Jane Mayer has been reporting brilliantly on the American government’s “security” systems since the Reagan administration. She’s got a long article in the May 23 New Yorker,The Secret Sharer: Is Thomas Drake an enemy of the state?” that’s well worth reading in its entirety:
On June 13th, a fifty-four-year-old former government employee named Thomas Drake is scheduled to appear in a courtroom in Baltimore, where he will face some of the gravest charges that can be brought against an American citizen. A former senior executive at the National Security Agency, the government’s electronic-espionage service, he is accused, in essence, of being an enemy of the state. According to a ten-count indictment delivered against him in April, 2010, Drake violated the Espionage Act—the 1917 statute that was used to convict Aldrich Ames, the C.I.A. officer who, in the eighties and nineties, sold U.S. intelligence to the K.G.B., enabling the Kremlin to assassinate informants. In 2007, the indictment says, Drake willfully retained top-secret defense documents that he had sworn an oath to protect, sneaking them out of the intelligence agency’s headquarters, at Fort Meade, Maryland, and taking them home, for the purpose of “unauthorized disclosure.” The aim of this scheme, the indictment says, was to leak government secrets to an unnamed newspaper reporter, who is identifiable as Siobhan Gorman, of the Baltimore Sun. Gorman wrote a prize-winning series of articles for the Sun about financial waste, bureaucratic dysfunction, and dubious legal practices in N.S.A. counterterrorism programs. Drake is also charged with obstructing justice and lying to federal law-enforcement agents. If he is convicted on all counts, he could receive a prison term of thirty-five years.
The government argues that Drake recklessly endangered the lives of American servicemen. “This is not an issue of benign documents,” William M. Welch II, the senior litigation counsel who is prosecuting the case, argued at a hearing in March, 2010. The N.S.A., he went on, collects “intelligence for the soldier in the field. So when individuals go out and they harm that ability, our intelligence goes dark and our soldier in the field gets harmed.”
Top officials at the Justice Department describe such leak prosecutions as almost obligatory. Lanny Breuer, the Assistant Attorney General who supervises the department’s criminal division, told me, “You don’t get to break the law and disclose classified information just because you want to.” He added, “Politics should play no role in it whatsoever.”
When President Barack Obama took office, in 2009, he championed the cause of government transparency, and spoke admiringly of whistle-blowers, whom he described as “often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government.” But the Obama Administration has pursued leak prosecutions with a surprising relentlessness. Including the Drake case, it has been using the Espionage Act to press criminal charges in five alleged instances of national-security leaks—more such prosecutions than have occurred in all previous Administrations combined. The Drake case is one of two that Obama’s Justice Department has carried over from the Bush years.
The morning that Al Qaeda attacked the U.S. was, coincidentally, Drake’s first full day of work as a civilian employee at the N.S.A.—an agency that James Bamford, the author of “The Shadow Factory” (2008), calls “the largest, most costly, and most technologically sophisticated spy organization the world has ever known.” Drake, a linguist and a computer expert with a background in military crypto-electronics, had worked for twelve years as an outside contractor at the N.S.A. Under a program code-named Jackpot, he focussed on finding and fixing weaknesses in the agency’s software programs. But, after going through interviews and background checks, he began working full time for Maureen Baginski, the chief of the Signals Intelligence Directorate at the N.S.A., and the agency’s third-highest-ranking official…
Drake, hoping to help fight back against Al Qaeda, immediately thought of a tantalizing secret project he had come across while working on Jackpot. Code-named ThinThread, it had been developed by technological wizards in a kind of Skunk Works on the N.S.A. campus. Formally, the project was supervised by the agency’s Signals Intelligence Automation Research Center, or SARC.
While most of the N.S.A. was reeling on September 11th, inside SARC the horror unfolded “almost like an ‘I-told-you-so’ moment,” according to J. Kirk Wiebe, an intelligence analyst who worked there. “We knew we weren’t keeping up.” SARC was led by a crypto-mathematician named Bill Binney, whom Wiebe describes as “one of the best analysts in history.” Binney and a team of some twenty others believed that they had pinpointed the N.S.A.’s biggest problem—data overload—and then solved it. But the agency’s management hadn’t agreed…