Impeachment inquiry prompts calls for broader protections for whistleblowers

PHOTO: Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz testifies before a House Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., June 19, 2018.PlayManuel Balce Ceneta/AP, FILE
WATCH House impeachment investigators heard from America’s top European diplomat

Lawyers for the Ukraine whistleblower argued Friday there is no reason for their client to testify publicly in the ongoing impeachment inquiry, as senior Democrats expressed concerns that more should be done to protect whistleblowers from retaliation.

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The comments come after President Donald Trump repeated his demands to know where the whistleblower is.

“Exposing the identity of the whistleblower and attacking our client would do nothing to undercut the validity of the complaint’s allegations,” wrote attorneys Mark Zaid and Andrew Bakaj in a Washington Post op-ed. “What it would do, however, is put that individual and their family at risk of harm. Perhaps more important, it would deter future whistleblowers from coming forward in subsequent administrations, Democratic or Republican.”

Meanwhile, two senior Democratic senators called on the Inspector General of the intelligence community to ensure the original whistleblower is protected from reprisal along with other individuals who might come forward to expose alleged federal government wrongdoing.

"Whistleblowers help hold the federal government accountable to the law and to the American people," wrote Sens. Gary Peters, top Democrat on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Ron Wyden, a senior member of the Intelligence panel and co-chair of the Whistleblower Caucus, in a letter to IC IG Michael Atkinson.

"Whistleblower processes and protections are especially important in the intelligence community, where they serve a dual purpose: encouraging reporting of fraud, waste and abuse, while ensuring that classified information is not shared inappropriately," the pair added, warning, "Having a reliable, lawful whistleblower process for members of the intelligence community is critical for protecting our country’s national security."

Trump has repeatedly called for the exposure of the intelligence official's identity, tweeting just last week that the official, "Must testify to explain why he got my Ukraine conversation sooo wrong, not even close. Did Schiff tell him to do that? We must determine the Whistleblower’s identity to determine WHY this was done to the USA."

It is unclear when the whistleblower, who filed a complaint that is at the heart of the current House impeachment probe and was deemed of "urgent concern" by Atkinson, might testify. The official's lawyers have been in talks with the committee chairman, Adam Schiff of Calif., about how the whistleblower's identity might be concealed. Such discussions have also occurred with the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, so far to no avail.

The concern of exposing a whistleblower's identity is not merely a partisan matter.

A group that represents government watchdogs is objecting to the handling of the whistleblower complaint about Trump’s decision to block aid to Ukraine, saying it could prevent future whistleblowers in the intelligence community from coming forward.

In September, the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel reviewed the whistleblower complaint regarding President Trump’s controversial phone call with the Ukrainian president. The office specifically looked at whether Trump potentially violated campaign finance law by asking a foreign government to investigate a political rival, which could be seen as a kind of contribution to his campaign.

PHOTO: Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz testifies before a House Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., June 19, 2018. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP, FILE
Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz testifies before a House Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., June 19, 2018.

The Office of Legal Counsel determined there was no criminal violation in the complaint even though the inspector general for the intelligence community, Michael Atkinson, believed the whistleblower complaint was a matter of “urgent concern” related to whether the president solicited foreign interference in the 2020 election.

This week a coalition of inspectors general across government agencies raised concerns about how the decision to dismiss the whistleblower complaint without transmitting it to Congress could cause a chilling effect and prevent other members of the intelligence community from coming forward with their concerns. In a letter to the top official in charge of the Office of Legal Counsel, the coalition said the decision to contradict Atkinson “could seriously undermine the critical role whistleblowers play in coming forward to report waste, fraud, abuse, and misconduct across the federal government.”

Inspectors general are independent watchdogs at federal agencies charged with investigating waste, fraud and abuse of power when it comes to government resources. In a letter, the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency said whistleblowers are crucial to that mission and that they must be protected from the possibility their complaints could be mishandled.

“We believe that the OLC opinion creates uncertainty for federal employees and contractors across government about the scope of whistleblower protections, thereby chilling whistleblower disclosures,” the council wrote in its letter, signed by Chairman and Department of Justice IG Michael Horowitz.

PHOTO: Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz arrives before testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill June 18, 2018, in Washington, D.C. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, FILE
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz arrives before testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill June 18, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

“If intelligence community employees and contractors believe that independent IG determinations may be second-guessed, effectively blocking the transmission of their concerns to Congress and raising questions about the protections afforded to them, they will lose confidence in this important reporting channel and their willingness to come forward with information will be chilled,” they added.

Meanwhile, Sens. Wyden and Peters are calling on IG Atkinson, by Nov. 14, to detail steps he is taking within the intelligence community to protect the confidentiality of whistleblowers, steps supervisors are taking "to ensure that whistleblowers do not face retaliation,' and outline the impact that efforts at identity exposure are having on whistleblowers, more generally.

"We are deeply concerned by the impact these comments could have on individuals’ willingness to report wrongdoing through authorized channels," the senators write.

ABC News' Ali Dukakis contributed to this report.