Prize and was finalist for another. He has held fellowships at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2018, he published “The New York Times Book of Politics.”

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