Thomas Drake on life inside the National Security Agency and the price of truth telling
© Tony PowellThomas Drake
Thomas Drake, the whistle-blower whom the Obama administration tried and failed to prosecute for leaking information about waste, fraud and abuse at the National Security Agency, now works at an Apple store in Maryland. In an interview with Salon, Drake laughed about the time he confronted Attorney General Eric Holder at his store
while Holder perused the gadgetry on display with his security detail around him. When Drake started asking Holder questions about his case, America's chief law enforcement officer turned and fled the store.
But the humor drained away quickly from Drake's thin and tired face as he recounted his ordeal since 2010 when federal prosecutors charged him with violating the Espionage Act for retaining classified information they believed he would pass on to then Baltimore Sun
reporter Siobhan Gorman. While Drake never disclosed classified information, he did pass on unclassified information to Gorman revealing that the NSA had wasted billions of taxpayers' dollars on Trailblazer
, a contractor-heavy intelligence software program that failed to find terrorist threats in the tsunami of digital data the agency was sucking up globally - and sometimes unconstitutionally. While Trailblazer burned through cash, in the process enriching many NSA employees turned contractors, Drake found that another software program named ThinThread had already met the core requirements of a federal acquisition regulation that governed the proposed system at a sliver of the cost, all while protecting American civil liberties at the code level. The NSA leadership, however, had already bet their careers on Trailblazer. So Drake blew the whistle, first to Congress, then to the Department of Defense Inspector General's Office, and finally, and fatefully, to Gorman.
Last June, the government's case collapsed. On the eve of trial, all 10 counts were dropped
. In a Kafkaesque turn of events, Drake actually helped the government find a misdemeanor to charge him with - exceeding authorized use of an NSA computer - so federal prosecutors could save face. Once facing 35 years behind bars, Drake pled guilty to the misdemeanor charge and was sentenced to one year of probation and 240 hours of community service, what he sardonically calls "his penance."