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Pt. 2 Thomas Drake: Surrendering Civil Liberties Does Not Make America Safe

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. And welcome to part two of our discussion with Thomas Drake.

He is a former National Security Agency senior executive. He blew the whistle on multibillion-dollar fraud and a vast Fourth Amendment-violating secret surveillance and data mining program that he says fundamentally weakened national security and eroded civil liberties. He was charged under the Espionage Act by the Obama administration and faced 35 years in prison. The criminal case against him ultimately collapsed and the charges were dropped.

Thank you for joining us again, Mr. Drake.


NOOR: So, Mr. Drake, you won the Sam Adams Award in 2011, and this year’s Sam Adams Award has just been awarded to Edward Snowden, a man that you’ve said did an amazing act of civil disobedience. Can you tell us exactly why Edward Snowden is a whistleblower and why you support him? And talk about how your own personal journey affects your view of what Edward Snowden has done.

DRAKE: Well, I feel extraordinary kinship with Edward Snowden, and I consider him a fellow whistleblower. And he’s also an NSA whistleblower. It seems like there’s been a lot of whistleblowers from NSA over the past number of years in terms of just the numbers from NSA alone compared to some of the other parts of government.

You know, NSA is an organization, an intelligence agency with extraordinary power. And his disclosures to date–I believe there’s going to be many, many more, but his disclosures to date reveal a vast industrial-scale leviathan surveillance system, and it’s in every nook and cranny of our lives.

And, you know, General Hayden was right when over ten years ago he said that NSA needed to own the net. Well, I don’t think people realize what he truly meant by owning the net.

And so Edward Snowden has blown the whistle on what I fundamentally believe is the total violation of the Constitution in terms of people’s civil liberties and people’s privacy and their individual rights.

It doesn’t seem to matter what the constraints are. In fact, there are no constraints. Effectively you have an NSA that simply regards all data as suspect no matter what its source, whether it’s a citizen or whether it’s a bad guy or whether it’s a foreign national. It’s all–essentially becomes all the same to them, because, as I was told after 9/11, we just need the data, Mr. Drake.

And so he’s done an extraordinary service to the world in disclosing this, NSA’s secret surveillance program, as well as their relationships and agreements to acquire even more information or have access to even more information from other countries. In particular, what I find particularly egregious is information that involves individual citizens of other countries as well.

So I called it–I’ve called what he did a magnificent act–I think I said that in a different interview and in my own writings about all of this–a magnificent act of civil disobedience. But he is a whistleblower. He was exposed to information that in his mind he had a reasonable belief, based on his understanding of law and what NSA’s charter was, and its constraints rose to the level of violating the law.

In this case I’ll go even further, as well as he has, and say that it violates the Constitution. There is nothing in any of the legal regimes, as broad as they are, that authorize the government in secret without any public debate to have vast access, basically bulk data access and conduct the data mining against that information, bulk data access of just extraordinary amount of records on individuals. No suspicion, no cause, probable cause that they’ve done something wrong. They just want the data in case they need it. So you really have the inverse of the Fourth Amendment, where it’s seize first in secret and we’ll figure it out and search it all later.

NOOR: Now, Snowden’s critics have said that he should have gone through the proper channels. Based on your own experience of going through the proper channels, what do you make of such criticism?

DRAKE: Well, people don’t–they do not understand the history nor–I’m a prime example of what happens. I went through every channel that existed under the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act, which allowed contractors as well as government employees to go to Congress or the Department of Defense with what they suspected was government wrongdoing. The fact remains that my whistleblowing within NSA, as well as to Congress several times over two 9/11 congressional investigations, as well as a Department of Defense Office of Inspector General investigation all exposed me. In fact, I experienced severe retaliation and reprisal and retribution by virtue of having cooperated as a material witness with those other government agencies looking at NSA.

It’s clear that Edward Snowden well knew the plight of whistleblowers attempting to bring light to a very dark side of our government, the secret side of our government. And I believe if he had gone through the, quote-unquote, proper channels, he would have been stopped a long time ago and probably never would have had the opportunity to disclose in the public interest–remember, that’s the distinction; Whistleblowing’s in the public interest–to reporters and journalists in the manner that he did. He also knew–he knew that if he remained in the United States, that his ability to stay free was going to be very, very short-lived. And so in order to reserve at least his freedom as long as possible, he had to escape the country.

NOOR: So you were prosecuted by the Obama administration for your leaks and trying to–for you trying to speak out. The Obama administration has launched the “Insider Threat” program in October 2011, which was recently revealed by McClatchy newspapers. Can you talk about what your response is to this new revelation by McClatchy?

DRAKE: Yeah. I mean, this administration, I mean, it’s a war on truth-tellers and whistleblowers. The whistleblowers are fair game. There’s no protection for whistleblowing. The insider threat, whistleblowers are regarded as one of the primary threats. The administration wants to make sure they’re snuffed out. I mean, it’s–what can I say? I mean, it’s extraordinary what this–I mean, this administration has gone after more whistleblowers in terms of charging them and truth-tellers, charging them under the Espionage Act, the Espionage Act of all things, than all other administrations combined. I mean, it’s just an extraordinary development in our history. And clearly he, Obama and company, have no quarter for those who dare speak truth to or of power. And so they want to hammer him, hammer him good.

I mean, I personally faced 35 years in prison. When you’re facing page spending that much of the rest of your life in prison, you come to appreciate how precious those freedoms are. And I sit here in this interview with you as a free man. I can’t begin to tell you what freedom means, especially since I was able to keep my freedoms. So it obviously–I was deeply impacted. My life was completely destroyed. I’ve had to rebuild it.

