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'Is This the Country We Want to Keep?': Whistleblower Threatened with 35 Years in Prison, Warns of Developing Tyranny

Thomas Drake blew the whistle on a massive domestic information gathering scheme and was called "an enemy of the state."

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These secret programs which deliberately bypassed the Constitution and existing laws were born during the first few critical weeks and months following 9/11 as a result of a willful decision made by the very highest levels of this government. Such shortcuts and end-runs were not and never necessary, as lawful [incompr.] existed that would have vastly improved our intelligence capability with the very best of American ingenuity and innovation, as well as time-honored noncoercive interrogation techniques. 

Jesselyn and I both—we both raised our concerns through internal channels, including our bosses and inspector generals. In my case, I also spoke with the NSA Office of General Counsel and became a material witness for two 9/11 congressional investigations. I also became a material witness for a multiyear Department of Defense Inspector General audit of Trailblazer and ThinThread, NSA, based on a September 2002 hotline complaint that attempted to expose massive fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement at NSA and the NSA's use of a data collection program that was far more costly, far more threatening to American citizens' privacy rights, and far less effective in supporting intelligence requirements, rather than the readily available alternative named ThinThread. This complaint was signed by my former NSA colleagues Kirk Wiebe, Ed Loomis, and Bill Binney, as well as Diane Roark, the former professional staffer from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence who had oversight accountability for NSA, and had all retired by this time from government service. I was the unnamed senior official in this complaint, working directly at NSA.

The throwing out of ThinThread was due to a multibillion dollar buy-versus-make, money interests, and political connections, all surrounding personal gain and institutional self-interest. The throwing out of ThinThread was also due to blatant ignorance and disregard for policy under the Federal Acquisition Regulations and the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. Either way, the same result: critical breakthrough information technology; security and defense innovation and ingenuity. The very best of who we are as Americans was denied to the American people and precluded from use in providing for the common defense under the Constitution, as were a number of other programs, with an incalculable loss of intelligence, as part of the great historical tragedy of what could have been, including the disruption, even the prevention, of 9/11.

ThinThread had a laudatory purpose: find the terrorists, modernize a very outdated signals intelligence system from end to end, and thus protecting the U.S., its soldiers, and its allies by doing it all legally. However, it got caught up in the bureaucratic jealousy, turf, and debilitating internal corporate political jockeying and bickering that afflicts all too many large organizations once they necessarily become more organized and bureaucratic after departing the initial creative stage. 

ThinThread also illustrates in spades the widespread difficulty of protecting the iconoclastic, creative, and out-of-the-box, contrary-to-the-status-quo thinking people and their new, even revolutionary ideas, a problem especially difficult within an—when an organization has an effective monopoly in this country like NSA. In part it was a threat because it was developed rapidly on a shoestring budget by a small staff, the NSA equivalent of a Silicon Valley garage startup, with a far superior, vastly less complex design, and only cost about $3 million to get it to a fully operational and ready demonstration stage that worked, instead of the multiple billions spent over several years on the old technology with almost nothing to show for it except for some very fancy PowerPoint slides.

With all the unitary executive privilege, all the secrecy and exigent conditions used as the excuse to torture, deny due process, and engage in off-the-books electronic surveillance, Jesselyn and I followed all the rules as whistleblowers until it fundamentally conflicted with our oath to uphold the Constitution. Then we both made a fateful choice to exercise our First Amendment rights. We went to the press with patently unclassified information, about which the public had a right to know.

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