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'They retaliated'

Interview: Spencer KimballJanuary 29, 2014

Former NSA senior executive Thomas Drake blew the whistle on a failed surveillance program called Trailblazer. He tells DW that the US whistleblower laws failed to protect him from retaliation within the NSA.

Thomas Drake at a demonstration against NSA surveillance
Image: DW

DW: When you decided to blow the whistle on waste and abuse at the NSA, at that time what sort of procedures were you required to follow and to whom did you have to report?

Thomas Drake: They call them proper channels. Within an agency there are administrative procedures in which you can report to your chain of command; you can go to the inspector general, the office of the inspector general for the agency; or you can also go to the office of general counsel. Generally, in matters like this you go to the chain of command and/or the office of the inspector general. In my case, I went through every channel within the agency.

The huge elephant in the room is what happens if you happen to work in the Department of Defense / national security arena. That's where it's far more problematic.

At the time that your case was unfolding, the law was the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act. Under that law, what kind of protections were you afforded or were you supposed to be afforded?

There technically aren't any protections. When I went to Congress and also the Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General, [the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act] was the act that I invoked on a regular basis - every time I had formal communication with any officer, agent, investigator, or staffer.

By the way, this act also covered at the time both contractors and employees of parts of the intelligence community - it's important to note [that] it's not everybody because the military has its own inspector general chain of command; it has its own military whistleblower protection act, just to be very clear here.

The problem was they retaliated. I was reprised against severely within the proper channels, meaning I was identified as a troublemaker and there's a whole story behind that. But the fact remains, I was authorized to report through the proper channels but there was no protection per se against reprisal or the threat of reprisal, even though it's prohibited.

How could there be no protections under the act?

There's nothing in the act that actually protects you. I don't have cause of action - I can't go to the courts for redress. The only thing I was able to do, as it all came out later, was the office of the inspector general for the Department of Defense does have a reprisal unit. So I was able to file paper work with them, making the claim - with material evidence - that I had been reprised against. There's history on that, and they accepted that I was, but that has not resolved itself.

What were the consequences for you personally, subsequent to you using these channels to express your concerns?

It's kind of a death by a thousand cuts administratively and bureaucratically. They find ways to change your job; they find ways to cut back on your responsibilities. Long story short, I was flagged because I was cooperating with investigations, and then put on a black list. I was marked so to speak.

After stripping me of many responsibilities as a senior executive, they actually reorganized the entire engineering directorate and after they finished reorganizing it, I had no job left and I was given a paper title. So essentially, I was bereft of any responsibilities; all programs were removed from me; I no longer had any direct responsibilities within the directorate. So the handwriting was on the wall. That was the point at which I ended up making a fateful decision, but that gets into the other side of whistleblowing in terms of when you go public.

So this act identified you as a "troublemaker" to the NSA without affording you any protections. Is that just a flaw in the law, or is it intentionally designed that way?

I think there was an assumption even in the law, the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act, that you would not reprise against it and if you did at least there was an office or a mechanism by which you could say you were retaliated against. The problem was that there was no teeth to it.

That's the problem. Having said that, it's been recognized. There is the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act that was passed into law by President Obama a little over a year ago. He also sent out his PPD-19 (Presidential Policy Directive 19), which was ostensibly his way of covering the intelligence community. But there were no protections for contractors. Even the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act - guess what the huge glaring elephant-in-the-room cut out is? National security. So if you're designated as a national security employee, there is no protection.

President Obama has said there were other avenues available to a person like Snowden had he wanted to voice concerns about abuse at the NSA. Did Snowden have any alternatives?

He certainly learned the lessons well from my own case. Having spoken to him directly when I was in Russia, when we presented him with the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence Award, but in other interviews he has given, it is clear that he would have been totally exposed.

In fact, I dare say that if he had remained in the United States we may never have seen or heard anything about the rather dramatic or explosive disclosures that have been made since June. He had to escape the United States to have any hope of retaining his freedom let alone getting the information in the hands of designated reporters and journalists.

When you met Mr. Snowden, did you two share your experiences? Did you get any sense of whether Mr. Snowden tried to express his concerns internally before leaking this information to the press?

He gave oblique reference. He's actually gone into more detail in other interviews in which he did bring his concerns about the massive mass surveillance programs and it was clear, as he started to do so, that it was met with - "don't talk anymore," "don't worry about it," "look the other way."

In my own case, I had people who fully recognized what the government was up to, and recognized that it was wrong; they recognized that there were violations. They just chose not to say anything, because they didn't want to jeopardize their job.

Thomas A. Drake served as a senior executive at the National Security Agency (NSA) and is also a US Navy and Air Force veteran. After September 11, 2001, he became concerned with a NSA surveillance program called Trailblazer, which was designed to track Internet and cellular communications. Mr. Drake believed the project was too expensive, costing nearly $1 billion, and did not provide sufficient privacy protections for US citizens. After facing retaliation when he reported his concerns through the proper chain of command, he decided to go public, reaching out to the Baltimore Sun newspaper.

Drake was charged under the US Espionage Act and faced 35 years in prison. The federal government eventually dropped all the charges, in exchange for Drake agreeing to plead guilty to one misdemeanor count of misusing a NSA computer. He was sentenced to one year probation and 240 hours of community service.

Behind schedule and woefully over budget, the Trailblazer project was ultimately canceled.