Whistle-Blowers Tell Stories of Fear and Vindication
WASHINGTON—Whistle-blowers risk their careers, fortunes, reputations, and sometimes their freedom. They are public or corporate employees, who witness waste, fraud, and abuse of the law, and decide to go public with the information.
Whistle-blowers Thomas Drake and Rick Piltz spoke last week at the American Whistleblower Tour: Essential Voices for Accountability.
Drake exposed mismanagement at the National Security Agency (NSA); Piltz exposed White House censorship and falsification of scientific opinions in global warming reports intended for the public and Congress. Both described their rollercoaster rides during and after they made the life-changing decision to go public with their knowledge of malfeasance.
The tour visited the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) on March 22, its seventh stop in this academic year. In 2011–2012, it traveled to 13 colleges and universities. The Government Accountability Project (GAP) and UDC’s David A. Clarke School of Law sponsored the event.
Thomas Drake and DOJ
The Department of Justice case against Thomas Drake in 2011 received a lot of press coverage and even a segment on CBS’s “60 Minutes.”
In 2001, Drake became a senior executive at the NSA, where he says he witnessed massive waste and mismanagement. The NSA was deciding on a program to cope with the massive amount of telephonic and electronic message data to identify terrorist threats and networks following 9/11. Two programs were being considered. The one selected by NSA management, Trailblazer, was costly, inefficient, and violated the privacy rights of American citizens, while the one that Drake favored, Thin Tread, cost a fraction of Trailblazer, and did not engage in illegal and unconstitutional domestic surveillance, he said.
Drake felt that implementing Trailblazer “amounted to gross fraud that cost taxpayers billions,” says GAP, and violated Fourth Amendment privacy rights, when there was a better, legal alternative.
Drake went to his superiors, to Congress, and to the NSA inspector general, and got nowhere. He went to the Department of Defense inspector general (DODIG), became a “material witness for DODIG,” and provided thousands of documents, he said. The DOD IG later published a classified report in which the unclassified version validated Drake’s claims.
NSA management retaliated. Drake was marginalized at work and isolated, while management persisted in promoting Trailblazer.
“Contractors burned through hundreds of millions of dollars and [Trailblazer] still couldn’t give the NSA the solution it urgently needed,” said Scott Pelley on “60 Minutes” on May 22, 2011. Eventually NSA was forced to cancel Trailblazer after spending $1.2 billion. As a result of the waste, Congress revoked NSA’s spending authority on large programs for five years.
Failing to get anywhere through normal channels, Drake decided to tell his story to a reporter from the Baltimore Sun.
“I knew it was fraught with peril, but I did so anyway,” he said.
The Sun published a series of articles exposing the government waste. Drake provided the Sun reporter with much information, but was careful not to provide any classified material.
In 2006, the Justice Department targeted Drake with a “huge investigation,” he said. Drake said that for 15 months, he “could feel the full weight of the Justice Department come down on [him].” He said he was always followed.
The FBI raided his home in November 2007, searching for evidence that he had leaked information to the New York Times for a December 2005 story of NSA’s wiretapping program without the use of warrants as required by law. The law required that a request to eavesdrop domestically must be made through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The Times revealed that President Bush secretly authorized eavesdropping with warrantless wiretap surveillance in December 2002.
“When you know that you’re being watched by the government, and they are assuming you are a criminal … the ringleader of the disclosure to the New York Times regarding the secret surveillance program … life gets darker and darker,” Drake said.
Although Drake agreed with the Times story, ironically, he was not the source, he said. The FBI agents found nothing incriminating in the raid, but he, his wife, and child were very intimidated by the experience. Drake cooperated with the DOJ in its investigation, until he sensed the motive was really retaliation. Justice tried to get him to accept a plea agreement with the threat that he would spend the rest of his life imprisoned, but Drake would not admit to any wrongdoing.
Drake had hoped that with the election of a new president and with a new attorney general, the DOJ would cease its campaign against him. But in April 2010, Justice indicted Drake on 10 felony counts, 5 of which were under the 1917 Espionage Act that is used against spies. None of the charges accused him of giving classified documents to the Sun reporter.
By now Drake had no money to pay for lawyers and had to use federal public defenders, who prepared a solid defense. GAP supported his case, and led a media campaign that galvanized public opinion. The DOJ case against Drake began to fall apart and four days before the trial was to begin, DOJ and Drake reached an agreement. The prosecution dropped the 10 felony counts and Drake pled guilty to “exceeding authorized use of a computer”—a misdemeanor. The judge severely criticized DOJ for its handling of the case, which went from intending to put Drake away for “the rest of his natural life” to one year of probation and community service. The judge called the DOJ’s handling of the case “unconscionable,” according to GAP.
Piltz Battle With the White House
Rick Piltz never faced the threat of 35 years in imprisonment as Drake did. But he suffered the loss of his job and income and was socially isolated.
From 1995–2005, Piltz was a senior associate in the coordination office of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program. His job was to take the work of leading climate change scientists and communicate it to the policymakers, Congress, and the White House. He was preparing the annual report for Congress when shortly before its publication, the White House told him to “take pages out” and remove all references to the recently completed international scientific assessment of climate change by dozens of scientists.
The Bush administration wanted him to remove all discussion of the effects of global warming on the United States. The White House Counsel on Environmental Quality, which formerly had been an oil industry lobbyist, edited Piltz’s document, playing down the global warming problem and the impacts of climate change. The counsel was “misrepresenting the intelligence to conform to what they had already decided to do politically,” Piltz said.
After getting the cold shoulder from his superiors and colleagues, Piltz resigned. He eventually told his story to a New York Times reporter he trusted and it became a sensational front page story.
About the decision to go public, Piltz said, “I thought about it for a long time.” He advised others not to do anything rash and to think very carefully. He would do it again. “I could not, not do it,” he said.
GAP travels to university campuses “to raise awareness of the vital role whistleblowing has in our democracy.” Founded in 1977 and based in Washington, D.C., GAP is an advocacy group, nonprofit, and politically nonpartisan, that educates the public about whistle-blowing.
In addition to promoting whistle-blowing on college campuses and in preparing materials for college curriculum, GAP is a law firm that represents whistle-blowers, explained Louis Clark, president of GAP.
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