National Security Agency whistleblower Thomas Drake delivered a speech at the National Press Club luncheon on March 15. He addressed the “long shadow of government secrecy” that increasingly “obscures the view of democracy in our constitutional republic or what’s left of it.”

Video of the entire speech given during the luncheon appears at the top of the post.

The speech focuses explicitly on free speech and the First Amendment. Drake was indicted under the Espionage Act and threatened with the potential of serving the rest of his life in prison for exposing fraud, waste, abuse and illegality related to warrantless wiretapping by the NSA. Drawing from experience, he declares:

The threats to the First Amendment by the government is bull’s eye-centered on a free unfettered press designed to suppress and repress speech and political expression in America, create fear through privilege and unilateral authority over what is fit or unfit for the First Amendment.

If speech becomes the instrument of crime when revealing government crime and wrongdoing, we are under arbitrary authoritarian rule and not the rule of law.

“I can make an argument that government increasingly prefers to operate in the shadows and finds the First Amendment a constraint on its activities,” Drake states. “And yet, taking off the veil of government secrecy has more often than not turned truth-tellers and whistleblowers into turncoats and traitors, who are then often criminally burned and blacklisted and broken by the government on the stake of national security.”

He reflects:

I knew too much truth and exposed government illegalities, fraud and abuse and was turned into a criminal for doing so. I was charged under the Espionage Act, faced many years in prison and became an enemy of the state. It was five years of living under the boot of the Surveillance State and yet I was saved by the First Amendment and the court of public opinion and the free press, including the strength and growing resiliency of the alternative media.

To communicate his view of the stark state of America, he poses the following questions:

Is the First Amendment becoming a casualty in an indefinite undeclared war where notions of a free press, public interest and informed citizenry get in the way of national security interests defined in secret?

In our wired and wireless world, what happens to anonymous speech and the press on the Internet when the government has a persistent dragnet surveillance system in place, the emergence of a virtual Orwellian state? Do we really want the government listening in on and tracking the lives of so many others? Have our constitutional freedoms become the latest victims of 9/11?

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Will national security replace our individual rights? Will fear take priority over freedom? Will government censorship and propaganda triumph over personal choice and disclosure, use suppression repression?

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If we starve liberty for the increasingly myopic sake of security, what will we have left to defend? What happens when the acid of secrecy and repression erode the very bedrock of the First Amendment? What happens when the sources of what is really happening in government increasingly choose not to speak to the press? What happens when we increasingly self-censor ourselves and the news is not fit to print because it invites undue government attention? How else will the press report the news when the sources dry up and the government becomes a primary purveyor of its own news?

Drake notes, “When there is no transparency, openness or public accountability for the deeds of government including secret surveillance, torture, kill lists, the AUMF (the cover to justify our foreign policy), abandonment of due process, FOIA redactions and delays, prosecutorial overreach and misconduct only invites further abuse, secret rule and unchecked power by our government.” He later adds, “What is more pernicious in terms of freedom of the press and an informed citizenry when the very sources are threatened with life in prison for simply telling the truth about the government?”

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I made a few clips of questions and answers he gave at the Press Club.

Would you advise someone at an intelligence agency to blow the whistle?

Drake answers, “Yes, but make sure you understand what you’re getting yourself into. Do not speak to the FBI and make sure you have a lawyer right from the start. If my case is any example, they’ll do anything they can to take everything you say and anything they can to justify charges that in my case were actually framed.”

Under what circumstances do you think classified information should be leaked?

“That’s a loaded question,” Drake immediately says. He does, however, answer it directly. “If it involves war crimes, if it involves wrongdoing, if it involves violation of statute, then yes.” He mentions the broken nature of the classification system when giving his answer.

What about the perception among employees in intelligence agencies that speaking to the press is a crime?

Drake addresses this question by recalling how he had to sign a secrecy agreement like most employees do. He adds, “I had individuals that I used to work with who assumed it was criminal under the US law to have any contact with a reporter. In fact, I was even asked that by Scott Pelley on “60 Minutes” a couple years ago.” It is not a crime. There are administrative rules that you could be accused of violating, but it is not supposed to be a crime where you are prosecuted as if you are a spy.

The above clips are some highlights. The full National Press Club luncheon event including the entire Q&A can be found here.