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.