Former NSA Executive Thomas A. Drake May Pay High Price For Media Leak
F or seven years, Thomas A. Drake was a senior executive at the nation’s largest intelligence organization with an ambition to change its insular culture. He had access to classified programs that purported to help the National Security Agency tackle its toughest challenges: exploiting the digital data revolution and countering terrorism.
Today, he wears a blue T-shirt and answers questions about iPhones at an Apple store in the Washington area. He is awaiting trial in a criminal media leak case that could send him to prison for 35 years. In his years at the NSA, Drake grew disillusioned, then indignant, about what he saw as waste, mismanagement and a willingness to compromise Americans’ privacy without enhancing security.
He first tried the sanctioned methods — going to his superiors, inspectors general, Congress. Finally, in frustration, he turned to the “nuclear option”: leaking to the media.
Drake, 53, may pay a high price for going nuclear. In April he was indicted, accused of mishandling classified information and obstructing justice. His supporters consider him a patriotic whistleblower targeted by an Obama administration bent on sealing leaks and on having something to show for an investigation that spans two presidencies. Many in the intelligence community, by contrast, view Drake as the overzealous one, an official who disregarded his oath to protect classified information so he could punish the agency for scrapping a program he favored.
It’s classic Washington: disgruntled officials sharing inside information with a reporter and an administration seeking to rein that practice in. Drake’s attorney maintains he broke no laws.
The case, whistleblower-rights advocates say, underscores how revealing abuses in the intelligence community is difficult because of the classified nature of programs and the lack of meaningful protections against retaliation.
An NSA spokeswoman declined to comment for this article, saying the agency cannot discuss an ongoing criminal case. Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller said: “We have consistently said that leaks and mishandling of classified information are matters that we take extremely seriously.”
Whether or not Drake “thought he had a solid argument,” he “made it in the wrong form,” a former NSA official said.
What led Drake to this point, friends and others say, is a belief that his actions were justified if they forced such a powerful and secretive agency to be held accountable.
“He tried to have his concerns heard and nobody really wanted to listen,” said Nina Ginsberg, an attorney representing a former Hill staffer who shared Drake’s concerns.
‘Champions of the little guy’
Drake, an avid player of three-dimensional-chess who flew on Air Force spy planes and once was a CIA analyst, began working at the NSA in 1989 as a contractor evaluating software. “He always seemed to have a new angle on something,” said Edward Miller, president of Software Research, and a friend of Drake’s since the mid-1990s. “He was bringing the best of what was in the outside world into the insular thinking of a large agency.”
In 2000, Drake met Diane Roark, a Republican staffer on the House Intelligence Committee who tracked the NSA. She held dim views about agency officials, especially concerning complex technical programs.
They were friends with shared values, Ginsberg said. “He was very concerned about waste and mismanagement and so was she.”
The two were impressed by a project called ThinThread, developed in the late ’90s to provide the NSA with a way to sift through the massive volume of digital data the agency could vacuum up, then discern patterns and key pieces of information that would be useful to analysts. Drake and Roark viewed themselves as “champions of the little guy,” said a former NSA official. “The bureaucracy was the bad thing and entrepreneurial grass-roots efforts were the right thing.”
The people behind ThinThread were the right thing: They included two career employees, William Binney, a mathematician, and J. Kirk Wiebe, a communications analyst. A key component of ThinThread was privacy protection. The program could collect domestic data but would “anonymize” names and other identifying information with encryption codes until evidence was gathered to justify a warrant so that names could be revealed. Inexpensive and designed for off-the-shelf hardware, ThinThread was estimated to cost in the millions, not billions.
But there was dispute about how much data the program could handle, and anonymized or not, collecting domestic data without a warrant is illegal, NSA lawyers advised. Michael V. Hayden, who was then the new NSA director, decided to center a major modernization effort on Trailblazer, a $1.2 billion program that essentially performed the same functions as ThinThread.
In 2001, Drake was promoted to senior executive, heading the office of change leadership and communications. His first day on the job happened to be Sept. 11: In the course of hours, al-Qaeda’s attack changed the national conversation about privacy. Suddenly the emphasis was on detecting plots rather than on trying to ensure that the agency never spy on Americans, even inadvertently.
Drake still believed in ThinThread, that it was needed now more than ever to help find terrorists. However, friends said he began to hear rumors that the agency was embarking on a program that would abandon constitutional safeguards against wiretapping of Americans and engage in data-mining that could raise suspicions about innocent Americans. He thought this was unnecessary because of ThinThread, they said.
Friends said he took his concerns to senior agency officials but got no results. Three former agency officials said they didn’t recall Drake raising any constitutional concerns, though one recalled that he pushed ThinThread. Roark, Binney and Wiebe shared Drake’s concerns. Friends said that the three tried to alert congressional leaders and that Roark wrote to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. They got no results. Roark also went to her boss, House intelligence Chairman Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), who referred her to Hayden. Hayden told her, “We’re proud of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”
Binney and Wiebe retired in October 2001, but the group of self-styled whistleblowers pressed on. In September 2002, Roark, Binney, Wiebe and a colleague — a former NSA technician — filed a complaint with the Defense Department’s inspector general. They charged that NSA ineptly sidelined ThinThread to pursue Trailblazer, a budget-padding program that cost 10 times as much and was less effective.
