NSA whistle-blower: Obama “worse than Bush”
Thomas Drake on life inside the National Security Agency and the price of truth telling
By Matthew Harwood
Thomas Drake, the whistle-blower whom the Obama administration tried and failed to prosecute for leaking information about waste, fraud and abuse at the National Security Agency, now works at an Apple store in Maryland. In an interview with Salon, Drake laughed about the time he confronted Attorney General Eric Holder at his store while Holder perused the gadgetry on display with his security detail around him. When Drake started asking Holder questions about his case, America’s chief law enforcement officer turned and fled the store.
But the humor drained away quickly from Drake’s thin and tired face as he recounted his ordeal since 2010 when federal prosecutors charged him with violating the Espionage Act for retaining classified information they believed he would pass on to then Baltimore Sun reporter Siobhan Gorman. While Drake never disclosed classified information, he did pass on unclassified information to Gorman revealing that the NSA had wasted billions of taxpayers’ dollars on Trailblazer, a contractor-heavy intelligence software program that failed to find terrorist threats in the tsunami of digital data the agency was sucking up globally — and sometimes unconstitutionally. While Trailblazer burned through cash, in the process enriching many NSA employees turned contractors, Drake found that another software program named ThinThread had already met the core requirements of a federal acquisition regulation that governed the proposed system at a sliver of the cost, all while protecting American civil liberties at the code level. The NSA leadership, however, had already bet their careers on Trailblazer. So Drake blew the whistle, first to Congress, then to the Department of Defense Inspector General’s Office, and finally, and fatefully, to Gorman.
Last June, the government’s case collapsed. On the eve of trial, all 10 counts were dropped. In a Kafkaesque turn of events, Drake actually helped the government find a misdemeanor to charge him with — exceeding authorized use of an NSA computer — so federal prosecutors could save face. Once facing 35 years behind bars, Drake pled guilty to the misdemeanor charge and was sentenced to one year of probation and 240 hours of community service, what he sardonically calls “his penance.”
But his legal battles haven’t ended. Currently, Drake, along with the four other whistle-blowers he worked with to expose NSA waste, fraud and abuse, are fighting to get their property back that the FBI confiscated during its criminal investigations. Once a registered Republican and now a self-described “free-speech absolutist,” Drake describes the NSA as a rogue agency that operates in a black box that the public cannot penetrate.
Drake, along with his attorney Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project, sat down for a three-hour interview with Salon. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
Matthew Harwood: What happens at a place like the NSA when they don’t trust you anymore?
I blew the whistle literally on Trailblazer during that 2003-2005 time frame. That led to a whole series of what I will call the retaliation, reprisal and retribution by a thousand cuts, bureaucratic and administrative, where they slowly take you away from your primary responsibilities. They isolate you so you increasingly have less and less of a role to play, even though I was a senior executive in the government.
It’s like Milton out of “Office Space.” You’re put in the basement in a cubicle away from everyone.
You talk about Milton in the basement with his stapler. That’s effectively what happened. You are uninvited from certain kinds of meetings. You end up having certain key functions reassigned to even your own staff members or informed that the funding that you had been receiving, well, you know we don’t need to do that anymore.
In your opinion, is it in the hope that you resign?
Yeah, part of it is the isolation. A bureaucracy can really create this artificial desert, but the desert is real. And in essence, what happens is that they’re taking away the meaning and purpose for who you are when at work. Given that work for so many people is their identity, it attempts to fragment your identity. If you fragment that identity enough, then the hope is you’ll just pack up and take your bag somewhere else. And good riddance. I remember when they realized that I was a threat. The white blood cells were kicking in big time.
It sounds like some dystopian corporate environment but in an absurd, petty way.
You talk about the dark side of Dilbert; they were literally manufacturing incidents that never occurred. That’s the level at which they excel. The distrust within this dystopia of each other: people come into work looking to make someone else’s life bad and they’re deriving great pleasure from the psychological pain they’re inflicting bureaucratically on one another. What does that tell you?