Most Important Op-Ed You’ll Read This Year

Most Important Op-Ed You’ll Read This Year August 30, 2011

Thomas Drake, the former NSA employee who blew the whistle on that agency’s unconstitutional surveillance programs, had an op-ed piece in the Washington Post last week that should be required reading in every high school government and civics class and should be read by every American. What he reveals here is enormously important, especially that there was a system in place that allowed the government to comply with the constitution while getting the information it needed to combat terrorism, but it was scrapped in favor of the unconstitutional data mining program.

From 2001 through 2008, I was a senior executive at the National Security Agency. Shortly after Sept. 11, I heard more than rumblings about secret electronic eavesdropping and data mining against Americans that bypassed the Fourth Amendment and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — the exclusive means in the law for conducting such activity, with severe criminal sanctions when violated. Such shortcuts were not necessary. Lawful alternatives — using the best of Americans’ ingenuity and innovation — existed that would have also vastly improved our intelligence capability against legitimate threats. A highly innovative intelligence data collection, processing and analysis system called ThinThread was operationally ready and had built-in safeguards to comply with the Fourth Amendment. But this revolutionary system was rejected by the NSA while much higher-cost work on the multibillion-dollar flagship Trailblazer program proceeded.

And he explains what he did and why he did it:

I raised the gravest of concerns through all the proper channels, reporting massive contract fraud, management malfeasance and illegalities conducted by the NSA, including critical intelligence information and analysis that was never reported or shared by the NSA. Had this vital and actionable intelligence been properly analyzed and disseminated by the NSA, it could have led to the capture of the Sept. 11 hijackers and prevented the attacks.

I followed all the rules for reporting such activity until it conflicted with the primacy of my oath to defend the Constitution. I then made a fateful choice to exercise my fundamental First Amendment rights and went to a journalist with unclassified information about which the public had a right to know.

Rather than address its own corruption, ineptitude and illegal actions, the government made me a target of a multi-year, multimillion-dollar federal criminal “leak” investigation as part of a vicious campaign against whistleblowers that started under President George W. Bush and is coming to full fruition under President Obama.

To the government, I was a traitor and enemy of the state. As an American, however, I could not stand by and become an accessory to the willful subversion of our Constitution and our freedoms…

The real consequence of such behavior by our government is also chilling: It weakens our national security and keeps the public less informed, while wasting billions of dollars enriching any number of contractors that are profiteering at the expense of our security and common defense.

Before the war on terrorism, our country recognized the importance of free speech and privacy. If we sacrifice these basic liberties, according to the false dichotomy that such is required for security, then we transform ourselves from an oasis of freedom into a police state that crucifies its citizens when they step out of line or speak up against government wrongdoing. These are the hallmarks of despotism, not democracy. Is this the country we want to keep?

I’m frankly not sure it is anymore. Probably hasn’t been in a long time. The government had no case against Drake. They ended up having to drop all of the charges against him except a minor misdemeanor that resulted in community service. But that’s not the important part. Even without a conviction, the years spent pursuing him and putting him in legal jeopardy may still have served their purpose of deterring the next employee who cares enough about their country to fight against the government.

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  • It’s not right to blame the war or terror – much of the NSA/CIA/FBI social agenda that evolved into the post-9/11 police state was in gear in the early 90s. Remember CALEA, Clipper, ECHELON? 9/11 opened the floodgates and gave the reactionaries a president who was willing to rubber-stamp anything. That was when we started seeing programs like “total information awareness” appear, get ‘outed’ and ‘disappear’ only to reappear under another name. By now, all that stuff is in place.

    The only consolation, for me, is that Big Brother was built by contractors, and from the work I’ve seen out of those guys, I’ll bet that it’s probably mostly expensive crap.

  • abb3w

    I’m a bit more cautious about deciding whether this is the country I want to keep, until I hear what the choices are for what to replace it with, and by what proposed means to accomplish such replacement. The alternatives and means mostly seem unimproved, unconscionable, implausible, ineffectual, or improbable.

  • Pieter B

    Ed — got a link? I’d like to read the whole thing.

  • Pieter B

    Never mind. For anyone else, here it is.

  • daveau

    Occam’s Blunt Instrument’s valid point regarding timing aside, when I am asked what 9/11 means to me, I reply: “the erosion of our constitutional rights”. This is a lovely example.

  • Chiroptera

    daveau at 3:16: Occam’s Blunt Instrument’s valid point regarding timing aside, when I am asked what 9/11 means to me, I reply: “the erosion of our constitutional rights”. This is a lovely example.

    Heh. When I first heard the news about 9/11 on the radio, the first thought in my mind was, “well, that’s the excuse they were looking for to take away the rest of our civil rights.” (That may sound rather callous — it wasn’t until later that evening that the magnitude of the human loss struck me.)

    I have been constantly surprised at how long it’s been taking them to finalize the complete gutting of the Constitution.

  • Chris from Europe


    I was shocked when I realized that it would work. At first, I thought people couldn’t be that dumb.

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