After the whistle: Revealers of government secrets share how their lives have changed


Thomas Drake, left, and Jesselyn Radack are whistleblowers. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
July 28, 2013

The former high-ranking National Security Agency analyst now sells iPhones. The top intelligence officer at the CIA lives in a motor home outside Yellowstone National Park and spends his days fly-fishing for trout. The FBI translator fled Washington for the West Coast.

This is what life looks like for some after revealing government secrets. Blowing the whistle on wrongdoing, according to those who did it. Jeopardizing national security, according to the government.

Heroes. Scofflaws. They’re all people who had to get on with their lives.

As Edward Snowden eventually will. The former NSA contractor who leaked classified documents on U.S. surveillance programs is now in Russia, with his fate in limbo. The Justice Department announced last week that it won’t seek the death penalty in prosecuting him, but he is still charged with theft and espionage.

Say he makes it out of there. What next, beyond the pending charges? What happens to people who make public things that the government wanted to keep secret?

A look at the lives of a handful of those who did just that shows that they often wind up far from the stable government jobs they held. They can even wind up in the aisles of a craft store.

Peter Van Buren, a veteran Foreign Service officer who blew the whistle on waste and mismanagement of the Iraq reconstruction program, most recently found himself working at a local arts and crafts store and learned a lot about “glitter and the American art of scrapbooking.”

“What happens when you are thrown out of the government and blacklisted is that you lose your security clearance and it’s very difficult to find a grown-up job in Washington,” said Van Buren, who lives in Falls Church and wrote the book “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” “Then, you have to step down a few levels to find a place where they don’t care enough about your background to even look into why you washed up there.”

The Apple Store employee

“Let’s sit in the back,” Thomas Drake says when choosing a booth at Parker’s Classic American Restaurant in downtown Bethesda during his lunch break from Apple. “I have a lot to say. I was a public servant. That’s a very high honor. It’s supposed to mean something.”

Drake was prosecuted under the World War I-era Espionage Act for mishandling national defense information.

His alleged crime: voicing concernsto superiors after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks about violations of Americans’ privacy by the nation’s largest intelligence organization (the NSA) and later, in frustration, speaking to a reporter about waste and fraud in the NSA intelligence program. (He says he revealed no classified information.)

He lost his $155,000-a-year job and pension, even though in 2011 the criminal case against him fell apart. The former top spokesman for the Justice Department, Matthew Miller, later said the case against Drake may have been an “ill-considered choice for prosecution.”

Drake, now 56, is tall and lanky and dresses as though he’s ready, at any moment, to go on a gentle hike. He is the type of person who likes consistency. He went to work at Apple the day after the charges against him were dropped, surprising his co-workers who thought he would at least take a day off. In 2010, he got an adjunct professor job at Strayer University but was fired soon after, he says, while he was under government investigation.

“I was just blacklisted,” he said, adding that he started his own company but has only had minor work. “People were afraid to deal with a federal government whistleblower.”

Drake long planned to be a career public servant. He enlisted in the Air Force in 1979 and flew on spy planes and once was a CIA analyst and an expert in electronic intelligence missions. On Sept. 11, 2001, he reported for his first day of work as a senior executive at the NSA’s Fort Meade campus, and shortly thereafter, he voiced “the gravest of concerns” regarding a secret domestic surveillance program that, he says, was launched shortly after the attacks.

In 2006, he was reassigned from the NSA to be a professor at the National Defense University, but he was forced to leave in 2007 when his security clearance was suspended.

Ironically, he was teaching a class called “The Secret Side of U.S. History.”

Now working at the Apple Store and living in Howard County, he is extremely grateful for his hourly wage retail job. He has no choice. He has massive legal debts and a son ready to go to college.

Last year, he was working when he spotted an unlikely customer: Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who came in to check out iPhones.

Drake introduced himself and asked: “Do you know why they have come after me?”

“Yes, I do,” Holder said.

“But do you know the rest of the story?,” he asked.

Holder quickly left with his security detail, Drake said.

“It’s not every day you get to talk to the chief law enforcement officer of the land about your case,” Drake said, “or at least try.”

The author in Oregon

Sometimes Washington is just the last place you can stand to be.

Sibel Edmonds was once described by the American Civil Liberties Union as “the most gagged person in the history of the United States.” And she was a regular on Washington’s protest circuit.

She was fired from her work as a translator at the FBI for trying to expose security breaches and cover-ups that she thought presented a danger to U.S. security. Her allegations were supported and confirmed by the Justice Department’s inspector general office and bipartisan congressional investigations, but she was not offered her job back.

She also published a memoir, “Classified Woman — The Sibel Edmonds Story.”

Then last summer, Edmonds, 43, decamped with her 5-year-old daughter and husband to Bend, Ore., which is known as the sunny side of the state. The July weather is 77 degrees without humidity, and there are 33 independently owned coffee shops and nine microbreweries.

“I am touring every single one. Plus, we don’t even have air conditioning here,” she said. “We open the windows and feel the breeze.”

For years before she left, Edmonds found Washington’s atmosphere suffocating. Many of her neighbors in Alexandria were lobbyists and contractors, who she says stopped talking to her after her name appeared in the newspaper.

Luckily, her husband of 21 years is a retail consultant and can live anywhere. She says that most whistleblowers have spouses who work in the same agencies, which typically puts pressure on their marriages.

