A whistleblower’s argument

Edward Snowden was not the first NSA official to sound the alarm. Thomas Drake, winner of the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence, makes his case to Free Speech Debate.

Thomas Drake argues that as a National Security Agency (NSA) official he took an oath to the US constitution, not to a secrecy agreement (00:20). This secrecy was narrowly defined as classified information. In 2008 he resigned as his security clearance was suspended and his house was raided by FBI agents (02:00). Drake provided significant amounts of information on the secret surveillance programme known as Stella Wind in the aftermath of 9/11, and revealed corruption and abuse at NSA. He approached someone from the Baltimore Sun in 2006, exercising his freedom of speech, guaranteed under the First Amendment of the US constitution, because he felt the information on wire-tapping was in the public interest (03:45). The secret surveillance practice also went against a superior directive called ThinThread , which provides full protection of the Fourth Amendment rights, and included the prime directive of the NSE since the 1960s – you do not spy on Americans without a warrant. Drake provided this information, which was used in a New York Times article, the publication of which triggered an extraordinary response (05:05). The NSA launched a massive criminal investigation looking for the sources for the article in which he got caught up (05:35).

Drake argues that there are definitely secrets worth keeping, such a nuclear secrets, troop movements, inscription codes. However, when there are secrets held by the government you need extensive oversight. The US government is prohibited from keeping illegal activities secret under a secrets act. Insiders are best suited to provide the information needed to expose such activities (10:30). The protections for whistleblowers are, however, not good enough, says Drake. (12:30)

9/11 became the justification for a range of activities that were largely conducted in secret, keeping the citizenry and media uninformed. It is even in times of national crisis such as the world wars, have NSA never excused themselves from oversight the way they are doing after 9/11. (14:50)

Drake went to all his bosses, raising his concerns about breaking the law, and asking them to go to Congress if the law needed to be changed to adjust to a new situation, but was turned down with the justification that Congress would say ‘no’ to what they were doing. For Drake, decisive in his decision was that he took an oath to keep Americans out of harms way, not to keep illegality a secret. (17:00)

As the one of very few whistleblowers under the Obama administration to remain unsanctioned, he emphasises the importance of due procedure. He was nonetheless branded an enemy of the state and charged with 10 counts that would have meant 35 years in prison. Only on the eve of his trial in 2011 were the charges dropped. On the other hand, those who participated in illegal actions have immunity. (20:10)

Wilileaks undermines the elite power structures, and so it is in the US Department of Justice interest to bring charges against Assange if they can. Assange’s need to be in political exile shows that it is dangerous to speak truth to power (23:00). Drake himself would have used Wikileaks had it been available in 2006. While he believes that it provides an important service, it also has dangers, such as being found out, as Bradley Manning experienced. Drake believes that when he was indited in 2010 the US government tried to set a precedent for an Official Secrets Act, which the US does not have (25:00). This also means the government would take control of the information, classified or not. This he constitutes a violation of fundamental rights of the First Amendment, and preventing an informed citizenry.

Even the story revealed by the New York Times in December 2005 was actually only part of the story, and the paper itself had chosen to withhold that information from the public for 14 months. (27:30)

Encroachments on speech are very real (28:30). Peter van Bergen of the US State Department was threatened for including a link to Wikileaks in his blog. The irony is that the internet was developed by the government and it now constitutes a threat to them (29:30). Within the NSA, there are now far fewer ways to speak out even within the system.

Technology made surveillance much more efficient (31:00). Making such vast amount of information available to governments without oversight Drake finds very daunting, and tells of his own experience of surveillance when he was under investigation (37:20). Drake describes the role of whistleblowers as the canaries in the constitutional coal mine (40:00). In times of national crisis there is a tendency to sacrifice liberties for security, but as Benjamin Franklin said: if you sacrifice one for the other, you lose both.

Thomas Drake, the 2011 winner of the award, blew the whistle on the US government’s Trailblazer programme, arguing that its wastefulness and invasions of privacy obligated him to exercise his constitutional rights.

Read more:


Comments (1)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. I have limited knowledge of this sort of thing; I’m just an ordinary person one could find anywhere. I am not particularly intelligent; I am also a bit of an odd type and eccentric. Perhaps the fact I’m odd and eccentric is the only important bit, so far as this comment goes. I think that a vast number of people don’t really know or care about this sort of issue; maybe they stop and glance at a report in some newspaper and then ‘move on’ and anyway most people believe the authorities are always fundamentally correct in all they do. They have their own lives to live and one way or another this concerns foreigners and strangers; tribalism comes into play in the balance of their thinking. I am the eccentric who does not join in with the group; excited about some silly football game on the TV in some pub, or wherever. I have joined the ‘do gooders’ and my campaigning often brings me to cross paths with the Whistle-blowers and others much sort after by various authorities. I have seen the problems of extreme criminality within the US Admin growing and developing for many years; but 9/11 was the big one, the excuse to do anything and all in the name of national security. Most people in Britain today are firstly very racist and devoutly believe a standard set of beliefs given to them by the press. Anyone who tries to convey any part of the problem tends to be greeted at best with a sneer of incredulity. Basically the people are controlled by the press, but in a complex way. I don’t know all of the secrets of government intelligence agencies; but generically and loosely specking I have known the basics of being spied upon for years. So I cannot understand how people like Edward Snowden could have broken any laws in any serious way. If I knew much about it for years (not fine technical detail) with little brains, no contacts and little money, it was not much of a secret. Others like Bradley Manning had exposed war crimes; and consequently became the subject of such, himself. The current situation in Syria is a quintessential example of why we need to maintain standards of ethics and integrity of government. Without any ethics and standards of decency the dispute within Syria could only descend into a battle to the death; it instantly became the only choice of action for all involved. My final comment is that there’s lot more scandal out there, they missed the real juicy bits; but we should be concerned with why this is so?

Leave a comment in any language

Read More

Swipe left to browse all of the highlights.

Do you agree with this principle?

Yes No


Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

The University of Oxford