To mark National Whistleblower Protection Day, ex-National Security Agency executive Thomas Drake on Thursday took time off from his job at an Apple retail store to tell an audience on Capitol Hill that “I’m still trying to rebuild my life.”
Drake’s hallmark case involved the Justice Department’s unique prosecution of him in 2010 under the Espionage Act for speaking about decade-old domestic surveillance programs to a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. Though most charges were dropped, he ended up pleading guilty to a lesser charge and performing community service. “The consequences continue to unfold,” he told a panel organized by the Government Accountability Project, his legal representative.
“My social contacts are gone, and I’m persona non grata,” said Drake, who went bankrupt and declared himself indigent during his court proceedings. “I can’t find any work in government contracting or in the quasi-government space, those who defend whistleblowers won’t touch me.”
One reason Drake continues activism in the movement to protect federal whistleblowers is that “the national security space is an extraordinary blanket, exempted to make it incredibly dangerous to speak truth to power, to reveal wrongdoing without suffering huge consequences,” he said. “I’m the exceptional price you pay.”
Most in Congress, he added, “maintained radio silence” as the Obama administration pursued his 10-felony count for which he could have landed 35 years in prison. “Many looked forward to seeing me in an orange jumpsuit. The government tried to make me into a caricature, but I’m a real person,” Drake said, stressing that his case is not yet over. “It’s a crime to report a government crime. Where’s the protection for national security whistleblowers?” he pleaded.
“Apple is fun, but it’s nowhere near who I am, where I grew up, or where I am in [wanting to] serve my nation,” Drake said. “I don’t take freedom for granted. I wake up every morning and pinch myself, it’s emotional.”
Drake expressed some hope for whistleblower rights in the case of co-panelist Robert MacLean, the Transportation Security Administration air marshal who was fired after he spoke to a TV reporter about a planned relaxation of TSA in-flight operations. He was reinstated at TSA after he won part of his case in the Supreme Court in January, but TSA is continuing litigation, MacLean told the audience. The Merit Systems Protection Board is “weak,” he said. “It’s small, overwhelmed, and shuffling through thousands of cases—only 5 percent of its whistleblowers prevail.” Citing one 15-year-old case in which an administrative judge has delayed a decision for 20 months, MacLean said federal whistleblowers deserve jury trials.