- Truth-Telling Prize Recipient, 2011
- Truth-Telling Prize Recipient, 2011
The son of a World War II veteran, National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Thomas Drake is a product of his environment—one part Texas, one part small-town Vermont. Having grown up in the Lone Star State and the Green Mountain State and been educated during second and third grade in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Vermont and later living on a family farm, Drake was steeped in surroundings that communicated the values of self-sufficiency and independent judgment.
“The values of self-reliance and taking care of each other were doled out in equal measure,” Drake remembers. Vermont town meetings left a particularly strong impression on him as a young man. “Everyone had their say that day. It was your right to say your piece.”
Tom Drake has exercised his right to say his piece at great cost and consequence. He directly exposed the ethical, budgetary and acquisition shortcomings at the NSA — including a very large multi-billion dollar NSA program called “Trailblazer,” as well as massive fraud, waste and abuse, and the existence of legitimate and fully legal alternatives for vastly improving national security that had tragically been summarily dismissed and discounted and had weakened the government’s ability to properly defend the nation. He also raised grave and substantial concerns regarding decisions that were made to completely bypass the Constitution with respect to domestic electronic surveillance as a result of 9/11.
He now has the dubious distinction of being the fourth American indicted under the Espionage Act for allegedly mishandling classified information. Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg was the first person indicted under the very same section, 793(e), of the Espionage Act, as Drake.
Drake came of age during the Watergate era and the Church Committee’s inquiries into domestic abuse by U.S. intelligence agencies within the United States. Questions about power, privilege, secrecy, and security were central to his civics education in high school. After graduation, Drake headed west to see his country for himself, eventually volunteering to join the U.S. Air Force in 1979 in order to “serve my country, see the world, get an education and understand that part of our society.”
Identified early in his military career as someone with an aptitude for language and technology, he became a “cryptologic linguist” (someone who detects, identifies, and exploits foreign communications using signals equipment) and an aircrew member flying first on RC-135s and later as a Mission Crew Supervisor on an EC-130H electronic warfare airborne platform.
After nine years on active duty, he left the Air Force for a brief stint with the CIA as an all-source imagery analyst within their Directorate of Intelligence before joining the private sector with GTE, a large telecommunications company (now defunct), as a test engineer on “Minstrel,” — a huge NSA project that was later cancelled. Working on Minstrel left him with clear ideas about how not to manage a large-scale, complex and sensitive enterprise.
Employment at Booz Allen as a manager and as a principal with a couple of dot-com enterprises followed, while Drake also served as a reserve naval intelligence officer with the U.S. Navy at the Pentagon during the 1990s within their National Military Joint Intelligence Center.
A great deal of Drake’s private sector contract work was at the National Security Agency. While at the NSA he was the Quality Engineering Initiative lead on an innovative project called JACKPOT (now defunct) that was charged with bringing the best engineering and information technology organization and improvement practices from the private and public sectors to the agency. He applied for a senior executive level position at the NSA after seeing an unusual ad inthe Washington Post in February of 2001 seeking external candidates with “outside the box” thinking. That August the NSA hired him as a “Senior Change Leader.”
His first day on the job with NSA operations was September 11, 2001.
“This was the fourth time I took the oath to protect and defend the Constitution,” Drake recalls, “but this time as an empowered decision-maker. I went in with eyes wide open, knowing it was a very structured, change-resistant organization. But as it turned out, 9/11 was a trigger for change – and ended up moving the fine line between liberty and security way over to the security side of the equation and robbing us of our liberty while doing so in violation of the Constitution, yet doing so in the name of national security.”
Drake arrived to find an agency caught in a painful identity crisis on three fronts. There were profound ideological and evolutionary changes brought about by the end of the Cold War; the impact of accelerating digital technology and the mountains of data it could generate and compile and the struggle to make sense of it all; and the guilt and internal finger-pointing over what had gone so wrong that bright September morning. “The atmosphere was full of recrimination. The people at NSA took this failure personally, but many in senior management were in denial.”
In this fevered atmosphere, Drake soon found he was exposed to decisions that caused him truly grave concerns. Throughout his career in intelligence, Drake had always adhered to the limits that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) prescribed regarding the surveillance of U.S. citizens and U.S. Persons.
But in the days immediately following 9/11, Drake began to see FISA protections seriously and rapidly erode with no change in the existing law and statute that defined the exclusive means by which electronic surveillance of U.S. citizens/U.S. Persons was legally bound and conducted. “I remember the moment distinctly when I first raised a set of FISA-related concerns within NSA and was told, ‘It’s ok Tom, don’t worry about it… NSA is the Executive Agent for the White House on this program, and it’s all legal.’ That was when it really struck me that silence might grow into complicity with what I knew was illegal and fundamentally unconstitutional.”
