Thomas Drake at National Press Club event, March 15, 2013

Following Pfc. Bradley Manning’s statement in court, NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake shares his reaction to the statement and thoughts on his case. He compares the case to the prosecution he went through for his disclosures and highlights how Manning had classic whistleblower motivations. 

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National Security Agency whistleblower Thomas Drake reacts to Bradley Manning’s statement, which he read in court on February 28, “I’ve said for some time now that Bradley Manning is a whistleblower. I put myself in his shoes, but the question becomes, “What would you do?” He chose a path that was fraught with significant peril and he knew it. But he chose it anyway as an act of conscience and to get the word out. People argued things that became public both alleged and, even more recently in light of the statement, that …go get another avenues. Not his job to hold up the mirror. He did.”

The whistleblower, who exposed fraud, waste, abuse and illegality involving a warrantless wiretapping program at the NSA, finds what Manning did was an “extraordinarily brave and courageous act. And all that other stuff, all the personal, all the psycho-babble in terms of cause and what could have led to it, where his head was at, all that is just so much distraction.”

The media has focused on how Manning was someone mentally unstable or how he is a gay person instead of how he is a whistleblower. Drake identifies with that. He says the government said all kinds of things about me that he has never revealed to the public.

You have to remember, when I was first raided, my raid was publicized on broadcast television. The media showed up about halfway through the raid,” Drake recounts. “[Agents] had the two big move-in trucks out on the road. And they were there for several hours. I remember there was an FBI spokesperson on the scene who was asked what was this all about and they wouldn’t say other than this was a national security investigation. It was under seal. And then all kinds of speculation for the next several days arose regarding, ‘Well, why would a dozen-plus FBI agents show up at a person’s house out in [the county where he lived]? And speculation began to run rampant. Oh, is it child pornography, some kind of abusive family. Or, there was all this speculation as to whether he’s selling secrets to the enemy.”

This was 2007. After the raid, Drake continues, “There was secret sealed indictment that was drafted and updated and re-drafted over the next couple of years. And then there was the indictment itself. The indictment itself paints this sordid tale of collaboration and apparently I was associating with others and I had this intent to disclose secrets and cause substantially grave damage—the highest level of damage to the national security.”

“Instead of focusing on the message, it was simply what would compel a person to do this absent the message,” he explains.” Similarly, in Manning’s case, “The focus becomes the person. The focus becomes the messenger. And so you just get painted and anything you can find that puts you in a negative light they will use because what it’s designed to do is question your integrity. It’s designed to question your motives. It’s actually designed to question your intentions. It’s actually designed to question fundamentally who you are and, if there’s any reason to suspect that you might be unstable or that you might be susceptible or that somehow you don’t fit the norm or that you’re outside the norm,” they seize upon it.

“All those things that actually say who we are as individuals get turned and twisted,” Drake adds. The government does not want whistleblowers revealing details on those in government engaged in crimes, wrongdoing or malfeasance. “So, by putting the focus on the person and ascribing characteristics, they caricaturize the person to avoid having to deal with the message.”

A whistleblower simply has to have, this is under US law, reasonable belief the government is engaged in illegality or wrongdoing – a reasonable belief that what he saw or what he was exposed to, eyewitness or brought to his attention experienced needs to be disclosed in the public interest particularly when something larger is at stake: public safety, public health, criminal abuse or wrongdoing,” Drake contends.

After his statement in court, “If there was any remaining doubt regarding his motives or intentions, they were fully dispelled in his statement. I mean, it’s crystal clear where he stood in regards to why he did what he did blowing the whistle.”

Drake explains that one of the main difference between his case and Manning’s (outside of the fact that he was prosecuted as a civilian and Manning is in the military) is that Manning faces this serious charge of “aiding the enemy.” Other than that, the charges are very similar because he was charged under the Espionage Act for disclosing what they claimed was “highly classified information” and argued he had an “intent to disclose it” that was punishable.

What in intelligence was considered “secret collateral” or “pretty low level” was what the information he released happened to be. If he was going to go through and just dump stuff he had access to, that is what he would have done, Drake says. But he did not do this.

Drake states that he pled guilty to a misdemeanor in the end so the prosecution would be over. He never acknowledged in any statement that he exceeded his authorized access on a computer. In Manning’s statement, he is acknowledging what he did. And the government, in Drake’s opinion, does not really care as much about the military code violations. They want to get him on the other more serious charges.

Manning went to the press first. Drake went to the press too, but the government criminalized his act, even though he was exercising his First Amendment rights as a US citizen

Like Manning, he was nervous when he was about to make the disclosure of information he knew to a reporter. He carefully weighed his options, he says.

“I had exhausted all the channels internally over many years and here yet again I was faced with, Do I go public?” he recalls. “Do I anonymously contact someone in the press to have published publicly that there was an alternative to the secret surveillance program that didn’t have to violate the Constitution and that the government had committed massive fraud on the US taxpayer?”

Drake continues, “I remember when I sent the first email that established anonymous contact with Siobhan Gorman. I mean, it was like okay, and I remember when I sent it that I could easily lose my job because at that moment I was having unauthorized contact with a reporter. I knew that and so that was an administrative violation and, if the government knew that given that a national security investigation had been launched a couple months earlier because of the New York Times article, I could easily be caught up in it.”

“The very fact of the information that I gave to the Baltimore Sun could be used to help target, narrow the field of who could know something about especially the secret surveillance program. I knew that,” Drake states.

It was quite sobering to pick up a newspaper in May 2006, Drake shares, and see there was front page story on ThinThread. “Yeah, that was the moment because it got published. It was the first time it had been publicly revealed – the existence of a program that NSA had chosen to reject completely aligned with the Fourth Amendment and NSA went the other route. They went the other route.”

“Remember, there are so few people who do what Ellsberg did. There are so few people.”

“The government they want to put Manning away,” Drake believes. “They really don’t have a choice in terms of their prosecution. They’ve gone so far now. They have to do their darnedest to make him an example.”

Drake does not call what Manning did “leaks.” He calls them “disclosures.” It’s the “intent.” “Leaks are political. He’s revealing the dark side of our foreign policy and all the corruption and crap that went on under the cover of war and how far we went afield.” The information was not for any kind of personal benefit or profit.

“He himself raised alarms with his own chain of command. And they told him to just ignore it.” Drake is referring to the discovery that the US military had handed over political opponents of the Iraq prime minister, who had written “anti-Iraqi” literature, to the Iraqi federal police for detention. They had committed no crime but were likely to be tortured.

“What’s so pristine about Manning’s actions,” Drake concludes, “is that he said, ‘You know what, the only way we’re going to get clarity on this, the only way we’re going to have any real discussion is you got to get the evidence out there. The evidence of what we’ve been doing,’—and so he did.”

One can admit he committed violations that merit punishment. At the same time, it is possible for the world to acknowledge he’s a whistleblower. And, it is also possible to note that what is really at stake here is the ability of government employees to make disclosures based on what they are seeing in their work and not lose their job for it.