NSA Executive Leaked After Official Reporting Process Failed Himby Kim Zetter, m.wired.com
July 14th 2010
A former NSA executive who is fighting government charges of leaking classified information was part of a group that pursued several sanctioned paths to report concerns about an agency spy program, but was repeatedly frustrated by the government’s inaction, according to a report Wednesday.
Thomas Drake, now reduced to working at a Washington, D.C.-area Apple store while awaiting his trial, first notified his superiors at the National Security Agency, then looked to Congress to address his concerns, and finally worked with a group that went to the Defense Department’s inspector general, according to The Washington Post. When all of these avenues failed to net results, he took his information to a reporter at The Baltimore Sun.
Drake now faces a maximum sentence of 35 years in prison if convicted of mishandling classified information and obstructing justice.
Drake’s information involved a data-mining program called ThinThread that, after the Sept. 11 attacks, was going to be replaced by a more expensive, less efficient and less privacy-friendly program called Trailblazer. When he expressed concerns that the new program would ignore constitutional safeguards around wiretapping, he was reportedly rebuffed by his superiors.
“He tried to have his concerns heard and nobody really wanted to listen,” attorney Nina Ginsberg, who is representing a former Capitol Hill staffer but is not representing Drake, told the Post.
Drake began working for the NSA in 1989 as a contractor. His job was to evaluate software programs for the agency. In 2001, on the morning of Sept. 11 to be exact, he began a new job as a senior executive at the NSA overseeing the office of change leadership and communications, the Post says. ThinThread was developed for the NSA in the ’90s to mine massive amounts of digital data collected by the agency and find patterns.
One of the existing program’s key features was a privacy component that anonymized collected data through encryption. The identifying information would only be decrypted if authorities gained sufficient evidence to obtain a warrant. Although the mere collection of domestic data was still illegal without a warrant, Drake apparently approved of the product as long as the anonymization feature was in place.
But after Sept. 11, NSA director Michael Hayden opted instead for the $1.2 billion Trailblazer program, which was believed to have more robust capability to handle larger volumes of data, but which had none of the privacy safeguards present in ThinThread.
Three of Drake’s superiors now say that he never mentioned his concerns about constitutional safeguards to them, but career NSA employees back Drake’s story, according to the paper. They took their concerns to congressional leaders and staffers, including Diane Roark, a Republican staff member of the House Intelligence Committee. Roark contacted Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who was responsible for appointing judges to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — the court that oversees requests for national security surveillance warrants. But Rehnquist apparently was a dead end.
Roark also had no luck with her boss, House Intelligence Chairman Porter Goss (R-Florida). Instead of performing his congressional oversight duty, Goss simply sent her along to NSA chief Hayden, who told her: “We’re proud of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”
That’s when Roark and former NSA employees who sided with Drake took their concerns to the Defense Department’s inspector general. They reported that the NSA had shelved ThinThread in favor of a program that cost 10 times as much and was less effective.
An administrative investigation was spawned by their complaint, as well as two criminal fraud investigations. The inspector general’s report was completed in December 2004 but was classified and led to no action.
It was Roark who suggested Drake contact a reporter at that point. A month later, in December 2005, The New York Times reported its groundbreaking story disclosing that the NSA had been spying on Americans, based on information from anonymous sources. Drake decided he should come forward with his information as well.
He contacted Siobhan Gorman at The Baltimore Sun, using Hushmail, an encrypted e-mail service. They communicated for a year without Drake identifying himself, before they finally met in person.
Drake allegedly provided Gorman with scans of classified documents, from which she wrote an article questioning the NSA’s replacement of ThinThread with Trailblazer and its abandonment of privacy safeguards. Drake later told New Yorker investigative reporter Seymour Hersh that the story was actually much more significant than what The Baltimore Sun reported.
Drake’s attorney, a public defender, says the government’s allegations against his client are factually wrong and miss important principles suggested by the case.
“Throughout, Tom Drake has tried as best he could to do the right thing in service of his country,” Jim Wyda told the Post. “His motives in this important matter are completely pure.”
Photo courtesy NSA
Original Page: http://m.wired.com/threatlevel/2010/07/thomas-drake/
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