Thomas Drake Faces Espionage Charges

Guest

Jane Mayer, staff writer, The New Yorker

Former NSA executive Thomas Drake stands accused of being an enemy of the state and faces charges related to espionage and revealing secret government information. Drake claims he is a whistle-blower who followed the rules and that the government is out for revenge, not justice.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Former National Security Agency senior executive Thomas Drake goes to trial next month, charged with crimes under the Espionage Act. The government charges that he smuggled top-secret documents from his office to leak information to a reporter.

Drake says he just blew the whistle on waste, fraud and abuse and on unconstitutional government wiretaps. The government, he says, is out for revenge, not justice.

In the current issue of The New Yorker, staff writer Jane Mayer reports on Thomas Drake, the National Security Agency and on President Obama's pursuit of leakers in a piece titled "The Secret Sharer." There's a link to it at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Jane Mayer joins us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

Ms. JANE MAYER (Staff Writer, The New Yorker): Great to be with you.

CONAN: And you sat down with Thomas Drake and got his side of the story. And while he admits to doing a very important thing that the agent says he did, to take some documents home and provide them to a reporter.

Ms. MAYER: Well, he does and he doesn't. This was the first time he's actually spoken up about his side of the story, and the government has charged him with taking five classified documents home. Three of them were in his basement boxes of stuff from his office that he didn't know were there, he says. So he does not say he willfully took those home. Two others were in his email, and of those, he says that he knew about them, and he did not think that they were classified.

CONAN: So...

Ms. MAYER: So it's kind of - he actually disputes the charges against him, and mostly what he was trying to speak up about is this whole backstory that I don't think had been told before...

CONAN: And...

Ms. MAYER: ...about who he is and what he was up to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But he did leak information to a reporter.

Ms. MAYER: He definitely did. And he fancies himself to be a whistleblower who was trying to bust the - maybe the most secretive part of the intelligence apparatus in the United States - the National Security Agency - for wasting nearly $2 billion, in his view, and also for spying illegally on American citizens, in his view.

CONAN: And just to remind people who don't know very much about the National Security Agency, you have to work a little to know a little bit about the National Security Agency. It was until not so very long ago a black program altogether, totally secret. The letters were said to stand for no such agency, and it's about three times the size of the Central Intelligence Agency. The electric bill at Fort Meade, where it's based in Maryland, you report is said to surpass $70 million a year.

Ms. MAYER: It's an amazing place. And in a, you know, a time when we are used to superlatives about what computers can do, there are few more superlative than the computers over at the National Security Agency, just tremendously powerful abilities to data mine and sort of suck information out of the air and download it to analysts there.

CONAN: In - just to give some context, in talking about the search for bin Laden, everyone says, well, of course, he had to communicate through couriers because if he'd ever gotten on the Internet or send an email message, we would know about it, or if he'd made a phone call.

Ms. MAYER: Well, it's absolutely true. And one of the things that I tried to do in the story, at least to me, it was something of a revelation that I wanted to share with readers, was to explain what the powers of the NSA are at this point. I mean, it's mostly top-secret programs that none of us really know about.

But one of the things that I came across in reporting this story was a mathematician, who's retired now from the NSA, who spoke up for the first time about the software program he helped develop that helps spy on, as he says, the whole world...

CONAN: This is...

Ms. MAYER: ...and he talks about what it entails. And to me, it was pretty mindboggling because what he believes - and it's very hard for anyone to check this - but he believes that the U.S. government is - has the capability to download and copy and store all emails in America, not just in the rest of the world where the NSA is, as we knew was focusing itself on foreign countries, but within the United States, he says, that the NSA can download all the email.

CONAN: Not just bin Laden's shopping list, you're mother-in-law's shopping list.

Ms. MAYER: Really. It's maybe more information than most people need. And that actually has been the biggest problem for the U.S. government, is there has been an overload of data that end. So partly, what this was about this mathematician who's name is Bill Binney, developed a programmed that was to try to streamline and separate out what the government really wants to know from the garbage it wants to throw out.

CONAN: This is a program called ThinThread. And what it did, according to Bill Binney, was it processed this information as it was being taken in. So it reduced the problem of being just overwhelmed with information that nobody could get around to processing. The situation that people saw after 9/11, that after the attacks in New York and Washington and the plane crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after that people said, oh, wait a minute. There were some electronic intercepts we had that says zero hour is tomorrow.

