WHISTLEBLOWERS — The Obama Administration is cracking down harder on leakers than did its predecessorin fact than any of its predecessors, reports Scott Shane in the New York Times.
Hired in 2001 by the National Security Agency to help it catch up with
the e-mail and cellphone revolution, Thomas A. Drake became convinced
that the governments eavesdroppers were squandering hundreds of
millions of dollars on failed programs while ignoring a promising
He took his concerns everywhere inside the secret world: to his bosses,
to the agencys inspector general, to the Defense Departments inspector
general and to the Congressional intelligence committees. But he felt
his message was not getting through.
So he contacted a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.
Today, because of that decision, Mr. Drake, 53, a veteran intelligence
bureaucrat who collected early computers, faces years in prison on 10
felony charges involving the mishandling of classified information and
obstruction of justice.
The indictment of Mr. Drake was the latest evidence that the Obama
administration is proving more aggressive than the Bush administration
in seeking to punish unauthorized leaks.
In 17 months in office, President Obama has already outdone every previous president in pursuing leak
prosecutions. His administration has taken actions that might have
provoked sharp political criticism for his predecessor, George W. Bush, who was often in public fights with the press.
Mr. Drake was charged in April; in May, an F.B.I. translator was sentenced to 20 months in
prison for providing classified documents to a blogger; this week, the
Pentagon confirmed the arrest of a 22-year-old Army intelligence analyst
suspected of passing a classified video of an American military
helicopter shooting Baghdad civilians to the Web site Wikileaks.org.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department has renewed a subpoena in a case
involving an alleged leak of classified information on a bungled attempt
to disrupt Iran's Nuclear Programthat was described in
State of War, a 2006 book by James Risen. The author is a reporter
for The New York Times. And several press disclosures since Mr. Obama
took office have been referred to the Justice Department for
investigation, officials said, though it is uncertain whether they will
result in criminal cases.
As secret programs proliferated after the 2001 terrorist attacks, Bush
administration officials, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, were outspoken in denouncing press disclosures about the C.I.A.'s secret prisons and brutal interrogation techniques, and the security
agencys eavesdropping inside the United States without warrants.
In fact, Mr. Drake initially drew the attention of investigators because
the government believed he might have been a source for the December
2005 article in The Times that revealed the wiretapping program.
Describing for the first time the scale of the Bush administrations
hunt for the sources of The Times article, former officials say 5
prosecutors and 25 F.B.I. agents were assigned to the case. The homes
of three other security agency employees and a Congressional aide were
searched before investigators raided Mr. Drakes suburban house in
November 2007. By then, a series of articles by Siobhan Gorman in The
Baltimore Sun had quoted N.S.A. insiders about the agencys
billion-dollar struggles to remake its lagging technology, and panicky
intelligence bosses spoke of a culture of leaking.
Though the inquiries began under President Bush, it has fallen to Mr.
Obama and his attorney general, Eric H.Holder, Jr., to decide whether to prosecute. They have shown no
hesitation, even though Mr. Drake is not accused of disclosing the
N.S.A.s most contentious program, that of eavesdropping without
The Drake case epitomizes the politically charged debate over secrecy
and democracy in a capital where the watchdog press is an institution
even older than the spy bureaucracy, and where every White House makes
its own calculated disclosures of classified information to reporters.
Steven Aftergood, head of the project on government secrecy at the Federation of
American Scientists, who has long tracked the uneasy commerce in
secrets between government officials and the press, said Mr. Drake might
have fallen afoul of a bipartisan sense in recent years that leaks have
gotten out of hand and need to be deterred. By several accounts, Mr.
Obama has been outraged by some leaks, too.
I think this administration, like every other administration, is driven
to distraction by leaking, Mr. Aftergood said. And Congress wants a
few scalps, too. On a bipartisan basis, they want these prosecutions to
Though he is charged under the Espionage Act, Mr. Drake appears to be a
classic whistle-blower whose goal was to strengthen the N.S.A.s ability
to catch terrorists, not undermine it. His alleged revelations to Ms.
Gorman focused not on the highly secret intelligence the security agency
gathers but on what he viewed as its mistaken decisions on costly
technology programs called Trailblazer, Turbulence and ThinThread.
The Baltimore Sun stories simply confirmed that the agency was ineptly
managed in some respects, said Matthew M. Aid, an intelligence
historian and author of The Secret Sentry, a history of the N.S.A.
Such revelations hardly damaged national security, Mr. Aid said.
Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project, a
nonprofit group that defends whistle-blowers, said the Espionage Act,
written in 1917 for the pursuit of spies, should not be used to punish
those who expose government missteps. What gets lost in the calculus is
that theres a huge public interest in the disclosure of waste, fraud
and abuse, Ms. Radack said. Hiding it behind alleged classification is
Yet the government asserts that Mr. Drake was brazen in mishandling and
sharing the classified information he had sworn to protect. He is
accused of taking secret N.S.A. reports home, setting up an encrypted
e-mail account to send tips to Ms. Gorman, collecting more data for her
from unwitting agency colleagues, and then obstructing justice by
deleting and shredding documents.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, author of Necessary Secrets, a book proposing
criminal penalties not just for leakers but for journalists who print
classified material, said that whatever his intentions, Mr. Drake must
The system is plagued by leaks, said Mr. Schoenfeld, a senior fellow
at the Hudson
Institute, a conservative research organization. When you catch
someone, you should make an example of them.
