The Justice Department’s high-profile Espionage Act case against me collapsed on July 15, with all 10 felony charges dropped, when I was sentenced to community service after entering into a plea agreement for a minor misdemeanor. During the sentencing hearing, the judge clearly set the tone for holding the executive branch of our government accountable. He expounded on the judicial branch’s role as final arbiter of the law, while noting that the basis for the American Revolution was British tyranny in the colonial era.
Over more than a year, my case became a disturbing illustration of “off the books,” irresponsible government behavior that is increasingly alien to the Constitution. The government’s penchant since Sept. 11, 2001, for operating in secrecy and hiding behind an executive branch “state secrets” doctrine has damaged our long-term national security and national character. It has, by sacrificing Americans’ general welfare and civil liberties, given rise to a persistent military-industrial-intelligencecongressional surveillance complex.
From 2001 through 2008, I was a senior executive at the National Security Agency. Shortly after Sept. 11, I heard more than rumblings about secret electronic eavesdropping and data mining against Americans that bypassed the Fourth Amendment and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — the exclusive means in the law for conducting such activity, with severe criminal sanctions when violated. Such shortcuts were not necessary. Lawful alternatives — using the best of Americans’ ingenuity and innovation — existed that would have also vastly improved our intelligence capability against legitimate threats. A highly innovative intelligence data collection, processing and analysis system called ThinThread was operationally ready and had built-in safeguards to comply with the Fourth Amendment. But this revolutionary system was rejected by the NSA while much higher-cost work on the multibillion-dollar flagship Trailblazer program proceeded.
While at the NSA I became a material witness and whistleblower for two Sept. 11 congressional investigations starting in late 2001 and through the summer of 2002, and then for a multi-year audit by the Defense Department inspector general of the failed Trailblazer program and the ThinThread alternative from 2003 until 2005 — after a Defense Department hotline complaint was made by three former NSA employees and a House intelligence committee staffer in September 2002.
I raised the gravest of concerns through all the proper channels, reporting massive contract fraud, management malfeasance and illegalities conducted by the NSA, including critical intelligence information and analysis that was never reported or shared by the NSA. Had this vital and actionable intelligence been properly analyzed and disseminated by the NSA, it could have led to the capture of the Sept. 11 hijackers and prevented the attacks.
I followed all the rules for reporting such activity until it conflicted with the primacy of my oath to defend the Constitution. I then made a fateful choice to exercise my fundamental First Amendment rights and went to a journalist with unclassified information about which the public had a right to know.