"I think Maguire and others knew it was the right thing to do, but they didn't want to be the ones to send it to Congress and anger the president," Atkinson said. "They were relieved I was the one to do it."
On Sept. 9, Atkinson sent a sparse letter to the intelligence committees saying he had received a complaint he deemed to be a credible and urgent concern but was not being permitted to disclose it. The communication landed like a bomb.
"If he hadn't written that letter to the committee, we may never have known about the whistleblower complaint," said Daniel Goldman, the top lawyer on the House intelligence panel. "That was a big step because no one was aware of that ever happening before. We understood it was both serious and urgent. And it triggered a series of steps that quickly led us to understand that the complaint involved the president."
Democrats demanded answers from Maguire, who pushed back, saying his office had determined the complaint's claims "did not concern allegations of conduct by a member of the intelligence community or involve an intelligence activity under the DNI's supervision."
Atkinson was aghast. "This minimalist narrative struck the wrong chord for me," he said. "They said it didn't relate to intelligence activity. There was nothing being said about the president or election interference."
Atkinson labored over a second letter to the House committee, writing that the whistleblower's allegations involved one of "the most significant and important duties" of the intelligence community. It was obvious to House lawmakers the culprit was the president, and the allegations involved election meddling.
Within days, news organizations began reporting on the existence of the whistleblower complaint.
On Sept. 25, under growing political pressure, Trump released detailed notes of the July 25 call, which he called "perfect." The next day, Maguire made the complaint public ahead of his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee.
Atkinson was relieved when he read the notes of the call because they verified the whistleblower's complaint. His role in the drama was over — House investigators and lawmakers found witnesses with direct knowledge of the president's scheme.
Like the rest of the country, Atkinson watched the House and Senate proceedings as a spectator. Trump became just the third president in history to be impeached. He was acquitted along party lines in the Senate. Atkinson won't say how he felt about the verdict.
"It would suggest I had a bias in some way," he said. "I do have a view but think it's best not to say."
Though Atkinson was done with the president, the president and his allies weren't done with him. Trump on Twitter questioned his integrity and abilities. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., called for Atkinson to be criminally investigated for his role in the "fake impeachment hoax."
Trump fired him on April 3, 2020, and told reporters that he thought the inspector general "did a terrible job. Absolutely terrible."
Those who know and have worked with Atkinson say he acted with integrity.
"He paid a price for this action, but will for the rest of his life know that he stayed true to his sworn oath of office," said Coats, the former director of national intelligence.
Looking back, Atkinson shrugs off the attacks by Trump and others. But he remains angry about what happened to the whistleblower. His name was revealed by lawmakers — some of whom had championed protections for government officials who disclose wrongdoing — and spread widely in the conservative media. Death threats rained down on the official. The individual required security.
Atkinson considers the whistleblower to have acted with the "moral courage" he described at his confirmation hearing. All the inspector general did, he said, was fulfill his duty.(c)2021 the Los Angeles Times Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.