You’ve probably heard of Wikileaks and its founder, Julian Assange. Maybe even Bradley Manning, the Army private and former intelligence officer who allegedly turned over thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks.
But chances are you don’t know the name Thomas Drake, a former Vermonter charged under the Espionage Act for mishandling classified information. His alleged crime? Drake blew the whistle on a wasteful surveillance program within the National Security Agency.
Drake grew up in southern Vermont, attended a one-room schoolhouse and later went to Burr and Burton Academy, where his father taught, in the early 1970s. His mother was the personal secretary for writer Pearl S. Buck when the author lived in Danby.
Drake, who now works at an Apple store in Greater DC, had “top-secret” clearance when he worked at the NSA, according to court records. He began work there as a contractor in 1989, after 10 years in the U.S. Air Force. Drake became a full-time NSA employee in August 2001. His first day on the job was September 11, 2001.
Drake was assigned to a secret surveillance detail that collected and reviewed millions of pieces of data — some of them personal — in search of suspected domestic terrorist activity.
Over time, Drake came to believe the program was a “budget sponge” used to pad the agency’s expenditures. He also believed some of the personal data collected likely violated protections against illegal search and seizure, court records indicate.
“In short, he believed that NSA was spending exponentially more for a system that flunked the ‘War on Terrorism,’ but passed a secret war on America’s constitution with flying colors,” reads “Whistleblower Witch Hunts,” a report issued last month by the Government Accountability Project (GAP), a group devoted to defending whistleblowers.
There were more secure, and less costly, options, Drake told his superiors. They ignored him. So, in early 2006 he took his story to a reporter at the Baltimore Sun. Siobhan Gorman wrote and published stories about the surveillance program over the course of 18 months.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation was not pleased. Determined to find the source of the Sun’s stories, agents raided Drake’s home in late 2007. He cooperated with federal investigators until April 2008, when Drake realized that he was a target of the probe and not just a witness. He then resigned from the NSA.
Only four people in U.S. history have been charged under the Espionage Act for mishandling classified information. The first was Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked “The Pentagon Papers” to the New York Times. The documents revealed the United States’ military strategy in Vietnam and helped turn the public against the war, triggering events that led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.
Ellsberg’s prosecution was overturned due to government misconduct. Drake may not be so lucky. If convicted, he could face up to 35 years in jail.
“Too often, whistleblowers end up choosing their conscience over their career, but in Mr. Drake’s case, speaking truth to power may cost him his very liberty,” said Jesselyn Radack, GAP’s homeland security director. Drake’s prosecution has also had a “chilling effect on national security and intelligence community whistleblowers,” she adds, “arguably the category of people you would most want to hear from if the government is torturing people or secretly surveilling its own citizens.”
Radack is hoping Congress will use the Drake case to push for stronger whistleblower protections.
“From what I can tell, he didn’t do this for himself or any grand cause,” said Chris Frappier, who attended Burr and Burton with Drake and is now an investigator at the public defender’s office in Burlington. “That’s very much like Tom. He always had a strong sense of wrong and right and of honor. Maybe he did the right thing, maybe he didn’t, but the consequences are horrific; they are disproportionately horrific.”
“I fear the storm ahead for him,” said Frappier. “Clearly, they are trying to send a chilling message, but it’s on the back of the wrong guy.”