We live in a time and within a culture where the best amongst us are thrown in jail, demonized or destroyed, while the worst are celebrated, promoted and enriched. Nothing more clearly crystalizes this sad state of affairs than the U.S. government’s ruthless war on whistleblowers who expose severe constitutional violations by those in power. This war knows no political affiliation, and has been waged with equal vigor by the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack H. Obama.
Earlier this morning, I read one of the most enlightening articles on the subject to-date. It was published back in May, and should be read by every single American citizen. We need to admit to ourselves what we have become before we can make changes.
What follows are excerpts from the Guardian piece, How the Pentagon Punished NSA Whistleblowers, but you should really take the time to read the entire thing.
If you want to know why Snowden did it, and the way he did it, you have to know the stories of two other men.
The first is Thomas Drake, who blew the whistle on the very same NSA activities 10 years before Snowden did. Drake was a much higher-ranking NSA official than Snowden, and he obeyed US whistleblower laws, raising his concerns through official channels. And he got crushed.
Drake was fired, arrested at dawn by gun-wielding FBI agents, stripped of his security clearance, charged with crimes that could have sent him to prison for the rest of his life, and all but ruined financially and professionally. The only job he could find afterwards was working in an Apple store in suburban Washington, where he remains today. Adding insult to injury, his warnings about the dangers of the NSA’s surveillance program were largely ignored.
But there is another man whose story has never been told before, who is speaking out publicly for the first time here. His name is John Crane, and he was a senior official in the Department of Defense who fought to provide fair treatment for whistleblowers such as Thomas Drake – until Crane himself was forced out of his job and became a whistleblower as well.
His testimony reveals a crucial new chapter in the Snowden story – and Crane’s failed battle to protect earlier whistleblowers should now make it very clear that Snowden had good reasons to go public with his revelations.
During dozens of hours of interviews, Crane told me how senior Defense Department officials repeatedly broke the law to persecute Drake. First, he alleged, they revealed Drake’s identity to the Justice Department; then they withheld (and perhaps destroyed) evidence after Drake was indicted; finally, they lied about all this to a federal judge.
“Name one whistleblower from the intelligence community whose disclosures led to real change – overturning laws, ending policies – who didn’t face retaliation as a result. The protections just aren’t there,” Snowden told the Guardian this week. “The sad reality of today’s policies is that going to the inspector general with evidence of truly serious wrongdoing is often a mistake. Going to the press involves serious risks, but at least you’ve got a chance.”
“None of the lawful whistleblowers who tried to expose the government’s warrantless surveillance – and Drake was far from the only one who tried – had any success,” Devine told me. “They came forward and made their charges, but the government just said, ‘They’re lying, they’re paranoid, we’re not doing those things.’ And the whistleblowers couldn’t prove their case because the government had classified all the evidence. Whereas Snowden took the evidence with him, so when the government issued its usual denials, he could produce document after document showing that they were lying. That is civil disobedience whistleblowing.”
Crane’s testimony is not simply a clue to Snowden’s motivations and methods: if his allegations are confirmed in court, they could put current and former senior Pentagon officials in jail. (Official investigations are quietly under way.)
But Crane’s account has even larger ramifications: it repudiates the position on Snowden taken by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton – who both maintain that Snowden should have raised his concerns through official channels because US whistleblower law would have protected him…
Within weeks of the September 11 attacks, Drake was assigned to prepare the NSA’s postmortem on the disaster. Congress, the news media and the public were demanding answers: what had gone wrong at the NSA and other federal agencies to allow Osama bin Laden’s operatives to conduct such a devastating attack?
As Drake interviewed NSA colleagues and scoured the agency’s records, he came across information that horrified him. It appeared that the NSA – even before September 11 – had secretly revised its scope of operations to expand its powers.
Since its inception, the NSA had been strictly forbidden from eavesdropping on domestic communications. Drake’s investigation persuaded him that the NSA was now violating this restriction by collecting information on communications within as well as outside of the United States. And it was doing so without obtaining legally required court orders.
Drake’s descent into a nightmare of persecution at the hands of his own government began innocently. Having uncovered evidence of apparently illegal behaviour, he did what his military training and US whistleblower law instructed: he reported the information up the chain of command. Beginning in early 2002, he shared his concerns first with a small number of high-ranking NSA officials, then with the appropriate members of Congress and staff at the oversight committees of the US Senate and House of Representatives.
