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War on Whistleblowers: How the Obama Administration Destroyed Thomas Drake For Exposing Government Waste

When the NSA wasted billions on a government contractor, Drake tried to do something about it. That was his first mistake.
 
 
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When Thomas Drake, then an official at the National Security Agency, realized that the agency’s decision to shut down an internal data analysis program and instead outsource the project to a private contractor provided the government with less effective analysis at much higher cost, he tried to do something about it. Drake’s decision to join three other whistleblowers in asking the agency’s inspector general to investigate ultimately made him the target of a leak investigation that tore his life apart.

In 2005, the inspector general of the Department of Defense, of which NSA is a part, confirmed the whistleblowers’ accusations of waste, fraud and security risk.

Earlier this year, former NSA Director Michael Hayden even conceded that TrailBlazer, the program for which the NSA paid over $1 billion to the Science Applications International Corporation, had failed. The agency, after killing its own program (called ThinThread) “outsourced how we gathered other people’s communications,” he said in response to a question from investigative journalist Tim Shorrock. “And that was a bridge too far for industry. We tried a moonshot, and it failed.”

Nevertheless, Drake’s efforts to expose that waste and abuse would ultimately lead to his being charged under the 1917 Espionage Act -- a law intended for the prosecution of spies, not whistleblowers.

Drake, a subject of a new documentary, War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State, could have been put away for the rest of his life. “Speaking truth to power is now a criminal act,” Drake told filmmaker Robert Greenwald.

The investigation that would ensnare Drake began in 2006, under the Bush administration. But he wasn’t charged until 2010, when the Obama administration accused him of providing information to Baltimore Sun reporter Siobhan Gorman. In 2006 and 2007, she wrote a series of articles on NSA inefficiencies sourced to as many as 18 people, including Drake, who contends that he did not provide any classified information to her.

Rather than charging him with leaking classified information, the government charged him with retaining classified information. Over the course of the investigation, however, the government admitted that some of the documents in question had subsequently either been declassified or were never classified to begin with. Between that embarrassing revelation and the attention of good government groups, the case against Drake fell apart.

In 2011, the government dismissed all espionage-related charges against Drake, and he pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor charge: unauthorized use of a government computer. The judge in the case, Richard Bennett, said the case against Drake “doesn’t pass the smell test,” when he sentenced him to probation. Today Drake works at an Apple retail store rather than serving the country in a high-level national security role.

In a speech at the National Press Club last month, Drake talked about being charged with a crime originally targeted at people who sold sensitive information to our enemies.

“When you’re painted with the Espionage Act, it’s the worst thing,” Drake said, “because you’re immediately put into the same category historically as the Aldrich Ameses of the world, or the [Robert] Hanssens of the world -- the real spies.”

“That’s how that World War I statute was originally designed,” Drake continued. “Troubled as it is, in terms of the Constitution, it was designed to go after spies, not truth-tellers, not whistleblowers, and not people having contact with the press. It was not designed for that. But that’s what it’s turned into.”