The four did not ask Drake to sign the complaint because they did not want him, as an NSA employee, to face retaliation, but they named him as a key source. For the next 2 1/2 years, Drake provided information to Defense investigators, friends said. That probe spawned two criminal fraud inquiries, they said. The inspector general’s office said it does not confirm or deny investigations.
Drake also testified before two congressional inquiries into the Sept. 11 attacks, detailing his concerns that NSA had information that could have helped prevent them and that it ignored programs such as ThinThread that could have turned up more clues and protected Americans’ privacy. But friends said he told them his input was not reflected in the final classified reports.
The still-classified inspector general report on ThinThread and Trailblazer was completed in December 2004. Drake saw no response to the findings from the Hill or the agency.
“What do you do when the established avenues are shut down?” a friend asked. “Just look the other way?”
A risk worth taking
Roark, friends said, suggested to Drake in November 2005 that he might contact Siobhan Gorman, a reporter who covered intelligence agencies for the Baltimore Sun.
A month later, the New York Times revealed that the NSA had been eavesdropping on Americans without court approval since shortly after 9/11. Drake, friends said, felt emboldened. Others who shared his concerns had gone to the media. He knew the risk — a leak investigation had already begun.
Still, he thought the risk was worth it, they said.
In February 2006, according to the government indictment, Drake e-mailed Gorman. He used Hushmail, a service that allowed him to keep his identity secret. For months, the two communicated via Hushmail, but Drake set conditions, including that Gorman would never use him as a single source. After a year, he showed up at her office and finally revealed who he was, friends said.
The government alleged, among other things, that Drake obtained classified documents from NSA networks that would be useful to Gorman’s articles and that he scanned and e-mailed to Gorman copies of classified documents, at least two of which he retained on his home computer. An attorney for Gorman declined to comment for this article.
Drake’s lawyer, public defender Jim Wyda, said the allegations are “wrong, both as a factual matter and because of the important principles diminished by such a prosecution.” He added: “Throughout, Tom Drake has tried as best he could to do the right thing in service of his country. His motives in this important matter are completely pure.”
Former NSA officials disagree. “What he did was unforgivable and clumsy, in my view,” said one, “and could only have been driven by hubris.”
Throughout 2006 and 2007, Gorman wrote a series of articles critical of NSA’s management of major programs, citing multiple sources. In May 2006, she produced a piece questioning NSA’s rejection of ThinThread, noting its rivalry with Trailblazer. The headline read: “NSA rejected system that sifted phone data legally; Dropping of privacy safeguards after 9/11, turf battles blamed.”
By then both projects were history: Hayden had acknowledged that Trailblazer was a failure and hundreds of millions over budget, an NSA inspector general report in 2003 concluded that it had been mismanaged, and Congress in 2003 had stripped the agency’s authority to handle major contracts. Former NSA officials say Trailblazer was not a total bust, that some elements survived and are still in use.
One government official said that the Sun article reflected “warring parties continuing their religious war” over the projects’ respective virtues, but that it was “probably a public service to have NSA embarrassed by these acquisition failures that otherwise, because they’re classified, get swept under the rug.”
No plea-bargaining with truth
In September 2006, the NSA transferred Drake to the National Defense University, where he taught a class on strategic leadership. Ten months later, on a Thursday morning in July 2007, teams of FBI agents descended simultaneously on the homes of Roark, Wiebe, Binney and the former analyst who also complained to the inspector general. In Binney’s case, a friend said, the agents came in with guns drawn. They hauled away boxes of documents, even taking the computers from renters in Roark’s basement in Stayton, Ore., where she had moved after retiring from the Hill.
On Nov. 28, 2007, shortly before 5:30 a.m., FBI agents knocked on Drake’s door in Glenwood, Md. His wife, an NSA contractor, was about to leave for work and to take their son to school. They took computers, photos, books on the NSA, materials for a dissertation he was finishing.
Drake met three times with federal investigators in what friends said he termed his “cooperative” period. He thought that he could make them see that crimes had been committed. Instead, in his final meeting with them, in April 2008, it became clear that the government believed that he was the one who had committed a crime. A prosecutor pressed him to plead guilty or go to prison, a friend recalled.
That month, Drake resigned from the NSA rather than be fired. He also hired a private attorney.
“I will never plea-bargain with the truth,” friends said he told them.
Throughout 2009, Drake’s attorney appealed to the prosecution to dismiss the case, arguing that Drake had violated no law. But in November, with a new prosecutor at the helm, it became clear that the case would move ahead.
That month, Drake ran into Seymour Hersh, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, in Bethesda. Drake, who knew of Hersh’s work uncovering the 1968 My Lai massacre, began talking to him and mentioned he was under investigation. He began sharing with Hersh what he had told congressional investigators years earlier, about the NSA’s pre-9/11 knowledge of al-Qaeda. The story, Hersh told journalists in Geneva in April, was “much more devastating, much more important” than what was reported in the Baltimore Sun. Neither man followed up with the other.
Around that time, Drake called a friend, who said he could feel “the fear . . . the dread, the forlornness” in Drake’s voice. “They’re after me,” he told the friend. “I can smell it.”
Staff writer Greg Miller and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.