Slideshow: Eight Whistleblowers Charged Under the Espionage Act

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Thomas Drake

Thomas Drake speaks at the National Press Club in Washington on April 13, 2011 during the Ridenhour Prize awards ceremony where he was honored. The Ridenhour Prize seeks to reward individuals who have courageously taken a public stand against injustice, corruption and incompetence. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Thomas Drake is a former senior executive at the NSA who was charged under the Espionage Act for the unauthorized “willful retention” of classified documents. Drake’s problems with the agency started when he found himself on the minority side of a debate about two new tools for collecting intelligence from digital sources. One program, called Trailblazer, was being built by an outside contractor for $1.2 billion; the other, known as ThinThread, was created in-house by a legendary crypto-mathematician named Bill Binney for about $3 million.

Then, in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11 2001, the NSA, with the approval of the Bush administration, began the illegal warrantless surveillance of American citizens. This did not sit well with Drake, who says that during his time in the Air Force, where he also did surveillance work, the imperative to protect American’s privacy was drilled into him. “If you accidentally intercepted US persons, there were special procedures to expunge it.”

“I was faced with a crisis of conscience,” Drake told The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer. “What do I do — remain silent, and complicit, or go to the press?” As a father of five, one of whom has serious health problems, Drake concluded that he’d go to the press with his complaints about the NSA — but he’d only share unclassified information, thinking perhaps he’d lose he’s job but at least not end up in jail. So he leaked the story of ThinThread vs. Trailblazer — a simple story of government waste — to the Baltimore Sun. A few months later, the FBI appeared at his door. Drake at one point faced up to 35 years in prison for various charges, most of which were dropped. He eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for exceeding authorized use of a computer.

John Light is a reporter and producer for the Moyers team. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, Grist, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, Vox and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. He's a graduate of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.
Lauren Feeney is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and multimedia journalist whose work has appeared on air and online at PBS, Al Jazeera English and other outlets. A former producer for Moyers & Company, she was a contributor for PBS' Need to Know and led web teams for Wide Angle and Women, War & Peace. She is a graduate of Bard College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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