A spokesman for the Justice Department, Matthew A. Miller, said the
Drake case was not intended to deter government employees from reporting
problems. Whistle-blowers are the key to many, many department
investigations we dont retaliate against them, we encourage them,
Mr. Miller said. This indictment was brought on the merits, and nothing
Though Mr. Obama began his presidency with a pledge of transparency, his
aides have warned of a crackdown on leakers. In a November speech, the
top lawyer for the intelligence agencies, Robert S. Litt, decried
leaks of classified information that have caused specific and
identifiable losses of intelligence capabilities. He promised action
in the coming months.
Prosecutions like those of Mr. Drake; the F.B.I. translator, Shamai
Leibowitz; and potentially Specialist Bradley Manning, the Army
intelligence analyst, who has not yet been charged, have only a handful
of precedents in American history. Among them are the cases of Daniel
Ellsberg, a Defense Department consultant who gave the Pentagon
Papers to The Times in 1971, and Samuel L. Morison, a Navy analyst who
passed satellite photographs to Janes Defense Weekly in 1984.
Under President Bush, no one was convicted for disclosing secrets
directly to the press. But Lawrence A. Franklin, a Defense Department
official, served 10 months of home detention for sharing classified
information with officials of a pro-Israel lobbying group, and I.
Lewis Libby Jr., a top aide to Mr. Cheney, was convicted of perjury
for lying about his statements to journalists about an undercover C.I.A.
The F.B.I. has opened about a dozen investigations a year in recent
years of unauthorized disclosures of classified information, according
to a bureau accounting to Congress in 2007.
But most such inquiries are swiftly dropped, usually because hundreds of
government employees had access to the leaked information and
identifying the source seems impossible. Often even a determined hunt
fails to find the source, and agencies sometimes oppose prosecution for
fear that even more secrets will be disclosed at a trial.
By Justice Department rules, investigators may seek to question a
journalist about his sources only after exhausting other options and
with the approval of the attorney general. Subpoenas have been issued
for reporters roughly once a year over the last two decades, according
to Justice Department statistics, but such actions are invariably fought
by news organizations and spark political debate over the First
The reporter in the Drake case, Ms. Gorman, who now works at The Wall
Street Journal, was never contacted by the Justice Department, according
to two people briefed on the investigation. With Mr. Drakes own
statements to the F.B.I. in five initial months of cooperation, along
with his confiscated computers and documents, investigators believed
they could prove their case without her.
Prosecutors further simplified
their task by choosing to charge Mr. Drake not with transferring
classified material to Ms. Gorman but with a different part of the
espionage statute: illegal retention of classified information.
An Air Force veteran who drove an electric
car, Mr. Drake has long worked on the boundary between technology
and management. After years as an N.S.A. contractor, he was hired as an
employee and turned up for his first day of work on Sept. 11, 2001. His
title at the time hints at the baffling layers of N.S.A. bureaucracy,
with more than 30,000 employees at the Fort Meade, Md., headquarters
alone: Senior Change Leader/Chief, Change Leadership &
Communications Office, Signals Intelligence Directorate.
Chris Frappier, a close friend since high school in Vermont, described
Mr. Drake then as fascinated by technology and international affairs,
socially awkward, with an incredible sense of duty and honor.
When he read the indictment, said Mr. Frappier, now a legal investigator
in Vermont, he recognized his old friend.
Its just so Tom, Mr. Frappier said. He saw something he thought was
wrong, and he thought it had to be stopped.
According to two former intelligence officials, Mr. Drake became a
champion of ThinThread, a pilot technology program designed to filter
the flood of telephone, e-mail and Web traffic that the N.S.A. collects.
He believed it offered effective privacy protections for Americans,
But agency leaders rejected ThinThread and chose instead a rival program
called Trailblazer, which was later judged an expensive failure and
abandoned. Mr. Drake and some allies kept pressing the case for
ThinThread but were rebuffed, according to former agency officials.
It was a pretty sharp battle within the agency, said a former senior
intelligence official. The ThinThread guys were a very vocal minority.
One former N.S.A. consultant recalled alarmist memos and e-mails from
Mr. Drake, including one that declared of the agency: The place is
almost completely corrupted.
Mr. Drake, whom friends describe as a dogged, sometimes obsessive man,
took his complaints about ThinThread and other matters to a series of
internal watchdogs. He developed a close relationship with intelligence
committee staff members, including Diane S. Roark, who tracked the
security agency for the House Intelligence Committee. She discussed with
Mr. Drake the possibility of contacting Ms. Gorman, according to people
who know Ms. Roark.
The subsequent investigation, which included a search of Ms. Roarks
house, devastated Mr. Drake, his wife herself an N.S.A. contractor
and their teenage son.
For Tom Drake, a man who loves his country and has devoted most of his
life to serving it, this is particularly painful, said his lawyer,
James Wyda, the federal public defender for Maryland. We feel that the
government is wrong on both the facts alleged and the principles at
stake in such a prosecution.
Forced in 2008 out of his job at the National Defense University, where
the security agency had assigned him, Mr. Drake took a teaching job at
Strayer University. He lost that job after the indictment and now works
at an Apple computer store. He spends his evenings, friends say,
preparing his defense and pondering the problems of N.S.A., which still