Notes From the Margins…

The case of Thomas Drake

  • March 10, 2012
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There’s an excellent piece by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker about Thomas Drake, the linguist and computer expert-turned-whistleblower from the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), who was indicted by the Obama administration in April 2010 for releasing classified information to a journalist in 2006.

The case has attracted less media attention than  Bradley Manning, though Drake, like Manning,  is being indicted under the 1917 Espionage Act on charges of aiding the enemy and endangering the lives of American servicemen.

The NSA is the U.S. government’s electronic surveillance agency, a vast bureaucracy three times bigger than the CIA, with an ability to traul and intercept electronic communications both inside and far beyond the United States.  Drake’s ‘crime’ was to reveal details of  a new software computer programme known as Trailblazer that was introduced in the wake of 9/11, and which enabled the U.S. government to carry out warrantless domestic surveillance on a scale unprecedented in U.S. history.

The piece is well worth reading in full, because Mayer is a remorseless and brilliant reporter and the story that she tells is an alarming tale of bureaucratic waste, paranoia and the abuse of power by an unaccountable agency that took advantage of the 9/11 state of emergency to do whatever it pleased, including bypassing U.S. laws which required it to seek warrants to carry out domestic surveillance.

Mayer’s account of the Drake case is also something of an indictment of the Obama administration.   During his 2008 campaign Obama praised whistleblowers for their ‘acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled’.    

Since taking office however, Obama has indicted five government whistleblowers, including Drake and Manning, and he has presided over a version of the Whistleblowers Protection Enforcement Act, which the National Whistleblowers Center argues is designed to prevent future leaks rather than facilitate them.

One of Mayer’s interviewees, a liberal law professor at Yale university sees the rise in whistleblower prosecutions as a part of the ‘  bipartisan normalization and legitimization of a national-surveillance state’    and accuses Obama of having ‘systematically adopted policies consistent with the second term of the Bush Administration.’

The Drake case also casts a revealing torchlight on the behaviour of the NSA in the aftermath of 9/11, in which national security rhetoric and an obsessive drive to accumulate information overlap with corporate profiteering on the part of individuals and corporations.  As Drake himself puts it in an interview with Salon  magazine:

 You have to persist the threat. You have to find another existential reason why this is indefinite. The only way to do that is the boogeyman. You have to paint that.

He goes on to argue that:

We have a tendency to project ourselves onto others. So yes, you have to manufacture if you”re making that kind of money. The national security state became a growth industry — huge redistribution of wealth. I had people coming to me: “Tom, you have to get out. The money is unbelievable. You can be a millionaire.”

Within this ‘growth industry’ NSA officials retire and then join the corporations which manufacture its listening programmes, and according to Drake:

We”re talking lots of money. The revolving door is an understatement. The number of millionaires made at NSA, one of these open dark secrets, is phenomenal.

All this should be worrying and even alarming for a government concerned with effective counterterrorism, official transparency and efficiency, not to mention civil liberties and the rule of law.  But Drake insists that Obama is ‘worse than Bush’ in his attitude to whistleblowers and counterterrorism, telling his interviewer:

I actually voted for Obama. It”s all rhetoric for me now. As Americans we were hoodwinked. He”s expanding the secrecy regime far beyond what the Bush even intended, interestingly enough. I think Bush is probably like, “Whoa.”

Maybe, but then maybe not.  Because secrecy, paranoia, waste and corporate profiteering  are now so deeply embedded in the post-9/11 American ‘national security’ state that few politicians have the  will to do anything to prevent it.

And so perhaps it isn’t surprising that Obama, like his predecessor, has preferred to shoot another messenger rather than listen to the message.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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