A confidential whistleblower from the U.S. intelligence community came forward with an accusation that sparked an impeachment inquiry against U.S. President Donald Trump in late summer 2019. That individual reported accusations that Trump used the office of the president in an attempt to extort Ukraine for damaging information on a political rival while holding back crucial military aid.
Since September 2019, when the whistleblower complaint became known to the public, the president and his supporters have launched a quest to unmask the whistleblower's identity, putting that person in potential harm's way, according to his attorneys.
Where’s the Fake Whistleblower?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 14, 2019
The president's and his supporters' efforts to out the whistleblower have in turn led a number of right-leaning media outlets and members of Congress to spread the name and image of a man they believe to be the individual in question, and that readers have subsequently asked Snopes to verify.
However, the whistleblower's identity has not been officially verified, and the information spreading online is only conjecture — the identity is confidential for a reason. What is publicly known is that the whistleblower is a CIA analyst who, on Aug. 12, 2019, kickstarted a process that would upend American politics by filing a complaint with the U.S. Office of the Intelligence Community Inspector General.
No one, except a small group of people close to the whistleblower, can verify that person's identity. Although some Republican members of Congress claim House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff knows the identity, Schiff has clarified that he doesn't. (Because the person being named by media and political personalities has been the target of death threats, Snopes will not identify that person).
Also, the whistleblower is lawfully entitled to file an anonymous report. The filing of an urgent whistleblower complaint sets in motion a chain reaction in which each government official has a limited amount of time to determine whether the information in the report is credible and advance it up the chain of command, until it gets to Congress. If the whistleblower wishes to remain anonymous, he or she is entitled to do so unless identifying that person is "unavoidable."
Irvin McCullough, an analyst for the watchdog non-profit Government Accountability Project who specializes in military and intelligence community whistleblowing, called the efforts to name the whistleblower "reckless."
"It's reckless for any journalist or pundit to weigh in on the identity of a confidential whistleblower, especially given the fact that this person is an [intelligence community] employee," McCullough told us by phone. "It almost blows my mind that members of Congress want to publicly identify a current CIA employee."
The last time a CIA employee was publicly outed created a major scandal in the U.S. In 2003, amid controversy over the premise for the invasion of Iraq, the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame was leaked to the news media. At any other time, naming a member of the CIA "would be received by everyone as reckless, regardless of what the employee did," McCullough added.
McCullough said one chilling effect from the treatment of the Ukraine whistleblower could be unreported waste and abuse by the government.
"People all across the federal government are seeing the president target this whistleblower on Twitter or at his rallies and asking themselves, 'Do we want to become a target?'"
The current situation, he added, is uncharted territory and "has come to emblemize all of our worst fears about retaliation against our whistleblowers."