Opinion: Ukraine Whistleblower’s Attorney Threatened: the Ugly Reality of Retaliation

In November 2019, federal prosecutors in Michigan indicted a man on charges of making death threats against Mark Zaid, the attorney representing the whistleblower at the center of the Trump impeachment proceedings, according to recently unsealed court filings. The message to Zaid came on the heels of a November 2019 rally in which President Trump read aloud tweets by Zaid, commenting: “These people are bad people, and it’s so bad what they do to our country. They rip the guts out of our country.”

Politico first reported the newly unsealed court documents. The Michigan man charged, Brittan J. Atkinson, threatened Zaid in an email sent a day after the November rally. In it, he says, “All traitors must die miserable deaths,” and tells Zaid to, “Keep looking over your shoulder.” He faces charges of violating federal interstate communication laws, which prohibit: “any threat to injure the person of another.”

Such anti-whistleblower rhetoric from the President and his allies has negatively impacted the perception of the whistleblowing system. In a survey of federal government employees conducted by Government Executive in December 2019, one-third of employees surveyed expressed concern about the impeachment’s impact on morale, and half of the surveyed employees felt the discourse surrounding the Ukraine whistleblower had negatively impacted their safety. (Half of the respondents said that Trump’s attacks would have no impact on their willingness to expose wrongdoing, and 16 percent said they were now more likely to blow the whistle.)

The continuous attacks on the intelligence community whistleblower and the effect this has had on federal employees, seen in the survey, is a dangerous development. To safeguard our public institutions, we need to protect the number one detector of wrongdoing: the whistleblower.

Attorneys for whistleblowers are also critical to the whistleblowing system and deserve protection. “My job was to ensure the rule of law was followed in how whistleblowers are treated. That role should not be negatively weaponized by partisans,” Zaid said in response to the threats.

However, this is not the first time a whistleblower has suffered retaliation in connection with an investigation of a President. Linda Tripp, a former White House employee who made disclosures to the Office of Independent Counsel that President Clinton lied under oath, was retaliated against by an employee at the Department of Defense (DoD). In 1998, the employee illegally released confidential information from Tripp’s security clearance files. Tripp sued and obtained a settlement in her Privacy Act suit against DoD with representation from National Whistleblower Center (“NWC”) founder Stephen M. Kohn.

Whistleblowing is a long bipartisan tradition in the United States, and retaliation shakes this system to its core. To remedy and deter retaliation, NWC will continue advocating for new laws that provide access to the courts for federal whistleblowers and stiffer penalties against those who illegally retaliate.


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