The Obama administration’s war on whistleblowers

The Takeaway

This story was originally covered by PRI’s The Takeaway. For more, listen to the audio above.

Last week, former National Security Agency employee Thomas Drake brokered a plea deal after he was charged under the 1917 espionage act for leaking classified information. Instead of the 10 felony counts he was charged with, which could have landed him in jail for more than 30 years, Drake pled guilty to a minor misdemeanor. According to New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer, the plea dealt a major blow to the Obama administration’s continuing war on leakers and whistleblowers.

“The case stems from [Drake] having gone to a reporter, finally, in about 2006, after he felt he he’d exhausted all other means and methods of complaining about what he saw as gross legal problems inside the NSA,” Mayer explained to The Takeaway. “The problems he was talking about were huge wastes of money — almost 2 billion spent on a program that resulted in nothing but a bunch of schematic drawings.”

In some ways, Drake’s criticism of the massive domestic spying program that was eventually revealed by the New York Times that was, in some ways, more important to the case. Drake wasn’t a source for the New York Times, but Mayer says, “after that story came out, he made clear to the Baltimore Sun that it was possible for the government to have gotten the same intelligence information without spying on Americans that way.”

Instead of treating Drake like a whistleblower trying to expose programs he thought were wasteful and unconstitutional, the Justice department went after him like a spy. Mayer says the case “really tested the right of the public to know about what the government is doing behind closed doors against the national security apparatuses’ assertion that these are state secrets and they need to stay state secret.”

The Drake case also exposes a change in tenor of the national security community in Washington DC. Mayer says they truly feel besieged by leakers, especially after the Wikileaks case. ” They’ve been pushing the Justice Department very hard to prosecute leakers and to try to make an example of them, Mayer says. And so Obama’s administration has, fairly surprisingly, gone along with this in a big way.”

“There are currently 5 leak prosecutions, including the Drake one,” under the Obama administration, Mayer reports, “five leak prosecutions are more leak prosecutions than every other previous administration combined.”

Drake’s plea bargain has dealt a significant blow to the Justice Department’s fight against leakers and whistleblowers. Mayer says, “They were just plain routed in this settlement, in this plea agreement.” Now, Mayer hopes they’ll reconsider their tacitcs.

“One way to fix the leaks is to have legal policies that can withstand public scrutiny and not waste billions of dollars,” Mayer told The Takeaway. “The reason you’ve got leakers is you’ve got critics inside. And if the policies are bad, people are going to talk about it in this country.”


“The Takeaway” is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what’s ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH.

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