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NSA Whistleblower Warns USC Students Of Government's Power

Jeremy Fuster |
April 8, 2014 | 4:03 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter



Thomas Drake visited USC to warn students that the NSA's surveillance practices "attacked the fundamentals of the Constitution" (Matt McClain/Getty Images)
Thomas Drake visited USC to warn students that the NSA's surveillance practices "attacked the fundamentals of the Constitution" (Matt McClain/Getty Images)
Thomas Drake turned to the small group of USC students gathered at the Annenberg School of Journalism, and spoke to them with a sense of great urgency. He told them the story of how the government turned on him, and his speech was filled with dire warnings:

"Any attempt to bring to light and to interest what happens inside the government in terms of national security is considered criminal conduct."

"What is at stake is the foundation of the American Republic."

"This is a direct assault on the foundational amendment of the Constitution."

In 2010, Drake, a former senior executive at the National Security Agency, was indicted for violating the Espionage Act of 1917. The indictment claimed that in 2005, Drake smuggled top-secret defense documents from the NSA headquarters for "unauthorized disclosure." These papers were sent to The Baltimore Sun, where they became the basis of a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles that exposed the extent and wastefulness of the NSA's surveillance practices, which since 9/11 has collected large amounts of communications data from U.S. citizens. 

Before going to the press, Drake, along with three fellow NSA officials, complained to their superiors about what the NSA was doing. They were largely ignored, and so Drake took his findings outside government walls. For his trouble, Drake was fired, interrogated, and stripped of his computer and documents during an armed FBI raid of his house before finally being indicted. 

Drake could have faced up to 35 years in prison, but in 2011, the government dropped all charges against him in exchange for him pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of misusing a government computer. He received a year's probation but no jail time. 

Now, in the wake of Edward Snowden's landmark leak of NSA documents, Drake has devoted himself to raising awareness of what measures the U.S. government has taken in the wake of national security. On Tuesday, he visited USC as part of the Government Accountability Project's American Whistleblower Tour, along with Snowden's attorney Jesselyn Radack and the famed leaker of the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg. He said that whistleblowers are being targeted more than ever under the Obama administration and that journalists' rights are being violated by officials who are demanding that they divulge their anonymous sources. 

"One of the other ways of extending the acronym of NSA is Never Say Anything," he said. "I went to supervisors, oversight committees, federal investigators about what I had seen. I blew the whistle on the violation of the Fourth Amendment. I was witness to major intelligence failures leading up to 9/11. It was a systemic failure to provide for the common defense, which is in the Preamble of the Constitution."

"The government has unchained itself from the Constitution, and I was told, 'You don't understand. It's all legal. The government has approved the surveillance program.' The history that I was experiencing now is making what happened in the 1970s look tame in comparison." 

Drake was referring to Ellsberg's release of the Pentagon Papers, which revealed that the U.S. had increased the scale of the Vietnam War while keeping it a secret from the American press and the public. It was considered the biggest leak of government documents in U.S. history until Snowden's leak, which has exposed a variety of surveillance tactics against U.S. citizens, world leaders, and foreign companies. Snowden is now wanted by the U.S. and is in refuge in Russia after previously staying in Hong Kong. Under the Obama administration, leakers like Snowden have become a top target. In fact, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has prosecuted more federal whistleblowers than all previous attorneys general combined. 

To Drake, this is a sign that the fundamental ideals of the U.S. are being attacked. He says that the oath he took when he became part of the NSA was to uphold those ideals, and he believes that they supercede any orders from his superiors. 

"During my investigation, I was told by the chief prosecutor, 'How would you like to spend the rest of your life in prison, Mr. Drake?' That should give you a sense of how serious the government was, how far they would go to protect one of their deepest secrets: the surveillance programs."

Drake will speak again on Tuesday night in front of a larger audience at USC during a panel about government surveillance, and if this brief speech was any indication, his message will be clear: the NSA's actions affect every American citizen, and the demand for accountability must be louder than ever as the surveillance policies are reviewed in Washington in the coming months and perhaps years.

"What's at stake is the ability to hold the government accountable to the people," he said with a rising voice. "If we lose the ability to expose government wrongdoing, we lose what defines us as Americans. The ability to assemble, the ability to speak freely, the ability to know what the government is doing in your name! If that isn't in the public interest, I don't know what isn't." 

"[Whistleblowers]are the early warning system. We are saying, 'Hey! Something isn't right here.' We are going astray, and that's what's at risk."

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