Drake spent countless hours in these sessions but eventually came to the conclusion that no one in a position of authority wanted to hear what he was saying. When he told his boss, Baginski, that the NSA’s expanded surveillance following 9/11 seemed legally dubious, she reportedly told him to drop the issue: the White House had ruled otherwise.
John Crane first heard about Thomas Drake when Crane and his colleagues at the Pentagon’s Office of the Inspector General received a whistleblower complaint in September 2002. The complaint alleged that the NSA was backing an approach to electronic surveillance that was both financially and constitutionally irresponsible. The complaint was signed by three former NSA officials, William Binney, Kirk Wiebe and Edward Loomis, and a former senior Congressional staffer, Diane Roark. Drake also endorsed the complaint – but because he, unlike the other four, had not yet retired from government service, he asked that his name be kept anonymous, even in a document that was supposed to be treated confidentially within the government.
Binney, Wiebe, Loomis and Roark shared Drake’s concerns about the constitutional implications of warrantless mass surveillance, but their complaint focused on two other issues.
The first was financial. The whistleblowers contended that the NSA’s surveillance programme, codenamed Trailblazer, was a shameful waste of $3.8 billion – it had been more effective at channelling taxpayer dollars to corporate contractors than at protecting the homeland.
Of course it was.
Second, the whistleblowers warned that Trailblazer actually made the US less secure. They acknowledged that Trailblazer had vastly expanded the amount of electronic communications NSA collected. But this avalanche of raw data was too much – it left NSA’s analysts struggling to distinguish the vital from the trivial and thus liable to miss key clues.
Drake had discovered a shocking example while researching his postmortem report on the September 11 attacks. Months beforehand, the NSA had come into possession of a telephone number in San Diego that was used by two of the hijackers who later crashed planes into the World Trade Center. But the NSA did not act on this finding.
As Drake later told the NSA expert James Bamford, the NSA intercepted seven phone calls between this San Diego phone number and an al-Qaida “safe house” in Yemen. Drake found a record of the seven calls buried in an NSA database.
US officials had long known that the Yemen safe house was the operational hub through which Bin Laden, from a cave in Afghanistan, ordered attacks. Seven phone calls to such a hub from the same phone number was obviously suspicious. Yet the NSA took no action – the information had apparently been overlooked.
The Bush administration’s mass surveillance efforts were partly exposed in December 2005, when the New York Times published a front page article by reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, which revealed that the NSA was monitoring international phone calls and emails of some people in the US without obtaining warrants.
Eight years later, that story would be dwarfed by Snowden’s revelations. But at the time, the Bush White House was furious – and they were determined to find and punish whoever had leaked the details to the New York Times.
According to Crane, his superiors inside the Pentagon’s Inspector General’s office were eager to help. Henry Shelley, the general counsel – the office’s top lawyer – urged that the IG office should tell the FBI agents investigating the Times leak about Drake and the other NSA whistleblowers.
This Shelley character is a particularly heinous cretin in this entire saga.
After all, the NSA whistleblowers’ recent complaint had objected to the same surveillance practices described in the Times article – which made them logical suspects in the leak. Crane objected strenuously. Informing anyone – much less FBI investigators – of a whistleblower’s name was illegal.
After debating the matter at a formal meeting in the personal office of the inspector general, Shelley and Crane continued arguing in the hallway outside. “I reached into my breast pocket and pulled out my copy of the Whistleblower Protection Act,” Crane recalled. “I was concerned that Henry was violating the law. Our voices weren’t raised, but the conversation was, I would say, very intense and agitated. Henry [replied] that he was the general counsel, the general counsel was in charge of handling things with the Justice Department and he would do things his way.”
There the disagreement between Crane and Shelley stalled. Or so it seemed until 18 months later. On the morning of 26 July, 2007, FBI agents with guns drawn stormed the houses of Binney, Wiebe, Loomis and Roark. Binney was towelling off after a shower when agents accosted him; he and his wife suddenly found themselves with guns aimed directly between their eyes, the retired NSA man recalled.
Crane smelled a rat. The investigation that his staff had conducted into the whistleblowers’ complaint had been highly classified: very few people could have known their names, and they would have been inside the IG’s office. After the raids, Crane confronted Shelley and demanded to know whether the IG’s office had given the names to the FBI. Shelley refused to discuss the matter, Crane says.
The battle soon escalated. Four months later, FBI agents stormed Drake’s house in an early morning raid, as his family watched in shock.
