NSA, whistleblowing, and the national security meme: A talk with Thomas Drake

When Thomas Drake enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in the late seventies, he conducted airborne surveillance against the Stasi in East Berlin, and he’s served his country ever since. 

Nothing about that changed when his home was raided by federal agents in the fall of 2007.

As a member of the intelligence community, Drake committed the government’s worst sin: He revealed the truth about a covert program to the American public. But Drake, who beat the U.S. government’s attempt to prosecute him, happily tells the world what kind of sinner he is.

Before an over-capacity room at the recent HOPE X conference in Manhattan, Drake spoke passionately against the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance agenda and President Barack Obama’s unprecedented crackdown on government whistleblowers. A crowd of hackers, journalists and technologists anxiously filed into a medium-sized room on the 18th floor of the Hotel Pennsylvania and stood shoulder to shoulder to hear the whistleblower speak.

It was while addressing the hacker community that Drake seemed to be most at home. As he joked about the raid on his residence and the federal agents who found a cache of ancient pre-Internet hardware, the crowd erupted in laughter. Despite his decades of work for “the other guys,” it was clear that Drake was one of them. As he put it, he was coming out of the hacker closet.

To the crowd’s excitement, he also spoke out against the prosecutions of hackers Jeremy Hammond and Andrew “weev” Auernheimer, and journalist Barrett Brown—subjects of the upcoming documentary, The Hacker Wars. During the talk, filmmaker Vivien Weisman debuted several clips from the film, including a clip of Drake, in which he talked about the confluence of hacktivism and whistleblowing.

While employed as a senior official at the NSA, Drake was part of a small group of analysts who were reprimanded after voicing their opposition to a top secret program known as the Trailblazer Project. The heavily flawed and overpriced NSA initiative, overseen by then-Deputy Director William Black, Jr., was designed to track cellphone and email communications, as well as identify national security threats over the Internet. Black’s former employer, Science Applications International Corp (SAIC), was chosen as Trailblazer’s primary contractor. The $1.2 billion program, which Drake contends posed a deliberate threat to the privacy of law abiding Americans, is no longer operational.

Drake’s concerns about Trailblazer were reported to his superiors, congressional intelligence committees, and eventually the Pentagon’s inspector general, who later released a classified report agreeing with his assessment of the agency’s wasteful endeavor.

Despite this, Drake was convinced that his department’s actions had violated the Constitution, and he disclosed unclassified details about the program to a Baltimore Sun reporter. That he consciously refrained from disclosing classified material is likely the only reason he’s not serving a decades-long prison sentence.

At the direction of the U.S. Department of Justice, Drake was indicted under the Espionage Act of 1917—the same law used to convict Robert Hanssen, a former FBI agent who for 22 years sold top secret documents to Russian spies. But on the eve of Drake’s trial, the charges against him were dropped and he pleaded guilty instead to a single misdemeanor.

After criticizing the government’s tactics, a federal judge declined its request to impose a large fine. Still, Drake lost his job, his pension, and his ability to gain employment within the government he’d served faithfully for over 30 years.

Following Drake’s speech in New York, he sat down with the Daily Dot to talk about power, the price of freedom, and his former life as a U.S. spy:

You use the metaphor of a ‘Pandora’s box’ when talking about the expansion of state surveillance after 9/11. Mythologically, once the box was was opened, there was no way to stop evil from spreading over the Earth. Are you saying we’re fucked?

Thomas Drake: I wouldn’t be at HOPE X if I thought we were truly fucked. I would not be putting myself out in public, speaking as I am across the world, if I didn’t think there was hope. The long arc of history, to channel Martin Luther King, Jr., does bend toward justice. I think the long arc of history bends towards freedom and liberty.

Remember, the kind of power that we’re dealing with, this secret power, elite power, we’ve had this in human history for over a millennia. It does not yield willingly. When you’re faced with those who stand firm and center in history, and stand up to that kind of power, but also stand up for liberty and freedom, they don’t take too kindly to it.

That often means you pay a very high price. I was willing to sacrifice my entire life if necessary—meaning I could end up in prison for many, many decades—standing on that principle. What’s really at stake is fundamentally our sovereignty and that is something, I think, that people don’t yet fully appreciate. Most people don’t stand up.

Daniel Ellsberg was the first one charged under the Espionage Act for non-spying activities. When I was indicted, I knew I was behind several eight balls, and I knew that I would ultimately have to influence the court of public opinion. I just didn’t know how to do that at the time. And then Jesselyn Radack wrote this extraordinary op-ed in the Los Angeles Times and I realized, she got it. She actually got what was at stake. She had to introduce me to someone who had experienced what I was going through and there was only one person at that time.

Remember, this is before Manning was arrested. This is before Jeremy Hammond. This is before weev. This is before Barrett Brown. This is before any and all of the other whistleblowers that followed. The only person that could identify with what I was going through was Ellsberg.

So, the solution is more whistleblowers—to open up a Pandora’s box of our own, so to speak?

Drake: Yes. Ellsberg thought more people would come out and blow the whistle, because they knew the truth too. And he went through multiple channels for several years. He regrets, as I do in my own way—I realize, some of the circumstances were a little bit different. He regrets that he hadn’t come out sooner with what he knew about Vietnam, but he went to those who should know better to correct what was clearly a foreign policy failure.

