National Security Agency whistleblower Thomas Drake was supposed to stand trial this week in the United States in an Espionage Act case that seemed to say even more about the Obama Administration than its handling of WikiLeaks has. Drake had watched the agency sideline an intelligence-gathering computer program called ThinThread that insiders believe could have prevented 11 September. And he had early concerns about the legality of what became the NSA’s infamous domestic warrantless wiretapping programme (exposed by the New York Times in 2005), which looked an awful lot like ThinThread with all of its privacy protections deleted.
Drake — who found few receptive internal channels for his concerns — eventually gave information about abuse and waste at the agency to a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. Through a convoluted series of events wonderfully chronicled last month by the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, Drake was investigated by the Bush Administration and later indicted under Obama’s Department of Justice for violating the Espionage Act. The government’s case turned on the fact that investigators found five classified documents retained in Drake’s basement.
To many of his supporters, Drake looked like the prototypical whistleblower — a public servant motivated by conscience to expose abuses against the peoples’ rights and tax dollars. As Mayer wrote:
When President Barack Obama took office, in 2009, he championed the cause of government transparency, and spoke admiringly of whistle-blowers, whom he described as “often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government.” But the Obama Administration has pursued leak prosecutions with a surprising relentlessness.
Her damning 10,000 word article — coupled with an exposé on the case by the 60 Minutes television news programme — prompted a public outcry over a case that had, until last month, been entirely overshadowed by the story of WikiLeaks’ suspected whistleblower.
Then, on the eve of what was supposed to be Drake’s first appearance in court, the government all but dropped the case: It offered Drake a plea deal, forgetting all 10 criminal charges against him (and the associated threat of 35 years in prison) in exchange for the misdemeanour of “exceeding authorised use of an NSA computer.” Drake pled guilty in that deal last Friday.
The media seemed to have made the difference. And however the Obama Administration came around to the decision – whether through public shaming or because its case simply collapsed – the announcement marked at least a pause in the disturbing narrative, as one of Mayer’s sources put it, that, “Ironically, Obama has presided over the most draconian crackdown on leaks in our history—even more so than Nixon.”
Well, that was last week.
Drake didn’t have to turn up in a Baltimore courtroom this week after all. But, surprisingly, before a grand jury about 50 miles away in Alexandria, Virginia, Bradley Manning supporter David House did. Whistleblower advocates may be celebrating Drake’s resolution, but it turns out the Obama administration is still hell-bent on finding a way to investigate and prosecute the WikiLeaks site and its founder Julian Assange.
Subpoenas have now been served to House (who refused to testify Wednesday), and several others connected to the army private in the grand jury investigation.
Manning himself appears a less clearly sympathetic character than Drake, and his case fits less neatly into what we traditionally think of as “whistleblowing”. Drake was motivated by concern over a specific government abuse; whatever Manning’s motivations, he didn’t particularly distinguish between government documents revealing abuse and those that didn’t. Drake also contended that he never actually turned over to the Baltimore Sun reporter any classified documents (making his case both ethically strong and criminally weak).
But as the government’s grand jury investigation around Manning widens, that story will become less about his actions and more about WikiLeaks itself. If Washington is still trying to find ways to prosecute the publisher of leaked information, and not just the leaker himself, that’s a sign that Obama is still very much the president portrayed in Mayer’s article.