After Drake was indicted in 2010, his lawyers filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain documents related to the investigation Crane’s office had conducted into the claims of the NSA whistleblowers. According to Crane, he was ordered by his superiors in the IG’s office to delay releasing any documents – which could have exonerated Drake – until after the trial, which was expected to take place later in 2010.
Crane alleges that he was ordered to do so by Shelley and Lynne Halbrooks – who had recently been named the principal deputy inspector general (in other words, the second-highest ranking official in the IG’s office). Crane protested but lost this skirmish as well. (Halbrooks did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.)
Crane was at once alarmed and revolted. The complaint from Drake’s lawyers seemed to confirm his suspicion that someone in the IG’s office had illegally fingered Drake to the FBI. Worse, the indictment filed against Drake had unmistakable similarities to the confidential testimony Drake had given to Crane’s staff – suggesting that someone in the IG’s office had not simply given Drake’s name to the FBI, but shared his entire testimony, an utter violation of law.
Drake’s complaint demanded investigation, Crane told Halbrooks. But Halbrooks, joined by Shelley, allegedly rejected Crane’s demand. She added that Crane wasn’t being a “good team player” and if he didn’t shape up, she would make life difficult for him.
But there was even worse to come. As Drake’s trial approached in the spring of 2011, Crane knew that the law required the IG’s office to answer the retaliation complaint filed by Drake’s lawyers. But, Crane says, Shelley now informed him it would be impossible to respond – because the relevant documents had been destroyed. Lower level staff “fucked up”, Crane said Shelley told him: they had shredded the documents in a supposedly routine purge of the IG’s vast stores of confidential material.
Crane could not believe his ears. “I told Henry that destruction of documents under such circumstances was, as he knew, a very serious matter and could lead to the inspector general being accused of obstructing a criminal investigation.” Shelley replied, according to Crane, that it didn’t have to be a problem if everyone was a good team player.
On 15 February, 2011, Shelley and Halbrooks sent the judge in the Drake case a letter that repeated the excuse given to Crane: the requested documents had been destroyed, by mistake, during a routine purge. This routine purge, the letter assured Judge Richard D Bennett, took place before Drake was indicted.
“Lynne and Henry had frozen me out by then, so I had no input into their letter to Judge Bennett,” Crane said. “So they ended up lying to a judge in a criminal case, which of course is a crime.”
With Drake adamantly resisting prosecutors’ pressure to make a plea deal – “I won’t bargain with the truth,” he declared – the government eventually withdrew most of its charges against him. Afterwards, the judge blasted the government’s conduct. It was “extraordinary”, he said, that the government barged into Drake’s home, indicted him, but then dropped the case on the eve of trial as if it wasn’t a big deal after all. “I find that unconscionable,” Bennett added. “Unconscionable. It is at the very root of what this country was founded on … It was one of the most fundamental things in the bill of rights, that this country was not to be exposed to people knocking on the door with government authority and coming into their homes.”
We are now becoming a police state,” Diane Roark said in a 2014 television interview. Referring to herself and the other NSA whistleblowers, she added, “We are the canaries in the coal mine. We never did anything wrong. All we did was oppose this programme. And for that, they just ran over us.”
“They’re saying, ‘We’re doing this to protect you,’” Roark’s fellow whistleblower William Binney told me. “I will tell you that that’s exactly what the Nazis said in Special Order 48 in 1933 – we’re doing this to protect you. And that’s how they got rid of all of their political opponents.”
These are strong statements – comparing the actions of the US government to Nazi Germany, warning of an emerging “police state” – so it’s worth remembering who made them. The NSA whistleblowers were not leftwing peace nuts. They had spent their professional lives inside the US intelligence apparatus – devoted, they thought, to the protection of the homeland and defence of the constitution.
They were political conservatives, highly educated, respectful of evidence, careful with words. And they were saying, on the basis of personal experience, that the US government was being run by people who were willing to break the law and bend the state’s awesome powers to their own ends. They were saying that laws and technologies had secretly been put in place that threatened to overturn the democratic governance Americans took for granted and shrink their liberties to a vanishing point. And they were saying that something needed to be done about all this before it was too late.
Let’s all make a resolution to do whatever we can to alter this situation and restore constitutional values to the land. Let’s also give thanks to all the incredibly courageous American patriots who have been relentlessly and despicably persecuted by their government.
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