So, the notion that you should just report abuse or fraud up the chain of command, and that will solve everything, is just a myth—there’s really no functioning mechanism there?

Drake: There’s another conversation to have about power… Anyone who dares to hold up the mirror and reflect it back, they’re gonna get burned. It’s power. They’re so addicted to that. They don’t want to give it up. And money. You’re talking about massive amounts of money being made by the ‘one percent.’ The ‘one percent’ is cashing in on this national security gig, big time. 

NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake interviewed at HOPE X

You mentioned earlier that the surveillance state relies heavily on corporate entities to perpetuate its “collect everything” agenda. Why don’t we see more whistleblowers coming forward in the private sector?

Drake: Yes, it has to have deep cooperating agreements with the Verizons, AT&Ts, ISPs, and others in the world. This is one of the other sides of this in terms of our own human condition. Most people don’t want to rock the boat.

Look, I’ll give you an example. Any number of people who I used to work with that are highly sympathetic and privately supported me. Obviously, they said, ‘I wouldn’t do what you did,’ but, one of the burdens I bear, of course, is that they won’t be seen with me. They will not be associated with me. They will not communicate with me. One of them was honest enough to admit, and I think he could tell, he said, ‘I just don’t have it in me like you. I have a family. I have a mortgage. I have a retirement. I have a job. If I did what you did, or if I’m seen with you, I jeopardize that.’

He jeopardizes his own security—really? How secure is his own security?

I had people who said, ‘What are you doing, Tom?’ My own lawyers were saying, ‘You’re destroying your family, and all the people who know and love you. Why would you do that?’ And I kept saying, what’s the price of liberty and freedom? Do you know how many people have given and sacrificed their lives? I look right at them—and some people get upset—and say, ‘You’re forgetting your own history.’

Is it really freedom if you can lose it just for telling the truth?

Drake: No. But if you’re willing to give it in order to ensure that the flame of freedom doesn’t go out, then it is. And that’s why people like myself are dangerous to the power regime, the elites. Extremely dangerous. Remember, they said I was an enemy of the state. They actually said that what I did was worse than spying, because at least with a spy, you give up the stuff in secret and no one knows about it in public.

You were in a senior position at the most powerful intelligence organization in the world. Does NSA actually believe that mass surveillance is designed solely to protect us, or—

Drake: That’s bullshit language. That’s why I say it’s a meme, that it’s done for ‘national security.’ That’s the cover. That’s the religion. Michael Hayden, after 9/11, became this mantra. We just need Americans to feel safe again. Don’t make them safe. Just make them feel safe.

I realize what it’s like, I used to work at the CIA. I used to work with satellite systems that were surveilling the world. It’s extraordinary technology.

We hear about the LOVEINT stuff, right? But it’s far beyond that. That’s the part that people can identify with. But, this is a virtual space and now they regard anybody that uses the Internet, or uses it to embarrass or expose, or to find out information that corporations or the government would rather the public not know about, well, then, you’re a weapon. You become a weapon. So, we have to neutralize you.

Without probable cause, did the NSA ever spy on newspapers or individual members of the press?

Drake: Yes. I knew that after 9/11. And also, knowing who they’re in contact with, as sources of information. They originally called the program First Fruits, which was targeted against journalists and reporters—or more importantly, the institutions, the actual media outlets, just to see if anybody revealed any state secrets.

You’ve said that the ultimate goal of collecting all our private information is social control. Can you give me an example?

Drake: My own example. Social control means I have the ability to track movement, I have the ability to locate people. … In my case, I had a secret indictment under the Bush administration, later under Obama, and they actually claimed that I was in a conspiracy with my colleagues and others. We’d met at a restaurant and by virtue of being at the same place at the same time, we were in a conspiracy against the United States. And they used that as proof. That criminal charge, conspiracy against the United States, was not ultimately in the indictment.

There’s been a number of experiments done. How much information could the government find out, if they actually wanted to know? And this is sort of the pre-crime—the Minority Report scenario—where all this information is just continually gathered. At any time, we can use it, for our own ends, which ultimately is about social control. If we decide we don’t like you, or if you go outside the algorithm, then you’re suspicious. You become a person of interest, or worse.

If America is, as you say, a surveillance state, is it our fault—as citizens, is there something we could have done to prevent this from happening?

Drake: Yes. Democracy dies behind closed doors. You can’t have secret societies composed of the elites. Occupy Wall Street, and other Occupy groups, got it. They actually got it. That’s why they were a threat. They were exposing the dark underbelly of our own society—that corporations are basically harvesting us for their own ends.

I use really strong language because people don’t get—there is no moral agency within institutions that are simply sucking people dry. We’re seeing the largest redistribution of wealth not only in the history of our country, but in the history of the world. It’s massive. In the end, what’s there left to take? It’s our sovereignty, because the only thing that remains is information about your subjects.

As JFK said, secrecy is repugnant—I’m paraphrasing—to an open and transparent society. And ultimately, it erodes it. It corrodes it. It contaminates it.

Photo by Joe Fionda | Remix by Jason Reed

Dell Cameron

Dell Cameron

Dell Cameron was a reporter at the Daily Dot who covered security and politics. In 2015, he revealed the existence of an American hacker on the U.S. government's terrorist watchlist. He is a co-author of the Sabu Files, an award-nominated investigation into the FBI's use of cyber-informants. He became a staff writer at Gizmodo in 2017.