She is still dedicated, she says, to the cause of exposing injustice and making information free. She spends hours running “Boiling Frog Post: Home of the Irate Minority,” a podcast and Web site that covers whistleblowing and tries to create broader exposure for revelations. She is also founder and director of the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition.

“I think in the current climate, Congress and Washington is a last resort,” she said. “We are going directly to the people and focused on releasing information. And I don’t have to do that from Washington.”

The alienated fly fisherman

“The connection is really bad, it must be the NSA surveillance program,” Richard Barlow says jokingly when speaking to a reporter on his cellphone from his motor home outside Yellowstone National Park.

“I’m out here with the grizzly bears,” he says. “But this is where I’m comfortable. I’m a 58-year-old seriously damaged, burned-out intelligence officer.”

Barlow says he suffers from chronic PTSD, which makes it hard for him to deal with stress and sometimes other people. He finds comfort in his three dogs: Sassy, Prairie and Spirit.

His supporters say that shouldn’t be surprising considering what he went through.

Barlow started his career as a rising star tasked with organizing efforts to target Pakistan’s clandestine networks for acquiring nuclear materiel. He won the CIA’s Exceptional Accomplishment Award in 1988 for work that led to arrests, including that of Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan.

He testified before Congress under direct orders from his CIA superiors, but he says he later became the target of criticism from some people in the CIA who were supporting the mujahideen (including Osama bin Laden at the time) in efforts to push the Soviets out of Afghanistan.

He says he chose to leave the CIA, and in early 1989, he went to work as the first weapons-of-mass-destruction intelligence officer in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. Barlow continued to write assessments of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program for then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. He concluded that Pakistan already possessed nuclear weapons, had modified its F-16s to deliver these weapons and had continued to violate U.S. laws.

The intelligence would have legally precluded a sale of $1.4 billion worth of additional F-16s to Pakistan.

But in August 1989, Barlow learned that the Defense Department had asserted that the F-16s were not capable of delivering Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Barlow said that Congress was being lied to, and he objected internally.

Days later, he was fired.

“Back then I was disgustingly patriotic and I thought the government is allowing Pakistan to develop and spread nuclear weapons and I got destroyed for trying to stop it,” he said.

He was 35 at the time. His marriage to his 29-year-old wife, who also worked at the CIA, was shattered.

After a 1993 probe, the inspector general at the State Department and the CIA concluded that Barlow had been fired as a reprisal. The Defense Department maintained that the Pentagon was within its rights to fire Barlow. A 1997 GAO report largely vindicated Barlow, and his security clearances were restored. But, he says, he was unable to get rehired permanently by the government because his record was smeared.

He eventually found some work as a consultant, helping to start and run the FBI’s counterproliferation program out of Sandia National Laboratories.

Meanwhile, he has been trying for years to collect the $89,500 annual pension and health insurance that he thinks he is owed.

Much of what he tried to report about Pakistan’s nuclear program is common knowledge today, and several national security bestsellers have included his story, including George Crile III’s 2003 book “Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History,” which describes Barlow as a “brilliant young analyst who gave devastating testimony.”

Today, the consulting work has dried up. He has run out of money and thinks he is about a month from being homeless.

“I served my country for 23 years. I could go get a job for $10 at Wal-Mart,” he said. “But that’s not the issue, the issue is where’s my money?”

Despite efforts by senators and various legislative committees to get him compensated for his loss, the issue has never been resolved, for political and bureaucratic reasons.

He thinks part of the problem is that there’s no structure to compensate whistleblowers in the intelligence field. He also says that the Obama administration has criminalized whistleblowing on levels he’s never seen before.

Today, he spends his days in the wilderness, fly-fishing and bird hunting with his dogs.

The advocate

It’s 8 a.m. on the 11th floor of a K Street office building, and Jesselyn Radack, 42, is trying to tame her curly blond hair with a straightening iron.

“Our PR people said, ‘Straight hair is serious hair,’ ” she said, laughing. “But it is like 100 degrees outside.”

Radack is an attorney and former ethics adviser for the Justice Department. Her supervisor told her to find another job after she disclosed after Sept. 11 that the FBI interrogated John Walker Lindh, known as the “American Taliban,” without an attorney present. Her case was closed in 2003, and prosecutors never identified a potential charge against her.

Today, Radack is a mother of three and director of national security and human rights at the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblowing advocacy organization.

That means she’s an advocate, attorney and, it turns out, therapist of sorts for whistleblowers who come to her “bankrupt, blacklisted and broken,” she says.

“Once you are labeled that way, you are just radioactive,” she said.

And she can certainly empathize.

Before she decided to make her disclosure, she says she suffered from horrible insomnia. She also has long suffered from multiple sclerosis, and the stress caused flare-ups of her disease.

“I had this knowledge and had to do something,” she said on a recent afternoon at her brick home in Tenleytown. “After law school, I thought the government wears the white hat and is on the right side of the law. I never expected to be a whistleblower.”

But the Yale Law School graduate saw something she thought was wrong and felt compelled to report it.

After her case went public, she noticed a chill in how she and her family were treated. She took her children to the “tot shabbat,” or sabbath celebration for young children, at Temple Sinai in Northwest Washington and noticed that no one would sit near her and her family. It turns out that some of the people she blew the whistle on also attended her temple. The situation got so bad, she said, she had to talk to the rabbi about it.

“We’re inside the Beltway, and it’s a small city,” Radack says. “It’s like high school. They just freeze you out.”

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