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Concerns About the Indictment of a Former NSA Official

April 22, 2010

Bryan Rahija
Project On Government Oversight (POGO)
Apr 21, 2010
Last week a grand jury indicted Thomas Drake, a former senior official at the National Security Agency (NSA), on charges of willful retention of classified information, obstruction of justice, and making false statements. The Department of Justice (DOJ) alleges that Drake leaked classified documents to a journalist and made significant contributions to articles that were published between February 2006 and November 2007.

The journalist has been identified as Siobhan Gorman, who during that time penned a series of articles for The Baltimore Sun highlighting waste, bureaucratic infighting, mismanagement, and failures of oversight surrounding the NSA’s controversial surveillance program.

POGO has serious concerns about this situation. First, the indictment and DOJ’s aggression towards Drake will no doubt have a chilling effect on whistleblowing in the national security community. We don’t know precisely which documents Drake is alleged to have given to Gorman. (Marc Ambinder notes that the fact that Drake has not actually been charged with leaking classified documents could signal an effort to prevent Drake from introducing sensitive information about the program at trial.“) But even the perception that a grand jury has indicted a primary source for information about waste at a government agency is enough to make whistleblowers think twice about coming forward with similar concerns or evidence.

On a deeper level, Drake’s decision to approach Gorman raises questions about the NSA’s ability to handle whistleblower complaints. Drake may not have been forced to go to the press if the agency was equipped with the proper channels to receive, evaluate, and address employee concerns. It’s also worth noting that Drake was introduced to the reporter by a Hill staffer, suggesting that Congress does not recognize its own role in both investigating classified programs and in protecting whistleblowers.

Ultimately, Drake’s decision to operate outside the agency suggests that his concerns initially fell on deaf ears. And sadly, given the history of the government’s treatment of national security whistleblowers, that would come as no surprise.

— Bryan Rahija

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