Justice Department Agrees To Plea In Drake Case

The Justice Department has agreed to a plea deal with Thomas Drake, a former National Security Agency employee originally charged with 10 felonies, including violating the Espionage Act. Jane Mayer, staff writer for The New Yorker, joins Melissa Block to talk about how Thomas Drake became accused of being an enemy of the state.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Now, a story that's raised big questions about government secrets, domestic surveillance and the prosecution of people who leak information. In a dramatic reversal, the Justice Department has reached a plea deal with a former National Security Agency employee. Thomas Drake was originally charged with 10 felonies, including violating the Espionage Act. His trial was set to start Monday, but today, Drake pleaded guilty to just one misdemeanor count. He will serve no jail time.

Jane Mayer has been writing about this case and its broader significance for The New Yorker, and she joins me now.

Jane Mayer, welcome to the program.

Ms. JANE MAYER (Staff Writer, The New Yorker): Thanks so much. Glad to be with you.

BLOCK: Let's back up and explain a bit how Thomas Drake became accused of being an enemy of the state. He says he was just a whistleblower. He went to a reporter with evidence of waste, fraud and abuse, and it all has to do with a domestic surveillance data-mining program. What happened?

Ms. MAYER: Well, it's a complicated story, but basically, he became an internal critic inside the NSA. He was a fairly senior official there, and he caught wind after 9/11 of the domestic surveillance program that the NSA put in place under the Bush administration without warrants, and he also became aware that the NSA was spending what came out to be $1.8 billion on a program that didn't work which was tied up with this surveillance program.

So, he was very much an internal critic and he thought that the surveillance program was unconstitutional and he thought there were better ways to safeguard the United States than this.

BLOCK: Thomas Drake told you about the domestic surveillance program. This was a violation of everything I knew and believed as an American. We were making the Nixon administration, he said, look like pikers. And he went to a reporter.

Ms. MAYER: Well, it didn't start with a reporter, though. He went through many different levels of officials to complain in the first place. He went to Congress. He went to the inspector general inside the Department of Defense. And he actually won over the inspector general, and they wrote a scathing report internally.

But then it became classified. So he was seeing no reform coming from all of this. Eventually, he went to a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, and that was what he regarded as the nuclear option.

BLOCK: Why did the government's case against Thomas Drake collapse? What happened?

Ms. MAYER: Well, the government accused him of giving this reporter classified information, and Drake maintained all the way through that he never gave the reporter anything that was classified. He just simply conveyed complaints about the hugely wasteful program and about the domestic surveillance program.

And so the government, in essence, was unable to prove its case. The charges, many people think, were overblown. And the interesting thing about this case was the government charged Drake under the Espionage Act, which is usually a piece of law that's used against spies.

And in essence, what they were saying is anyone who leaks important secrets is, in essence, a spy. And that's what this case tested, and the whole thing collapsed. Many people think it was just overdrawn and overkill.

BLOCK: So Thomas Drake ends up pleading guilty today to just one misdemeanor, as we said, no jail time. What kind of reaction has there been today from both him and from the prosecutors?

Ms. MAYER: Well, the prosecutors have been pretty quiet. They have just said that it shows that it's important not to misuse government computers or to betray the government's trust. And whistleblower protection advocates are jubilant because they regard Tom Drake not as a spy but as somebody who was a critic and a whistleblower who had important things that the American public needed to know. And they're saying that shouldn't be a crime.

BLOCK: Jane Mayer, you've written in the New Yorker that this case really shouldn't be looked at in isolation, that the Obama administration, in your words, has pursued leak prosecutions with a surprising relentlessness. Tell us about those.

Ms. MAYER: Yeah, it's fascinating because Obama, when he was running for office, for the presidency, spoke out in favor of making government more transparent and even praised whistleblowers. But in particular, his administration's been very hard on what they regard as leakers, particularly in the national security arena.

And they are bringing currently five prosecutions, if you include the Drake prosecution, against what they say are leakers of national security information. Five prosecutions is more than every previous administration combined.

BLOCK: And are any of those other cases do you think now in jeopardy?

Ms. MAYER: Each case is different, and it's hard to say. But I think that this sends a very cautionary note to the Justice Department that they should be skeptical when the national security community says that this is a huge breach of national security. They need to take a look at the details closely and make sure that's really so.

BLOCK: I've been talking with the New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer. Jane, thanks very much.

Ms. MAYER: So glad to be with you.

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