The ordeal of whistleblower Thomas Drake has been chronicled before on these pages. It was Edward Snowden who garnered notoriety from his revelations three years ago, but in many circles, former NSA employee Thomas Drake did the heavy lifting, and suffered for his whistleblowing efforts, despite being a senior executive of the NSA.
His leaking predated Snowden’s by several years. In truth, it may have been the harsh treatment of Drake by the government that prompted Snowden, not even an employee of the NSA (let alone a senior figure), to circumvent official reporting channels and to disclose his information to the public through the press - much as Thomas Drake did a few years before. He had to have observed Drake’s futility when trying to alert superiors about abuses.
By now, the Snowden saga is well known, having been well documented and rehashed ad nausea. For his whistleblowing, he has been praised or vilified depending on your take. But as an article in Motherboard reminds us again, Thomas Drake’s travails demand retelling, as it was a different story for him...
Drake was a middle- aged and decorated Air Force and Navy veteran who vehemently and passionately disagreed with the Agency’s mantra of “collect it all,” and who proceeded to do something about it. Perhaps motivated by his love of country, but true to his military ethic, he attempted to rectify what was, in his eyes, an overreaching and unlawful government program of mass surveillance.
He went to superiors, and followed ostensibly normal procedures for reporting transgressions. For his honest efforts, he was rebuffed, and then, after leaking information about the wrongdoing to the Baltimore Sun, was first persecuted and then prosecuted. It was this systematic harassment of Thomas Drake which showed Edward Snowden, who by no means a senior employee, and was in fact simply working for an NSA contractor, what was in store for him.
So, in a sense, Thomas Drake was a trailblazer who marked the way for Edward Snowden to follow. Before Snowden, Drake recoiled at the NSA’s gathering and scrutinizing data with impunity. “The mantra was, just get the data,” Drake said. “Collect it all, so we can know it all. All means necessary to confront the threat, who cares about the Constitution, who cares about law, who cares about the rights of US persons,” Drake added. Later, he would say that, “History was at stake.” That being the case, he chose the course of action which could have seen him jailed for 35 years or more.
Curiously and ironically, while Drake was being persecuted (his house was raided and searched numerous times, and he was forced to resign in disgrace) in 2008 presidential candidate Barack Obama praised whistleblowers for displaying “patriotism”, and encouraged employees of government agencies to speak out about wrongdoings.
Of course, President, Obama did not “walk the walk”, and his legacy will be that of a president who presided over the most notoriously opaque administration in history, when it comes to security-related arrests and prosecutions. This fact was apparently was not lost on a frustrated Edward Snowden.
Drake averted being tried on a felony charge in June of 2011, and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, thus avoiding jail. That case may have been settled, but broader questions were left unanswered. It is unclear going forward, in light of Drake and Snowden, what the appropriate relationship will be between the press and government agencies such as the NSA, CIA and the like. Are whistleblowers patriotic leakers, or are they lawbreakers who should be punished for endangering national security?
With the threat of terrorism hanging over the world’s head, and right-wing fervor increasing, the climate for doing anything that has even a whiff of compromising a nation’s security will not be favorably received by law enforcement, or possibly even the public. Just look at the result: Thomas Drake, a decorated veteran and one-time senior employee in an important government agency, now labors in a computer appliance store!
Meanwhile, Edward Snowden languishes in exile, and is not likely to avoid jail time should he opt to return to his native country. It’s not a pretty picture for a potential whistleblower to contemplate. In my opinion, it would take a very courageous person to make the sacrifice. Faced with a similar situation, would you risk all to shine light on abuses and injustice?