Former National Security Agency executive Thomas Drake warned the public March 15 at the National Press Club against the federal government's crackdown on whistleblowers.
Drake, who escaped a potential term of life in prison for communicating with a Baltimore Sun reporter, said the government has the ability to make such conduct illegal retroactively. Regarding the larger issues, he asked, “How else will the press report the real news when their sources dry up and the government becomes a primary purveyor of its own news?”
Drake's revelations and passion resembled James Stewart's iconic performance in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington protesting corruption, including during a Senate filibuster. Yet Drake, at left in a Noel St. John photo from the press club speech, focused on dangers far more important than the 1939 film's portrayal of corruption in Congress.
Drake describes pervasive surveillance on Americans by spy agencies as well as an alleged billion dollars in wasteful spending to well-connected contractors. He says the wasteful overpayment exists even if one accepts the premise that the government must secretly undertake such surveillance – regarded as illegal in the United States until secretly authorized in recent years.
Drake's warnings became all the more real this month. A top CIA executive boasted that, “We 'Try To Collect Everything And Hang Onto It Forever.” Separately, a trade publication <a class="colorbox" href="http://fcw.com/articles/2013/03/18/amazon-cia-cloud.aspx” target=”_blank”>reported this week that the CIA has reached a $600 million deal with Amazon.com for the agency to hire the retailing giant to help create a better cloud computing capability. The CIA declined comment on the details.
Authorities threatened Drake with ruin in his 2010 indictment because he dared speak about such trends. In this, he resembled Stewart portraying the whistleblowing Senator Jefferson Smith, shown at right in the Senate upon receipt of huge cartons of trumped-up letters demanding that the Senate expel him on phony charges.
Drake's impressive background includes work for the Navy and Air Force, and at the CIA as well as the NSA, which is a larger and more secretive spy agency than the CIA. Early in Drake's career, he learned that “anything goes” at spy agencies regarding their offshore work, but they were strictly forbidden to use their methods within the United States on Americans.
That conduct code changed, he says, under NSA Director Michael Hayden, his boss. Drake and others describe Hayden, a former general, as a man who curried favor with the Bush-Cheney administration with his gung-ho attitude on surveillance encompassing virtually all phone calls and emails. The administration pressured news organizations such as the New York Times against reporting violations of longstanding American law.
Drake was lucky to escape from life imprisonment after the government tried to railroad him on spy charges for emailing a reporter. The Government Accountability Project defended him when others dared not. Drake had the further good fortune to land before an honest judge who withstood the high-pressure government tactics that normally crush whistleblowers.
The importance of Drake's story, however, is not the drama of his case nor his revelations. Instead, the largely untold story is that Drake and a few other patriots in government stand at a pivotal juncture for the United States. Without them or their successors, the public may never again have access to those with knowledge and courage able to inform the public how the Constitution and its Bill of Rights are being gutted, perhaps forever.
The column below contains video links to Drake's full press club speech, plus sample news coverage. Included also are highlights from my five-hours of follow up conversation with him afterward in the club restaurant. Drake's topic for his speech was whistleblowing and the free press. In discussions afterward, he shared an even wider and more ominous view of the impact of the national security state on civil rights and democratic procedures.