There is no sign of an end to the erosion of Constitutional liberties that began under George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks and continues under Barack Obama, a group of seven national security whistleblowers said Monday.
“The government chose in great secrecy to unchain itself,” said Thomas Drake, who was working at the National Security Agency in 2001 and said he saw lawlessness spread under the name of “exigent conditions” during the Bush presidency.
Thomas Drake is a whistleblower who has dedicated his life to safeguarding his country. A ten-year veteran of the Air Force (specializing in intelligence), he served as a CIA analyst and contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA) for 12 years before joining the Agency full time in 2001.
When Drake saw mass waste and abuse in the billions of dollars spent on Operation Stellar Wind, he took his concerns to his superiors at NSA, to Congress and to the NSA and Department of Defense Inspectors General (DoD IG). Retaliation soon followed. Management took aim at Drake’s career by removing his responsibilities and shifting him to a meaningless position. He was increasingly isolated, singled-out, transferred away from projects, and marginalized. After his cooperation with DoD IG, which validated his concerns, Drake became the target of a “leak” investigation related to the infamous NSA warrantless wiretapping scandal–despite the fact that he had nothing to do with the “leak.”
After reaching out to multiple proper oversight bodies, nothing changed. Finally, Drake made legal disclosures of unclassified information to a Baltimore Sun reporter, who wrote a series of award-winning articles that exposed the billion-dollar NSA boondoggle.
Reprisal against Drake was then ratcheted up to the maximum: criminal prosecution under the Espionage Act of 1917. The government conduced an armed raid of Drake’s home, interrogated him for hours, confiscated his personal notes and computers, and threatened him with spending “the rest of his natural life behind bars.” The Department of Justice (DOJ) indicted Drake under the Espionage Act with improper “retention” – not disclosure – of allegedly classified information, and Drake faced decades in prison.
Justice Department officials interrogated Drake for hours on several occasions. Knowing he had done nothing wrong, Drake cooperated with the pre-textual “leak” investigation until he realized that the purpose was to retaliate against him. The officials pressured Drake multiple times to take a plea deal, threatening him with spending the “rest of his natural life behind bars” if he didn’t – but Drake “refused to plea bargain with the truth.”
Drake hoped that the new Obama administration – one that had touted the importance of federal whistleblowers during the 2008 campaign – would reverse direction and cease the use of the criminal justice system to go after whistleblowers, but after being under a cloud for two and a half years, the DOJ finally indicted him in April 2010.
Charged under 10 separate counts, Drake faced 5 charges under the Espionage Act – a 1917 piece of legislation intended to be used against spies. Drake was only the fourth case in U.S. history where the government used the Act to go after someone for allegedly mishandling classified materials – Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg was the first.
Despite statements to the press to the contrary, the DOJ did not charge Drake with disclosing classified information to a reporter, but, rather, accused him of improper retention of classified information. Despite years investigating him, the DOJ had no evidence of improper disclosure of classified materials.
Then, as part of Obama’s war on whistleblowers, prosecutors charged Drake under the Espionage Act – a law intended to brutally punish spies – for talking to a reporter. After a four-year long ordeal that the federal judge in his case called “unconscionable,” all 10 felony charges against Drake were dropped in return for his guilty plea to a single misdemeanor.
Now, Drake said, he is throwing his weight behind H.R. 1466, the Surveillance State Repeal Act.
The bill would completely repeal the 2001 PATRIOT Act (which the NSA cites as the legal basis for its bulk phone metadata collection), repeal the FISA Amendments Act (which ostensibly legitimizes Internet spying) and otherwise protect people’s privacy.
It’s a bipartisan but dark-horse legislative gambit that Reps. Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., and Thomas Massie, R-Ky., have thrown into the mix as Congress debates over the next few weeks what to do before three key provisions of the PATRIOT Act expire — including the one used for bulk metadata.
All seven whistleblowers on the panel sponsored by the pro-accountability group ExposeFacts.org – including Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, NSA whistleblowers William Binney and J. Kirk Wiebe, and former FBI agent Coleen Rowley – said they backed the bill.
Other legislative proposals, coming nearly two years after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden informed the world about the extent of NSA surveillance, call for considerably more minor reforms – if any at all.
Wiebe said he is increasingly frightened that the country is not “going to be able to get out of this mess.”
“We’ve become a society wiling to look the other way in the face of wrongdoing,” he said.
Ellsberg called Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning “heroes.” “We need more Snowdens, we need more Chelsea Mannings,” he said. Had there been some earlier, he said, “there would not have been an Iraq war. That would have been a very great service to the United States and the world.”
Ellsberg contrasted his two heroes with former vice president Dick Cheney.
“I’m not saying he’s a traitor,” Ellsberg said. Cheney truly wanted the best for his country, it’s just that “he believed that the best for his country was not the Constitution as written,” Ellsberg said.
Rowley said she was taken aback when she heard Obama, in remarks last week about the drone strike that killed two Western hostages in Pakistan, say that “one of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”
Said Rowley: “I wish that were true.”
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