Page 1 of 5 Secret information: The currency of power
By Lars Schall
The transcript of the following interview was exclusively arranged for Asia Times Online. An audio file of the interview is published at the German financial web site "Die Metallwoche" here.
Thomas Drake, born 1957, is a former senior executive at the US National Security Agency who blew the whistle on a multi-billion dollar program fraud and cover up as well as the NSA's secret unlawful surveillance program. The US Department of
Justice prosecuted and indicted him under the World War I-era Espionage Act in April, 2010, under 10 felony counts including that he "mishandled documents". The case against him ultimately collapsed. He eventually pled to one misdemeanor count for exceeding authorized use of a computer. He is a former airborne crypto-linguist and electronic warfare mission crew supervisor. From 1991-1998 he worked at Booz Allen Hamilton as a management, strategy and technology consultant and software quality engineer. In 2011, Drake became the recipient of the Ridenhour Truth-Telling Prize and co-recipient of the Sam Adams Award. He holds a Bachelor's and two Master's degrees as well as numerous graduate certificates.
Lars Schall: Thomas, the first question that I would have for you is, why did you a) join the Signal Intelligence Directorate of the US National Security Agency in late summer 2001; and b) leave the NSA in 2008?
Thomas Drake: Well, between those two dates a lot happened. I joined NSA in 2001 as a result of a special outside hiring program that was led by then director Michael Hayden, a director of NSA during the 2000 period. There had been a lot of pressure even in the late '90s. The NSA was growing increasingly irrelevant and having great difficulty keeping up with the challenges of the digital age, and a number of stakeholders, particularly Congress, began placing a lot of pressure on NSA to hire outsiders - people who had not grown up at NSA, had not been promoted at NSA, people who came from other parts of government but particular came from outside of government, even if they had government experience, but people that were not embedded, as they say, in the culture - and so about a dozen of us [were ultimately hired] after going through a formal application for jobs that had actually been advertised in a number of the leading newspapers across the United States.
... I had answered an ad in the Washington Post that had been placed in February 2001. Although it was not the position I applied for, I was offered a position reporting to the number three person at NSA, who was the director of the Signals Intelligence Directorate. We call it the SIGINT Director. I began late August within processing, and my first day actually reporting to my new job was 9/11. I actually had the title Senior Change Leader and was responsible for change leadership and communications. That is 2001.
I resigned in April 2008 because I had been placed under criminal investigation for allegedly causing great damage to the security of the United States and at the time I faced what ultimately led to an indictment that was handed down on me a couple of years later. That is the short version. There is a lot happened in between.
LS: As you left the NSA in 2008 what happened to you afterwards? I mean, among other things you're one of four individuals in the history of the United States who has been charged specifically with "willful retention" of "national defense information".
TD: Well, it's actually under US Criminal Code, Title 18 793e of the Espionage Act of 1917, which was actually passed into law to deal with spies, not whistleblowers. The first person charged for non-spy activities under the Espionage Act and that particular paragraph was Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame; I was the second whistleblower charged in like manner. There were/are a couple of others earlier who had been charged under the same title 18 statute. It had been quite rare in US history for an American to be charged with espionage for "mishandling national defense information". It is very unusual and it's one of the worst names you can paint an American with. You're actually placed into the same category as the real spies in US history, particular referring to the post-World War II era - the Alder James, Alger Hisses and Robert Hanssens of the world; it places you and paints you into a very dark corner and they have the label and moniker painted on you of espionage, [which] means that you've done something really, really bad, and at best you're a traitor and at worst you're an enemy of the state.
Now, this is 2008 and I had already been raided the previous fall by the FBI as part of a much larger national security investigation, a criminal league investigation, and I had become a target. I actually had become a target starting in 2006, and I knew that the nightmare had only begun. So, my entire career was gone, and I was going to have to deal with whatever the government was going to meet out in terms of its attempt to punish me severely, which meant the distinct possibility that ... an indictment will be handed down on me and that's precisely what happened a couple of years later. [To cut a] long story short, I ended up being indicted with a ten felony count [and] facing 35 years in prison. Five of the felony counts were for espionage, one was for obstruction of justice and four additional felony counts were for making false statements to FBI agents.
LS: What's the attitude of national intelligence community towards whistle-blowing in general?
TD: Let's just say whistle-blowing is not something that goes over too well, particularly in a national security arena. Even in terms of culture, whistle-blowing tends to have a negative connotation. You're considered a rat or a fink or a tattletale, and you're making the group and the institution look bad even if what you're blowing the whistle on reveals government wrong-doing and illegality or even embarrassment or threats to public safety and health, which is essentially the definition of whistle-blowing - it's all done in the public interest.
