“Your Entire Life Is Blown Up”

Thomas Drake, who disclosed information about NSA surveillance programs and paid a price, on what it’s like to be a government whistleblower.

Thomas Drake.
Thomas Drake in Berlin in July 2014. Adam Berry/Getty Images

Before Edward Snowden, and before the Ukraine whistleblowers, there was Thomas Drake. Shortly after 9/11—his first day on the job, by coincidence—the former National Security Agency senior executive shared his concerns about Trailblazer, a controversial surveillance program he felt was both wasteful and a violation of civil liberties, with the inspector generals of his own agency and the Defense Department, congressional staffers, and, when nothing came of those conversations, a reporter. In 2010, under Barack Obama’s administration, he was indicted under the Espionage Act, though most of the original charges against him were eventually dropped. Drake pleaded to a misdemeanor computer crime and was sentenced to probation and community service, with no jail time. Unable to find work in the intelligence community after the leak, Drake worked at a Washington-area Apple store.

I spoke with Drake, who is currently writing a book about the experience, about his time as a whistleblower, his concerns for the Ukraine whistleblower, and how the media has handled the latter’s case. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Joshua Keating: Given your own experiences, have you been thinking about what the whistleblower might be going through now, what their life is like at the moment?

Thomas Drake: All the time. I’ve had major flashbacks. Do I fear for his or her personal safety? Yes. You’ve got the president of the United States and others itching to just fully expose the whistleblower. So, their life is now different. The courage it takes to come forward, especially with something at such high stakes involving the president of the United States… we’re seeing precisely what happens.

I mean, I can tell you in my case, what I found out later [was] that Dick Cheney issued the edict. He said, “Find and fry the leaker or leakers. Don’t just find. Burn them. We’ve got to make an example.” And that’s precisely what happened. There were congresspersons who were actually calling me a traitor, a couple of them actually were looking forward to seeing me in prison, in an orange jumpsuit. I was facing 35 years in prison, and the prosecutors were saying that I was worse than a spy. Sound familiar? So yeah, it becomes a nightmare. Your entire life is blown up.

What in particular worries you about this person’s safety?

Certain elements of the government are doing everything they can to paint this person into a corner, and they’re going to do everything they can to suss them out, and stick a fork in whoever it is. The fact that Trump and company and DOJ are responding in such an extraordinary manner tells you the level at which no doubt those disclosures came so close to home, that they are on target. Just like mine were. I’ve said before, the degree at which the government responds to a whistleblower complaint is the degree to which the whistleblower, in terms of their disclosures, are accurate.

The New York Times has gotten some criticism for an article that included details about the whistleblower’s work, notably what agency the person worked at. What did you think of that article and the media reporting on this case in general?

They should not have even indicated the agency at all. I mean, it’s just unconscionable. Because whether or not the White House has already been tipped off, it really doesn’t matter. The fact that it ends up in the press just makes the protection of the whistleblower even more challenging. I vehemently disagree with their decision to publish that.

I know what it’s like. I remember after I was indicted, for quite a while no reporter would reveal where I worked or where I lived. But the problem was once the indictment was handed out, it was hard not to. I had many people coming into the [Apple] store or accosting me as I walked out of the store.

It just makes the life of the whistleblower that much more difficult, and it puts the attention on the person, on the messenger not the message.

Do you think public opinion on whistleblowing has changed?

In my case, the tide turned. Mainstream media took a long time to come around. I mean, it’s interesting, the love/hate relationship that Americans have at large for whistleblowers. I was vile. I must have done something really, really bad, right? Daniel Ellsberg, he was declared the most dangerous man in America by Henry Kissinger, for what he did. And yet he’s now considered a patriot, right? Now, the politics here are different, because you have President Trump.

Your case is often held up as an emblematic example of the Obama administration’s crackdown on whistleblowers. How has the approach changed between Obama and Trump?

Trump’s just taken it to the next level. At the time, people thought, “Obama’s a good guy, maybe he just felt vulnerable when it came to security.” It turned out he took personal umbrage to leaks, even if the leaks or the whistleblowing happened under Bush. I remember that speech he gave at the National Archives, with the founding documents of the country behind him. [In 2009, Obama spoke at the National Archives, pledging to review classification procedures and apply a higher standard for secrecy.] It was an extraordinary speech, very eloquent. He always gave great speeches. And yet, he charged more people under the espionage doctrine than all other previous presidents combined.

I was a signature case, but then they just kept indicting people, especially in that year or two after I was indicted. It was extraordinary. We got WikiLeaks. Then Snowden came along a few years later. So then, I’m a poster child along with Snowden as an insider threat. You see what happens, right? The whistleblower becomes the threat. The whistleblower becomes the target.

And so, Obama handed all that off to Trump. Jeff Sessions launched dozens of criminal leak investigations. You’ve got Reality Winner. You got Daniel Hale. They actually went back to the last administration, just like Obama did. I was not indicted under Bush. Daniel Hale, the drone whistleblower, was not indicted under Obama. He’s now been indicted under Trump, and they’re throwing everything they can at him. It’s an active case.

That’s part of the post 9/11 legacy, and the trend lines aren’t good.

It’s been reported that the whistleblower had approached a House Intelligence Committee member about his concerns before filing a formal complaint. The president has used this to argue that Adam Schiff, the chairman of the committee, helped concoct the formal complaint. But is what the whistleblower did at all unusual?

Not at all. [Staffers are] the eyes and ears of the committee. In my own case, I actually approached a staffer myself regarding what eventually was the formal approach to the intel committees under the Intelligence [Community] Whistleblower Protection Act. So, it’s not unusual at all. Especially when you’re talking about highly sensitive matters. I was blowing the whistle on the state secret of mass domestic surveillance. It was extraordinarily protected information. These were decisions that were coming out of the White House. It had to be done very, very carefully, and I did not have a lawyer representing me. I didn’t need a lawyer, per se, I was just following the channels that existed.

So, what’s the solution for protecting whistleblowers?

If the process is corrupt, if the process ends up not working, then the only remedy is legislative action, which means there’s got to be a penalty for retaliating against a whistleblower for bringing forward, based on reasonable belief that there’s a violation of law, wrongdoing, threats to public safety or health, abuse, fraud, waste. Those are the classic categories for whistleblowing, especially in the government.

Apparently, arrangements are to be made for the whistleblower to go on the record with the committee. But wow, with Trump breathing down this person’s neck, and all that Trump is saying, I really worry and am extremely concerned about the personal well-being of this brave whistleblower. Their name will eventually come out. Probably sooner, not later. It’s going to take extraordinary discipline, not just on the part of the lawyers, but even on the press, not to disclose this person’s name. And unfortunately, there’s nothing to prevent Trump or one of them just leaking it anyways.

I stood up against abuse of power under the Bush administration. But it was all done in secret. This is playing itself out in an extraordinarily public forum, through his tweets. I mean, we didn’t have Twitter when I blew the whistle.

Do you have any advice for this person, then?

Stay strong. Know that others have come before you, and this is for history. And do everything you can to protect yourself. But life will never be the same. You can’t go back to a life before you blew the whistle. I am the first to tell you that.