Ms. MAYER: Right. So it was tragic. I mean, the day after those attacks, they went back and looked and they could find that they had information that might have help tipped them off the day before. And God knows what else they missed even in, you know, the months and years before that. And so they had been working hard to try to isolate what really is helpful intelligence, and this ThinThread program helped them do it.

But it's remarkable to me. It's not just that it goes through email. And the -what it does is it - they look for data of so many different kinds: your financial transactions, GPS material from your cell phone, travel records, all kinds of things where - and when you - when it's automatically put together, it forms a kind of a picture of you.

CONAN: And you write pilot tests of ThinThread proved almost too successful, according to a former intelligence expert who analyzed it. It was nearly perfect, the official says, but it processed such a large amount of data that it picked more Americans than the other systems.

And, of course, picking up the communications among and between Americans is -that's against the law unless you've got a very special warrant.

Ms. MAYER: That's right. And so they - so this mathematician, Bill Binney, helped develop this program which they could have used but decided not to before 9/11, because they thought it was too invasive of American's privacy. For - mostly for legal reasons, they shelved it.

And then, what the story goes on to say is, after 9/11, the whole world looked different from - when - inside the NSA. And they went ahead and took parts of this software program and they did authorize it. And they put it into place to spy on the U.S. as well as other parts of the world.

And so the story, again - to get back to Thomas Drake, the man who's going to be on trial - is that he was, to some extent - he was outraged by this and so were some of the others who worked in this program, because they understood it and they thought that Americans were being spied on in a way that was really unconstitutional and potentially a political tool that could be used for - in harmful ways in America.

CONAN: They thought it was - well, the comparisons they drew were to Richard Nixon, who, as people remembered, kept and enemies list and was not above using American intelligence services to spy on his enemies.

Ms. MAYER: Right. Drake, at one point says to me, you know, I felt I had to say something. We were making Richard Nixon look like the - the Nixon administration look like pikers.

CONAN: Now, there is another side to this story, and not just the government accusations. There was a rival program called Trailblazer, and some that you talked to - and, obviously, getting people on the record to talk and getting names and such at the NSA, this is difficult - but some of the people you talked to said, wait a minute. These guys, including Thomas Drake, were essentially the backers of one program called ThinThread and there was this other program called Trailblazer that got the money and the resources. They decided to go with that. And these guys were, well, very disappointed that their program was set to one side and this other program got the money. And they are just disgruntled people who were trying to discredit this other program.

Ms. MAYER: Sort of bitter losers. That has been, to some extent, the line that's been used by NSA officials on background - in other stories that's been written about all of this.

In one sense, it doesn't make a lot of sense, because Tom Drake, who is on trial, was not actually part of the ThinThread program development. He just was championing it because he thought it was a good program. But he wasn't involved in developing it or inventing it or anything like that. So I'm not sure really why he would want to go to jail for a program that he wasn't even part of necessarily.

But he did think that one program worked and protected the privacy of Americans and the other was a boondoggle for friends of the people who ran the NSA, and that was the one that they backed. And it ended up - and this is not disputed. It ended up losing nearly $2 billion and producing nothing.

So - and also, I think more to the point, what worried these people that the disgruntled people in this story, interestingly, are all relatively conservative Republicans and what - and they believe in strong national defense. And they felt that the NSA was going down the path that was not smart in terms of protecting the country.

CONAN: And in terms of protecting the rights of its citizens.

Ms. MAYER: Well, especially that. And so you get these people speaking out in the story for the first time. They were kind of fascinating people to me. One of them is a woman named Diane Roark, who worked in Congress where she was the overseer on the House Intelligence Committee, who oversaw the NSA. And she finally spoke out in this piece about it and she was just incredibly upset with what she thought was an unconstitutional program. And she thought it was her job to try to stop it, because the oversight committee existed after Watergate to stop abuses of domestic spying and things like that. And so she tried and she confronted, actually, General Michael Hayden, who was the director of the NSA at the time. And there was this amazing showdown that I describe in the story.

CONAN: General Hayden, I guess, responded to some questions, but have seemed to have, well, he came away with a different impression of it.

Ms. MAYER: Somewhat, yeah. I mean, he said he - I mean, he did confirm that there was this showdown. He said he only remembered the broad outlines of it, and he mostly said that the had warned Diane Roark, this congressional overseer, that everything was top secret and she better basically keep her mouth shut.

