Before Edward Snowden, there was Thomas Drake.
A former senior executive of the National Security Agency (NSA), Drake complained for years through official channels that the NSA program Trailblazer – developed to analyze data carried on communications networks – amounted to gross fraud costing taxpayers billions. Drake also maintained that the NSA, by using it, was conducting illegal and unconstitutional domestic surveillance in the aftermath of 9/11.
“The first commandment of the NSA is you do not violate the Fourth Amendment of Americans,” said Drake. “And we were.”
Drake told his story to an FIU audience Oct. 24 as part of the Government Accountability Project’s (GAP) American Whistleblower Tour: Essential Voices for Accountability. The GAP’s tour is a national campaign aimed at educating the public – particularly university students – about the phenomenon and practice of whistleblowing.
“Shortly after 9/11, I discovered the government had disengaged from the Constitution,” he told a room full of journalism and law students at the College of Business Complex. “If I remained silent, I would be complicit in a crime.”
Drake eventually spoke to a Baltimore Sun reporter anonymously, never releasing classified information. In response, the government alleged he mishandled documents and charged him with espionage – making Drake the fourth person in U.S. history who was not a spy to be prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917. With the exception of a misdemeanor for misusing a government computer, all charges were later dropped. At sentencing, the judge sharply criticized the Department of Justice’s handling of the case, calling it “unconscionable.”
At FIU, Drake was joined by Jesselyn Radack, GAP’s national security and human rights director. Radack herself was a whistleblower in the case of “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, the first high-profile terrorism prosecution following 9/11.
“The department called me a traitor, a turncoat and a terrorist sympathizer,” said Radack, who was an ethics advisor in the Department of Justice at the time. She maintains Lindh did not waive his right to an attorney as the federal prosecutor claimed.
Radack now works at GAP representing national security and intelligence community whistleblowers, including those from the Defense Department, Department of Homeland Security, NSA and CIA – with a special focus on torture, secret surveillance, secrecy and political discrimination.
GAP President Louis Clark said, “People do not blow the whistle in the workplace on obvious corruption because they think nothing will happen. This tour is about changing the perception of whistleblowers.”
Emily Comora, a student in a media law and ethics class in the School of Journalism, was surprised to hear the extent Drake and Radack were prosecuted. “It’s enlightening to know that there are people who are willing to risk their lives for the truth,” she said.
Luis Bolaños, a junior studying digital media, said this was a great opportunity for students to have an external view, to understand issues like the Snowden case and the anti-NSA rally held on Oct. 26. Drake and Radack, who are both the recipients of the Hugh Hefner First Amendment Award, were part of a delegation of whistleblowers that met earlier in October with Snowden in Russia to present him with the Sam Adams Award.
Bolaños, part of FIU student media, was particularly interested in Radack’s view on encryption. “All journalists, doctors and lawyers need to think about encrypting their communication with sources, patients and clients.
“I know a couple of encryption programs,” he continued. “I haven’t used them yet for source gathering, but I definitely plan to now.”