Thomas Drake's decision to blow the whistle was a matter of conscience, Constitution

Tuesday - 5/20/2014, 5:03am EDT

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Thomas Drake touched the third rail for an intelligence community employee in 2006 by going to the press with what he believed was broad and systemic fraud, waste and abuse. Drake fought the 10 felony count indictment brought by the Justice Department for more than a year, eventually pleading to a misdemeanor charge in 2012. Drake is one of the most famous whistleblowers in the post 9-11 era.

Executive Editor Jason Miller interviewed Drake about his experiences as a whistleblower and what other federal employees should learn from him as part of Federal News Radio's special report, Trust Redefined: Reconnecting Government and its Employees.

The following excerpts of their interview have been edited for clarity and length.

Federal News Radio: Are federal employees seen in a different way than they were 15-20-30-40 years ago? Not just because of your case but because of the environment of where things are now.

(Photo courtesy of Thomas Drake)

Thomas Drake: I well recognize very few people do what I do, but for those who do you pay an extraordinary high price. That high price is, in fact, punishment. It is a choice. It's a choice I made. I well knew what the risks were. Convicted by mental consciousness, I was not going to continue to remain silent having gone through all the channels, knowing that I had the choice fraught with perils to go to the press. But I knew in going to the press, it was more than violating administrative policy, but it could include accusations or allegations of criminal activity on the part of the government. But on the other hand, what do you do when your own government at very, very senior levels is in abject violation of the very oath that you took to support and defend, which was the idea of how to govern ourselves. Is your loyalty to the organization? Is your non-disclosure agreement, which involves what's actually classified, does that somehow trump the Constitution and First Amendment? Is secrecy, in this case the trust, even if it's misplaced where trust becomes loyalty and if you break loyalty, then you get punished, which is sort of like the Omerta pact? I don't think so because the primacy for me in all of this was the Constitution. Everybody fell under it. No one was above the law. I grew up in the 1970s as a very young teenager that the President himself was not immune from the Constitution and the rule of law. This has been severely eroded over the last number of decades.

FNR: When you look back from the very beginning of your time as a government contractor to when you said 'I have to blow the whistle and I know that was the end of my career,' have things changed that much? Or is the change because [convicted FBI spy] Robert Hanson or [convicted CIA spy] Aldrich Ames could only take so much paper out with them, but the digital age has brought so much major change?

TD: I actually think it's more of a culture, I say more of the toxicity that's engendered by institutions who now are largely immune from change themselves. They punish those who are going to hold up a mirror. So, I think it's very telling about this particular administration, beyond all others, has charged more Americans for espionage for non-spy activities than all other presidents combined. There only have been four that have been charged. [Daniel] Ellsberg [who made the Pentagon Papers public] was the first, there were two other cases and then there was me. I was the fourth. There only have been three previous of this type. What does this tell you? The government really is apoplectic about controlling information. Remember the technology you talk about where people have greater access to information or more ability, it works the other way as well. It gives the government the ability to monitor far beyond the wildest imagination of a [former FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover, for example. You have this interesting shift. We've had contractors from the very first years of the United States going back to even the Revolutionary War. But here you are increasingly outsourcing what you'd call core mission or inherently governmental functions are mostly being done by contractors. The actual work itself, less and less of it, is actually being done by someone with a government ID.

FNR: This administration tried to come in with the idea of insourcing, realized it wasn't going to work and they abandoned that fairly quickly because of the cost and the lack of support. Is there a way to fix this trust relationship? Is it too far gone in your opinion?

TD: My former agency is beyond reform. I believe that partly because internal efforts and external efforts — and some of these have been fairly significant — have largely resulted in little or no change at all. I just look at what's happening right now in the Congress with just the USA Freedom Act alone, extraordinary behind the scenes lobbying and influence to essentially neuter what was a very good bill and have lots of promise. Now it's just kind of a shell game of reforming out of control surveillance apparatus to the point where it will appear to satisfy some because it's something when it comes woefully short of really doing anything substantive. So, when you say is there any hope, this gets back to leadership, this gets back to culture, this gets back to even how Americans regard government. We sort of have a love-hate relationship with government. It's like we don't want them in our lives and yet they are more in our lives than ever. On the other hand, we give them wide berth to make that sausage, then when you have scandals, crises and corruption, then people tend to point fingers and blame government, when ultimately they have to look in the mirror and blame themselves because it is "We the People" in this country at the end of the day.

