Former NSA executive Thomas A. Drake may pay high price for media leak

TAKING A STAND: "I will never plea-bargain with the truth," friends say Thomas A. Drake told them after the FBI contacted him.
TAKING A STAND: "I will never plea-bargain with the truth," friends say Thomas A. Drake told them after the FBI contacted him. ((Photo Obtained By The Washington Post))
By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2010

F or seven years, Thomas A. Drake was a senior executive at the nation's largest intelligence organization with an ambition to change its insular culture. He had access to classified programs that purported to help the National Security Agency tackle its toughest challenges: exploiting the digital data revolution and countering terrorism.

Today, he wears a blue T-shirt and answers questions about iPhones at an Apple store in the Washington area. He is awaiting trial in a criminal media leak case that could send him to prison for 35 years. In his years at the NSA, Drake grew disillusioned, then indignant, about what he saw as waste, mismanagement and a willingness to compromise Americans' privacy without enhancing security.

He first tried the sanctioned methods -- going to his superiors, inspectors general, Congress. Finally, in frustration, he turned to the "nuclear option": leaking to the media.

Drake, 53, may pay a high price for going nuclear. In April he was indicted, accused of mishandling classified information and obstructing justice. His supporters consider him a patriotic whistleblower targeted by an Obama administration bent on sealing leaks and on having something to show for an investigation that spans two presidencies. Many in the intelligence community, by contrast, view Drake as the overzealous one, an official who disregarded his oath to protect classified information so he could punish the agency for scrapping a program he favored.

It's classic Washington: disgruntled officials sharing inside information with a reporter and an administration seeking to rein that practice in. Drake's attorney maintains he broke no laws.

The case, whistleblower-rights advocates say, underscores how revealing abuses in the intelligence community is difficult because of the classified nature of programs and the lack of meaningful protections against retaliation.

An NSA spokeswoman declined to comment for this article, saying the agency cannot discuss an ongoing criminal case. Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller said: "We have consistently said that leaks and mishandling of classified information are matters that we take extremely seriously."

Whether or not Drake "thought he had a solid argument," he "made it in the wrong form," a former NSA official said.

What led Drake to this point, friends and others say, is a belief that his actions were justified if they forced such a powerful and secretive agency to be held accountable.

"He tried to have his concerns heard and nobody really wanted to listen," said Nina Ginsberg, an attorney representing a former Hill staffer who shared Drake's concerns.

'Champions of the little guy'

Drake, an avid player of three-dimensional-chess who flew on Air Force spy planes and once was a CIA analyst, began working at the NSA in 1989 as a contractor evaluating software. "He always seemed to have a new angle on something," said Edward Miller, president of Software Research, and a friend of Drake's since the mid-1990s. "He was bringing the best of what was in the outside world into the insular thinking of a large agency."

In 2000, Drake met Diane Roark, a Republican staffer on the House Intelligence Committee who tracked the NSA. She held dim views about agency officials, especially concerning complex technical programs.

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