Massive amounts of money were also being invested and poured into the largest program at the NSA that alarmed Drake: “Trailblazer,” which was designed to analyze communications data carried on computer networks and via cell phones or e-mail and which had become their flagship ‘transformation’ program. Within the NSA, Drake became aware of a different and revolutionary program called “ThinThread,” that had already proven itself in field trials well before 9/11. It would allow analysts to examine patterns of information in full context and gather critical intelligence that was reportable and actionable in real time, while doing so legally and constitutionally under the Fourth Amendment in full accord with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and in a completely accountable and auditable manner. ThinThread also had the added benefit of being far less expensive than Trailblazer. Drake believed that they were “stealing money from the very best of NSA and feeding it to the worst.”
It was during the fall of 2001, in the very days and weeks after 9/11, that Drake began to make his concerns known through official channels.
By January 2003, Drake’s concerns had made him a material witness for a Department of Defense Inspector General audit of the NSA’s problems and handling of requirements with Trailblazer and the alternative program ThinThread. He was most concerned that the NSA was irresponsibly investing in its programs, that massive fraud, waste and abuse was occurring with taxpayer monies and that the NSA had entered into a fateful choice to willfully bypass the Constitution and unleash its vast electronic surveillance powers domestically in a deliberately illegal and unconstitutional manner.
For more than two years, he actively cooperated with their investigation after they contacted him, offering his informed perspective while also providing them with thousands of pages of documents and information. The DoD IG published an interim classified report in late 2004 vindicating his concerns but no unclassified version was ever released publicly.
But actively reconsidering ThinThread represented a direct threat to the NSA’s ‘corporate solution’ and the vast amounts of money sunk into Trailblazer and related programs. That at most a 100 million dollar innovative program that actually worked and had begun on a shoestring budget of just a few million might be far more effective than the ‘corporate solution’ while also fundamentally protecting civil liberties, and meeting many of the most critical intelligence requirements facing the NSA in meeting the challenges of the Digital Age rather than a broken multi-billion dollar program, was a big problem.
In November 2005, Drake sent an email to the new head of the NSA, General Keith Alexander, hoping for a fresh hearing of his concerns. Drake had reason to hope. Alexander seemed to understand technology issues and had butted heads with the NSA’s previous leader, General Michael Hayden.
But Alexander’s response was that the NSA had chosen to go with a different solution and other approaches were no longer necessary and had been found wanting.
In early 2006, Thomas Drake found himself alienated within the NSA, given no resources or monies and unilaterally reassigned as a “Distributed Workforce Advocate,” which he likened to a make shift position designed to provide him no meaningful work. He then applied for a position and was accepted as the NSA Chair and Assistant Professor of Behavioral Science at the National Defense University within their Industrial College of the Armed Forces assigned to their Leadership and Information Strategies Department in August 2006.
“It was clear it didn’t matter whether you really solved anything, or developed solutions that actually met NSA’s most critical intelligence requirements in defense of the country because it only mattered that the money kept flowing,” said Drake.
After more than four years, Drake had formally raised his substantial concerns internally to all the designated authorities: to his bosses, the NSA Office of General Counsel, the NSA Inspector General, the Department of Defense Inspector General, and both the House and Senate congressional intelligence committees and as a material witness for two congressional 9/11 investigations. Thwarted, ignored, and punished for concerns he saw as paramount to the national interest, Drake finally went to the Baltimore Sun in 2006 with his qualms. Throughout that year and into 2007 a series of pieces were published in the Sun criticizing the NSA’s management of major projects, including one in May 2006 questioning the agency’s rejection of ThinThread.
Drake initially drew the attention of government investigators because they believed, incorrectly, that he might have been a source for James Risen’s and Eric Lichtblau’s December 16, 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning article in the New York Times that revealed publicly for the first time President Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program.
Their investigation uncovered the supposedly protected disclosures Drake had made long before he communicated with the Sun. On November 28, 2007, FBI agents entered Drake’s home with a sealed warrant and seized computers, photos, books and other materials. He was also recalled back to NSA from the National Defense University that very day and placed on administrative leave. He met with FBI agents several times over the course of 5 months. Drake voluntarily resigned from the NSA in April 2008 with no adverse action noted on his official personnel record.
“I did what I did because I am rooted in the faith that my duty was to the American people,” Drake explains. “I knew that you did not spy on Americans and that we were accountable for spending American taxpayer monies wisely and providing for the common defense with the best that was available.”
The ThinThread program was shut down and the program disbanded – after Congress mandated its deployment to directly support critical intelligence requirements in 2002.
Trailblazer became an expensive failure and never delivered on any of its promises. Thomas Drake has had his life turned inside out and upside down. He now works at an Apple store and is facing trial under the Espionage Act; the trial is scheduled to begin on June 13, 2011.