FNR: There is this "trust but verify" culture that is around, meaning, "Yeah, I'm going to hire you to do a job, and I'm going to trust you, but I'm going to verify that you will do everything you say you will do, and you are not going to steal stuff and you are not going to put documents on the Web," and they are adding to that culture of trust but verify.

TD: Actually, they are making it worse. I could even speak to [Edward] Snowden in this regard. People have said, "Yes, a fundamental systematic failure in terms of security." If you are in the secret world and you have a clearance that automatically is a continuing condition of employment, we have to continually trust you. One way to ensure that is to monitor everything you are doing. They have an incredibly robust — they use that word robust — insider threat program, and part of it is born out of fear, "Oh my gosh, who would be the next Snowden?" You've got incentives for people to turn each other in. If they think a fellow employee is up to no good or stays a little bit too late or appears to have put something in their purse or their briefcase or their pocket, how far do you go? Now you have employees turning against each other. For what? To save their skins and keep their jobs? Is that the kind of culture you want to create? I don't think so. If you go back to the causal factors here, you have incredible breaches of trust that are actually being committed willfully — these are acts of commission, not omission — by the highest levels of our government because what, Catch-22, we have the power and who's going to stop us now? Maybe the oath to the Constitution doesn't matter. That trust, even if you breach that, the only oath that matters is to your institution and just follow orders, and let others take care of you. As long as you are quiet and you don't raise any hassles, don't raise any dissent and don't question, then everything is OK. Well, what does that do? What does that do to who we are? What does that do to even the governance? That's not openness and transparency. Certainly in the secret world, it becomes more of an issue. You're right, if that trust is only maintained by assuming that everybody is suspicious and we have to monitor you all the time, extending not just as work but outside of work, well, I know from my own experience what that does to you, what it means when the government monitors you on a regular or even persistent basis.

FNR: If you could look back and do it all over again, knowing what you know now, would you still have gone through the same thing you went through? And would you tell other employees following their conscious is the highest, most important thing?

TD: Ultimately, it's our individual sovereignty that is far superior to any claimed sovereignty on the part of the state. That's the heart of a free and autonomous human being in partnership with others. In today's U.S. government, it's a dangerous act to blow the whistle and I'm simply exhibit No. 1. And yes, there are more whistleblowers coming forward and some you haven't even heard about yet as a result of just what's been occurring under the Obama administration now for the past five, going on six years, then even in the years prior. As people are confronted by their conscious, do they choose to remain silent or do they choose to speak out? Whether it's within the system or whether it ultimately results in [going outside] the system. Look, how you keep government in check, how you keep government accountable, if all the checks and balance aren't doing it and the government itself is retaliating against the very people who used even the proper channels, if you've exhausted all channels or if the channels are no longer available to you or if the channels themselves are basically exposure, not disclosure, channels, then you need to seriously consider what are the risks before you decide to touch the third rail and go to the press because that's the Fourth Estate, especially given what's transpired under Obama. You need to work with a whistleblower advocacy group to understand what those perils are, and if you are involved in national security, you might want to have a criminal defense attorney on retainer just in case.

Would I do it all over again? Yes. There's a couple of things I would have done differently. One of them, I never would have cooperated with the FBI because that cooperation over a five-month period, which was of my own choosing, I wasn't coerced into cooperating and they read me my Miranda rights, and they said, "Anything you say can and will be used against you," well it certainly was. But the reason I cooperated with them was to report high crimes and misdemeanors, and all the fraud, waste and abuse. But they didn't want to hear about that. They didn't want to hear about the direct threats to public safety. This was one of those things that sort of was glossed over in my own case, the government ultimately made us less secure, not more secure.

MORE FROM THE SPECIAL REPORT, TRUST REDEFINED:

Introduction: Can trust be rebuilt between feds and the government?

Whistleblower hotlines changing the way IGs respond to waste, fraud and abuse

Is hike in whistleblower claims a sign of progress or growing mistrust?

Agency budget squeeze eroding trust between employees, management

Are you violating the Hatch Act and you don't even know it?

Despite increased reporting of sexual assaults, DoD still struggles to tackle issue

Full special report coverage