And yet, you know, we have a government, apparently it holds itself exempt from the Constitution, holds itself exempt from oversight and public interest. You have this other side of government which I’ve said it’s the state religion of–you know, it’s–the state religion of the government is national security. And you don’t question it. You don’t speak ill will of it. And the last thing you do is hold up a mirror, because you hold up a mirror, you get criminalized.

I mean, you’re already seeing what’s happening. You know, the investigations of AP, the warrant that was signed by Attorney General Holder on James Rosen from Fox News where they actually were able to get a judge to sign off on a search warrant based on a probable cause affidavit that he was aiding and abetting in a conspiracy to omit a crime. And that crime was espionage. I mean, this is a war on journalism. This is a war on the First Amendment. And they’re using the Fourth to erode the First. And those are the two primary amendments in which this country had its first American Revolution.

NOOR: Now, Glenn Greenwald told Democracy Now! today that he spoke with Snowden on Saturday and Snowden reported that he is pleased his greatest fear did not come true, namely that his revelations would not prompt a national debate.

Now, Snowden came forward in spite of all the prosecutions, as you meant, the historic prosecutions of whistleblowers, including yourself. In your judgment, what do you think will be the most profound consequence of Snowden’s leaks?

DRAKE: I think it’s fundamentally his revelations. I think it’s the specific evidence that shows beyond any reasonable doubt–in fact, I believe it’s probable cause evidence that we have, you know, a state-sponsored agency in league with a number of other government agencies–and that main agency’s called NSA–involved in unconstitutional conduct against its own people and against the citizens and nations overseas. And I think that will be–history is not kind when it comes to surveillance states. History is not kind to democracies that decide in the claimed best interest of the public that they’re going to engage in lots of secret activities away from the public eye and away from public discussion/debate.

We’re now having the debate, that debate about liberty and security. We’re having that debate for the first time. It’s a debate we’ve never really had in this country. And that’s all because of Edward Snowden’s disclosures. The president himself looked forward to the debate, but his answer is to go after him with everything he’s got, including, you know, the force-down of the Bolivian–the president of Bolivia’s airplane–unprecedented that the United States would go that far just on simply an accusation that it was harboring Edward Snowden, when in fact that was not the truth.

NOOR: Polls released since Snowden’s revelations have been pretty mixed overall, with many Americans saying that despite the revelations, they trust Obama or that they feel this surveillance, even though it might be unconstitutional, it might violate the law, it’s still necessary to protect us, because America is under attack. There’s people that want to get us, and that this is necessary to keep us safe. Last question for you is: what would you tell people that make those arguments?

DRAKE: Well, wake up to history. I mean, it’s the boiling frog syndrome. I mean, how many of your rights are you going to give up for the sake of security? Benjamin Franklin said it best. You know, those who seek safety, you give up a little security for safety are going to lose both. That’s precisely what’s happening here.

I mean, I recognize the role of government. Remember, I used to work in the system. I fully recognize that there are threats. But you don’t have to turn all of your civil liberties over and erode them for the sake of security. It’s not necessary. And the very best of American ingenuity and innovation was all ready to go well before 9/11 to precisely take care of that. And, in fact, I would actually argue that the fundamental basis of our national security is not secrecy; it’s actually our own rights and liberties. That’s what’s worth defending. That’s what’s worth fighting for. That’s what’s worth standing up for. And that’s what I continue to do, you know, with my voice and my pen and in partnership and in cooperation with others.

A lot’s at stake here. There really is. And if history is any indication at all, if the ’70s were any indication at all, the government is not going to stop. It’s kind of the Catch-22. They’re going to say: who’s going to stop us now? And what are they going to do with all this information? I mean, this is incredible amounts of information being pulled together from all kinds of, you know, different providers, internet service providers, banks, credit card companies. You name it, the government is increasingly getting full access to all of it. What will they do with all that information in secret? That’s a fundamental question.

Is it really worth the price? We’ve spent trillions since 9/11 on, quote-unquote, national and homeland security. Is it really worth the price? I don’t think it is.

And so I fear for the constitutional republic and I fear for the future of our own democracy. You cannot have a secret government operating inside of the shell of the Constitution without something giving. And what’s giving is what it means to be an American. And what is giving is the heart of democracy. That’s what’s giving. And I think don’t think the price is worth it, I really don’t, especially when it was all unnecessary. We never had to go to the dark side after 9/11. We never had to institutionalize a secret court system like we have now, which is essentially a rubberstamp of what the government wants to do and wants to get away with. All unnecessary.

And I believe the government is suffering a pathological condition called hoarding. It simply wants to have all the data ’cause it never knows when it might need it again, it never knows when it might want to use it again. And so they just want it all.

And it’s really troubling in this–I mean, I never imagined that I would actually be in an interview with you back in the ’70s, as bad as the ’70s were. I never imagined that I would be facing 35 years of prison. In fact, at one point I was threatened with spending the rest of my life in prison if I didn’t cooperate with the government investigation. That’s not a democracy. That’s certainly not a republic. And it’s not the oath that I took four times in my government career to support and defend. What I didn’t imagine is that I took that oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. I didn’t realize that the primary enemy that I ultimately faced was domestic, and that would be my own government.

NOOR: Thomas Drake, thank you so much for joining us.

DRAKE: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me on your show.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Thomas Andrews Drake (born 1957) is a former senior official of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), decorated United States Air Force and United States Navy veteran, computer software expert, linguist, management and leadership specialist, and whistleblower. In 2010 the government alleged that he 'mishandled' documents, one of the few such Espionage Act cases in U.S. history. His defenders claim that he was instead being persecuted for challenging the Trailblazer Project.