Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who recently leaked classified details about secret U.S. government surveillance programs will become the seventh American whistleblower prosecuted under the Espionage Act by the Obama Administration.
However, not everyone agrees that Edward Snowden is in fact a whistleblower. That’s because technically speaking, he broke a U.S. law that prohibits federal employees from leaking classified information.
U.S. House Speaker John Boehner called Snowden a “traitor,” while U.S. Senator Bill Nelson called Snowden’s leaks “an act of treason.”
"The disclosure of this information puts Americans at risk. It shows our adversaries what our capabilities are. And it's a giant violation of the law," Boehner recently told ABC News.
Yet despite the disagreement on whether or not Snowden is a whistleblower, one thing is clear—the Obama Administration has indicted some whistleblowers under the Espionage Act at an unprecedented rate.
There have only been three other such cases since WWII, each under different administrations.
Interestingly, those indicted by the Obama Administration share a commonality—most of them belonged to the intelligence community.
Inside the mind of a whistleblower
Thomas Drake, a whistleblower and former senior executive at the NSA, is among those indicted by the Obama Administration under the Espionage Act. He’s also one of the few who understands Snowden’s current predicament.
All I did was take an oath to defend the constitution. I was criminalized for simply upholding the oath that I took.Thomas Drake, a whistleblower and former NSA executive
Drake leaked unclassified information to the media about an inefficient and wasteful NSA surveillance program called Trailblazer, which the agency implemented instead of a significantly cheaper program called ThinThread that was equipped with privacy protections for Americans.
Drake said this program caused him to believe he “was an eyewitness to the subversion of the constitution.”
This prompted him to come forward. Like Snowden, Drake said he was vilified for his disclosures of information about the NSA’s surveillance programs, which he deemed of critical importance to the freedom and liberties of the American people.
“All I did was take an oath to defend the constitution. I was criminalized for simply upholding the oath that I took. And that oath was not allegiance to the President or the NSA,” he said.
Drake’s case strikes at the heart of one of the major issues around these prosecutions—whistleblower protection largely excludes members of the intelligence community.
Whistleblower protection is supposed to shield government employees from retaliation for blowing the whistle on legitimate problems within government agencies concerning corruption, illegality, wrongdoing or matters that threaten public safety.
Louis Clark, the president of the Government Accountability Project, which represented Drake, said the exclusion of the intelligence community from whistleblower protection is “absolutely intentional.”
This leaves whistleblowers within these agencies with very few options. “There’s no place for them to go, that’s really what it comes down to,” he added.
Drake’s case seems to support this statement. Drake followed the protocol and stayed within the proper chain of command for reporting abuse. He first went to his superiors at the NSA, then to Congress and then to the Department of Defense Inspector General, who he fully cooperated with.
But Drake said no one responded to his concerns, and he was punished and retaliated against.
“They go out of the way to destroy you, to black ball you—to just break you,” he said.
Drake was subjected to interrogations, an armed FBI raid of his home, and increasing isolation at work.
“They threatened to put me away for the rest of my life. Can you imagine what that’s like?” Drake said.
After all internal avenues failed, Drake reached out to a reporter at the Baltimore Sun.
Yet despite the fact that Drake didn’t break U.S. law by disclosing classified information, the U.S. Department of Justice still indicted him under the Espionage Act. Although the charges were eventually dropped, it turned Drake’s life upside down.
Not all of the others indicted by the Obama Administration have escaped with their freedom fully intact.
Shamai Leibowitz, a former Hebrew translator for the FBI, was sentenced to 20 months in prison for leaking transcripts of conversations obtained by FBI wiretaps from the Israeli embassy in Washington.
The pro-peace blogger he leaked the transcripts to, Richard Silverstein, told the New York Times in 2011 that Leibowitz was concerned about Israeli influence over the U.S. Congress, and that he had fears Israel would bomb nuclear facilities in Iran.
John Kiriakou, a former CIA agent, blew the whistle on the CIA’s torture program, and is serving two-and-a-half years in prison for leaking classified information related to the program.
U.S. soldier Bradley Manning leaked some 700,000 U.S. government documents to Wikileaks, including video footage of Afghan and Iraqi civilians being killed by U.S. airstrikes. Manning has been held for nearly three years, sometimes in isolation, and faces life imprisonment.
Based on the experiences of these men and his own, Drake said he understands why Snowden went straight to the media and fled the country. “He saw what happened to the rest of us,” he said.
Yet Snowden has come under heavy criticism, not only for leaking classified information, but also for fleeing. Analysts such as Stephen Bucci, a former Army Special Forces officer and Pentagon official, said Snowden is “blowing smoke.”
He believes Snowden exaggerated his abilities, and that the NSA surveillance programs are both legal and beneficial.
“I don’t see this as some kind of nefarious government grab to look into everybody’s life like big brother,” he said.
“They were very good faith attempts to balance the requirement of our government to protect the life and limb of our citizens and to protect the privacy of our citizens,” added Bucci.
Drake staunchly disagrees. He said he believes the U.S. government is currently lying to the American people about the scope and extent of the NSA’s surveillance programs, and that “the suffocating blanket of national security” is “snuffing out dissent.”
But Bucci said the government isn’t lying that egregiously. “Don’t get me wrong, there’s fudging, but not the kind of blatant lying that is implied… we’re just not that good at keeping secrets,” he added.
Drake and Clark have also expressed concerns about the impact of what they perceive as an intentional crackdown on whistleblowers.
“Without whistleblower protection, you have a vehicle to get rid of anyone who raises any concern whatsoever,” Clark said.
And this can silence people, which Drake said is already happening. “People I used to work with, they’re keeping their heads low,” he said.
However Bucci is skeptical that there’s a concerted campaign to stifle whistleblowers.
“Obama is not trying to stop whistleblowers, Bucci added. “He’s trying to stop people from being inside sources for media so they can get good stories.”
These issues won’t be resolved any time soon. But Bucci and Drake both said they’re glad we’re having the debate.
And despite having his life turned upside down, Drake said he would do it all again, though he might have done some things differently.
“I wouldn’t have cooperated with the FBI because they turned everything against me,” he said.
“And I may have blown the whistle sooner… I would’ve gone to the press sooner,” Drake added.
Meanwhile, the fate of Edward Snowden is unclear. For now, he remains in a Moscow airport and is seeking asylum abroad. Drake said he hopes Snowden will find a safe passage to a country that will accept him.