National Press Club

NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake criticizes government 'secrecy regime'

March 16, 2013 | By Sean Lyngaas | sean.lyngaas@gmail.com

NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake said the government is in the "First Un-Amendment business" at a March 15 National Press Club luncheon.

NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake said the government is in the "First Un-Amendment business" at a March 15 National Press Club luncheon.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

The government is going to great lengths to shut down leaks, according to Thomas Drake, a former senior executive turned whistleblower at the National Security Agency.

“In our post-9/11 world, the government is increasingly in the ‘First Un-amendment’ business, engaged in a direct assault on free speech and the very foundation of our democracy,” Drake told a National Press Club luncheon audience on March 15.

Drake was indicted in April, 2010, under the Espionage Act for allegedly providing classified information to the Baltimore Sun. He was eventually cleared of wrongdoing and now minces no words in warning of the perils of government secrecy.

What Drake calls “the secrecy regime” - the government protocols for securing a vast cache of classified documents - has created a “misunderstanding that if you happen to speak to a reporter…by definition, anything that you might say to them could be characterized as classified.”

In a passionate plea for the sanctity of the First Amendment, Drake warned that journalists are being increasingly frozen out of government sources.

“How else will the press report the real news when their sources dry up and the government becomes a primary purveyor of its own news?” he asked in one of many disturbing scenarios posed to the audience. He quoted George Orwell and John F. Kennedy to the same effect: It is a slippery slope from government secrecy to tyranny.

Club President Angela Greiling Keane has made press freedom a priority for her presidency this year. Had Drake been convicted, “it would have had a chilling effect on whistleblowers and journalists, who often receive and keep defense documents,” she said in introducing Drake.

Drake picked up on the theme.

“Given where we are today, at the National Press Club, it seems to me that it’s more than appropriate for us to discuss the long shadow of government secrecy obscuring the view of democracy in our constitutional republic, or what’s left of it,” he said.

Drake’s speech was one of several events the Club hosted for Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote open government and freedom of information. The Club held sessions on how antiterrorism laws around the world are used to prosecute journalists and how the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) can be improved, among other topics.

Drake mocked a White House statement celebrating Sunshine Week and repeatedly used metaphors of light in his remarks.

“In an open and transparent society, the citizenry are supposed to know the truth of its own government," he said. "So if the First Amendment is the sunshine of our liberty, how else are we to remain free if the government casts its shadow over you and me?”

When asked if he would advise a government employee today to follow his path and blow the whistle on government abuse, Drake was solemn but unequivocal.

“Yes, but make sure you understand what you’re getting yourself into. Do not speak to the FBI, make sure you have a lawyer right from the start,” he said.