In the national security arena, you're supposed to keep the secrets, and although non-disclosure agreements that I had signed over a number of years obligated me to protect legitimately classified information, whistle-blowing in that security space was considered a violation, culturally a violation of the group norms that you remain silent even in the face of wrong-doing, and so it's fraught with peril but in particular under an Obama administration. Blowing the whistle in the national security arena has effectively become a criminal act that requires severe punishment, and it's become the norm that if you blow the whistle in the national security space then it's very likely that you will be threatened with or even charged with espionage.
As unusual as it was in terms of US history, my indictment under the Espionage Act was just the opening bell, and the number of people who followed [were] charged in like manner, and now it's become quite routine - I think we're up to eight now; eight cases in which the government has filed formal charges and also indictments ... in which the Espionage Act has a very prominent place in the felony counts.
LS: We have currently the whistle-blowing case of Edward Snowden; did you become involved in this?
TD: When you say involved, I didn't know Edward Snowden, you know he became quite prominent now as we go back almost six months, starting in the beginning of June of this year with the dramatic disclosures regarding the NSA and surveillance apparatus as well as other parts of the government and GCHQ et al. My involvement with Edward Snowden in terms of direct contact as a result of the Sam Adams Associates awarding him the 2013 Integrity and Intelligence Award, which I actually presented it to him along with Colleen Rowley, the first recipient of the award, and Jesselyn Radack, who had won the award with me a couple of years ago, and then one of the founders of Sam Adams Associates, Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst. We traveled to Russia in the beginning of October to present Edward Snowden with this award for what he had done in the public interest; so that's my involvement.
I consider him a fellow NSA whistleblower. He had well learnt the realities of my ordeal as well as others; you know, standing on my shoulders and recognize that he was bringing out critical information in the public interest regarding just how far the surveillance state had penetrated the very fabric of our society on an extraordinary, truly extraordinary scale. A scale that's never been seen in human history and makes even other regimes in terms of 20th century history look almost mild by comparison in terms of just the sheer breadth and scale and the global reach of the surveillance state.
Far, far beyond its mandated purpose under even the US Constitution to provide the common defense. It's important to note 9/11 truly was a trigger event, but the foundation for the nation security state actually began, for the United States, shortly after World War II with the National Security Act. It was the first time in US history that we ended up having essentially, you know, standing arms of standing intelligence agencies that were made permanent.
LS: Has Mr Snowden done in your view the right thing?
TD: Actually yes. If the discussions and the debate and conversation, the sustained debates and conversations are any proof of that we just have to look back over the last five-plus months. This is something that we never had regarding what's at stake for the sovereignty of individuals when you have such a surveillance apparatus involved and deeply embedded in so many aspects of society, and what does it mean for who we are as human beings in our culture. I well recognize that you know spying between nations and people is something that's quite part of the human experience and some have said it's the world's second-oldest profession, to put it that way.
So, keeping track of other people and or wanting to know what other people are up to is certainly part of our common human heritage, but this is truly, with advances in technology, something that people have warned about over the years. Whether you listen to the farewell address of Dwight D Eisenhower as he was leaving office, warning the nation in 1961 about the military industrial complex, or the severe abuses that people often forget about in terms of US history in which instruments of national power were actually turned on thousands of people within the United States during the '60s and '70s, culminating in all the revelations under the Nixon administration - history is not kind here at all.
So yes, I believe it was fully within the public interest and he knew that disclosing the extent of the surveillance state as it had metastasized over the intervening 12 years since 9/11 would put his life in extraordinary peril, and he had to escape the United States in order to have any chance of keeping his freedom let along making the disclosures he did to certain reporters and journalists.
LS: Are you satisfied with regards to the coverage of that ongoing story in Western mainstream media?
TD: I wouldn't say I'm satisfied if my own experience and others that I'm closely aligned with in this space - fellow whistleblowers and advocates and activists as well as other reporters and journalists - is any indication. ... The international press is actually and continues to take a far greater interest in terms of what's at stake and what this means to have such extraordinary surveillance, you know, penetrating every aspect, practically every aspect of our lives.
The United States mainstream media - although they are beginning to wake up regarding the extent of the surveillance state and what it means in the secrecy regime - have been quite muted, and still you see certain reporting journalists almost serving as apologists for the administration, arguing their case as it were on the pages of the main newspapers, whether it's online, digital or in print.
But what I am encouraged by is the fact that articles are continuing to discuss other revelations, the import of those regulations and what it means for the future and I think there is what I call the second and third order effects - meaning that there are now other reporters and investigative journalists who are now digging deep into other aspects of this even beyond the continuing disclosures from Edward Snowden and are discovering a number of other areas that are causing trouble in terms of just how far the United States have gone under the excuse and mantle of 9/11. Somehow in order to make us all feel safe, in order to secure the nation we essentially have to seize all information that we can get our hands on, whether it's directly, indirectly or through arrangements with companies because it's the zero-sum game.