CONAN: We're talking with Jane Mayer of The New Yorker Magazine. Her current article, "The Secret Sharer" is in the issues of the magazine that are on stands now. Or you can go to our website npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And there's a link to it there. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And as this story evolved, well, the charges were initially brought during the Bush administration and the charges against Thomas Drake. And then, President Obama was elected and President Obama had said that he wanted to see a new day in transparency in government, but transparency in government did not extend to being any easier on alleged leakers.

Ms. MAYER: Yeah, it's been interesting because certainly people like Drake himself thought that Obama would signal a change in attitude towards these issues. And if anything, when I talked to experts on all sides of the political spectrum, including a conservative named Gabe Schoenfeld, who is in favor of more such prosecutions. They - the one they may agree on is they think that the Obama administration has been more aggressive in cracking down on leakers than any previous administration.

In fact, I think there are five prosecutions going on of leaked cases right now, which is more than all previous administrations combined. And so there's a kind of - it seems to be an increase in activity in this kind of law enforcement.

CONAN: You describe a meeting at the White House between those arguing for more transparency in government and President Obama not so very long ago, where he seemed to draw a distinct line between whistleblowers, who are providing information that you can't get any other way, and people who reveal secrets.

Ms. MAYER: Yeah. I thought this meeting was very interesting. It was very end of March, and President Obama was meeting with advocates for more transparency. And he took the advocate's side up to a point, but that point was when it comes to national security, he is really against leaks because he sees them now as situations that could endanger the lives of American troops.

And I think maybe now as commander in chief, you know, it feels like this is his responsibility and he doesn't want to see lives lost. But basically what the transparency advocates said to him is you've got your cases a little confused, and the Drake case is really a whistleblower case. It's not something where people's lives were lost. But, you know, and so the two sides in the -the two descriptions of who Thomas Drake is and they are coming to this collision in the courtroom in June.

CONAN: And there is, interestingly enough, the investigation that led to Thomas Drake. His leak was to a reporter at the Baltimore Sun - then at the Baltimore Sun, now works for The Wall Street Journal. But in fact, the investigators were looking for whoever it was who may have leaked information to The New York Times, exposing this domestic wiretap program in the first place, looking for those leakers, and found Thomas Drake instead.

Ms. MAYER: Yes. And this is really an irony, I think, finally, which is that, well, first of all, you have to say is - almost all administrations hate leakers, right? I mean, they upset the - you know, they take control of the news out of the hands of the people in power. And they break a story in some direction, usually one that's very critical of the administration. So there are always these calls for leak investigations, and they almost always run dry. It's very hard to get to the bottom of whose people sources are in the news.

And in this case, the Bush administration was furious when The New York Times broke the story of the warrantless wiretapping in December of 2005. And they vowed to go get whoever was the leaker, and they couldn't find the person. They couldn't find any of them. I mean, I think there were many sources to the Times. And so when they ran dry on that, they came up instead with Thomas Drake, who talked to the Baltimore Sun about something far less sensitive. And - but it was kind of like a poor substitute.

CONAN: Interestingly, one person has since identified himself as among the sources for The Times and that big story on warrantless wiretaps.

Ms. MAYER: That's Thomas Tamm, who is a former Justice Department lawyer, and who has stepped forward and said that he talked to the Times and he did it because he felt that this program was unconstitutional and a danger to the country, and he had to speak up. And yet he is not being prosecuted, while Thomas Drake, who is not the leaker to The New York Times in any sense, is being prosecuted. So there's a certain irony there.

CONAN: And you describe him as a man who is essentially being tried as an enemy of the state. Clearly, the government thinks these are very important charges.

Ms. MAYER: He's being tried in as - on one of the most, you know, serious kinds of charges that an American citizen can be tried on. He is being accused of violating the Espionage Act, which is, in essence, makes him an enemy of the state. I mean, it's about as bad as it goes for being a U.S. citizen. And, you know, his life, he spent it in the Air Force and serving the government, so it's really a difficult spot for him to be in.

CONAN: Jane Mayer, thanks very much for your time today.

Ms. MAYER: Glad to be with you.

CONAN: Again, Jane Mayer's article, "The Secret Sharer," appears in this week's issue of The New Yorker. And there's a link to it at our website. Go to npr.org.

Tomorrow, Huckabee hangs on to his TV gig. Herb Kohl leaves a big hole for Democrats in Wisconsin. And The Donald confirms, eh, he's not running. Ken Rudin will be here, the political junkie. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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