Exclusive Interview: NSA whistleblower on what he'd do differently now

So you want to be the next Edward Snowden? Fellow NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake has some advice.

By Gabrielle Levy
Thomas Drake. (Flickr/Project on Government Oversight/Pam Rutter)
Thomas Drake. (Flickr/Project on Government Oversight/Pam Rutter)

WASHINGTON, May 7 (UPI) -- The high-profile cases of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning have turned a microscope onto the U.S. intelligence community, launching a serious discussion on the balance of civil liberties in a post-9/11 world.

Secondary to Snowden and Manning's revelations, but perhaps no less important, was the treatment of the whistleblowers themselves: Snowden lives exiled, and without a passport, in Russia, while Manning faces 35 years in federal prison. Both saw grievous abuses within the U.S. government that they felt must be revealed, and both paid for their consciences with their freedom.


Thomas Drake, a former NSA executive, was more fortunate. Drake witnessed what he said were privacy and Fourth Amendment violations, as well as a massive waste of funding on the Trailblazer project, which collected intelligence data off the Internet. He initially took his concerns to internal authorities, including the NSA Inspector General and the Defense Department Inspector General, then to the staff of the House Intelligence and Oversight Committees. He also passed his concerns on to a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, carefully avoiding divulging classified information.


In 2007, Drake's home was raided by the FBI, in 2010, he was indicted by a grand jury and charged with illegally holding sensitive information, obstruction of justice and making a false statement. All along, he refused to plead guilty or help the government prosecute fellow whistleblowers.

The 10 charges filed against him under the Espionage Act were ultimately dropped, in exchange for a guilty plea on a misdemeanor count of misusing the NSA's computer system.

Drake has since worked as a privacy activist, speaking out against the surveillance state. In an interview with UPI this week, he talked about what it takes to blow the whistle on the U.S. government and just how difficult it is to do.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

UPI: What would you have done differently?

Drake: I would not have spoken with the FBI at all. I was speaking to them to report high crimes and misdemeanors; I was expecting them to come to my house for quite some time. I would have hired an attorney sooner.

Even though I made a conscious choice [to go through the proper channels], I didn't have to. Under the NSA portion [of the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act], I could go directly to the Department of Defense or directly to Congress and not inform the NSA. That was the statute that you would exercise if you had a responsible belief as a whistleblower. Now there's huge cutout: Any national security position is not covered by that act.


Technically, I was in administrative violation of the law. I went to the press: It was unclassified, but that didn't matter to the government.

UPI: Would you still go through the official channels?

Drake: No, especially in a post-9/11 world. Go to the press.

UPI: Mark Felt -- we know him as Deep Throat -- managed to avoid prosecution and even kept his job as the associate FBI director, only coming forward more than 30 years after Watergate. Meanwhile, Edward Snowden went to the press but still ended up a fugitive. Should he have stayed anonymous?

Drake: I understand why Snowden wanted to say who he was. He watched my case very carefully. One of the things that was huge in my case, turning it around, was that I now was a public figure by virtue of the government indicting me. He saw that.

He was advised not to by the journalists of record: They want to protect the source.

UPI: But on the other hand, Chelsea Manning tried to remain anonymous and was turned in by a hacker she trusted. Is staying anonymous even possible?

Drake: [It's] much more challenging, because parking garages have cameras. And there’s license plate readers. Very difficult; much easier then. This is the problem with the surveillance state.


It is possible to do it anonymously. But as I experienced, anonymously, either face to face, which is fraught with peril, because of cameras and everything else, you check in with security -- those logs are actually reviewed by certain people -- or do you do it electronically, which is how i did it, kind of hide in the open but encrypted and anonymized.

It's not the most trivial thing to reduce your footprint to drops in the ocean. Not in today's world.

UPI: Would you still come forward, if you were thinking of blowing the whistle today?

Drake: You have to be aware of the risks, and you have to be willing to lawyer up if necessary.

And fundamentally, if you’re willing to accept that risk, if the public interest concern outweighs in terms of the public interest, your own career and your own future, in essence: It’s sort of the Spock principle: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” I was placed in that position. I gave up my entire career. This year, I would have retired with full benefits. That’s part of the sacrifice.

Is it worth it, for the sake of freedom and liberty and our precious sovereign inalienable rights that are granted to all human beings. Yes: I’d say emphatically yes, it is worth it.


UPI: Outrage over the Snowden revelations has actually resulted in a real push for legislation. Do you see new laws, such as the USA Freedom Act that was unanimously passed out of committee Wednesday, fixing the problem?

Drake: It’s totally compromised. I don’t support it. And I feared this would happen.

You’ve got this bad cop, good cop, where the White House has their proposal, and essentially what’s happening now is that because you have so many sponsors for the USA Freedom Act, that now those White House recommendations are being incorporated into the Freedom Act because it has a much stronger chance of passing. Meanwhile, you hold up as a straw man the [competing legislation] that [Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Dutch] Ruppersberger and [Chairman Mike] Rogers want.

It ends up basically outsourcing mass surveillance strategy; we’ll just shift the means of production. Productions shifts to the telcos and the telecoms. We don’t hold [metadata], we don’t create it or manipulate it, we have access to it.

So where’s the reform? That’s faux reform; that’s kabuki dance reform. That’s shadow reform.

UPI: Do you see any of it getting better?


Drake: There’s an interesting streak in America. This fair play streak, when you get too big for your britches. There is this streak in America, where it’s like, wait a minute. And we’ve been there in our history before. We’ve been there, even with civil rights.

And the progress of freedom, the progress of democracy’s a bit uneven, frankly. There’s just too many forces and powers. It’s a weird thing with the human condition where people want to rule over others.

I don’t want to go backwards. The commitment we made with the Constitution, for all its faults, it was an extraordinary document. It was an extraordinary experiment; it’s a great experiment. I don’t want to see that experiment die. “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.” Well, I'd rather keep going and progressing and forming that more perfect union, as people, together.

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