Thomas Drake, a former Vermonter and celebrated whistleblower charged with mishandling classified national security information, won't serve time in jail for his communications with a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. On Friday, a federal judge handed Drake a lenient sentence of a year's probation and community service, bringing his Kafka-esque trial to a close.
According to news reports, Judge Richard Bennett chastised prosecutors for dragging Drake through hell for four years, nearly ruining his marriage and putting him on the edge of bankruptcy — only to largely drop their case against him just days before a trial was to begin.
Drake struck a plea deal last month with prosecutors. He pled guilty to a "misdemeanor of misusing the agency’s computer system" by providing official National Security Agency information to an unauthorized person — a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.
In 2001 Drake, a senior NSA official at the time, was assigned to a secret surveillance detail that collected and reviewed millions of pieces of data — some of them personal — in search of suspected domestic terrorist activity. Over time, Drake came to believe the program was a “budget sponge” used to pad the agency’s expenditures. He also believed some of the personal data collected likely violated protections against illegal search and seizure, court records indicate. He and others in the NSA complained to the internal inspector general and members of Congress, and also began talking to a reporter at the Baltimore Sun who began to write about the computer surveillance system.
Determined to find the source, or sources, of the Sun’s stories, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents raided Drake’s home in late 2007. He cooperated with federal investigators until April 2008, when Drake realized that he was a target of the probe and not just a witness. He then resigned from the NSA.
Drake is only the fourth person in U.S. history to be charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 for mishandling classified information. The first was Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the “Pentagon Papers” to the New York Times.
If convicted on the earlier 10-count felony indictment, Drake faced 35 years in prison. Judge Bennett sentenced Drake to one year's probation and 240 hours of community service. Bennett rejected the prosecution's call for a $50,000 fine, noting that Drake had racked up $82,000 in legal fees, had lost his high-paying NSA job and a chance at a federal pension thanks to the prosecution's investigation.
After the sentencing on Friday, Drake read a prepared statement to reporters on the steps of the federal courthouse. Before reading his statement, Drake said simply, "Wow, there is a third branch of government."
"I paid a very high price as a public servant for choosing my conscience over my career and blowing the whistle on government wrongdoing — exhausting all internal channels before going to the press with unclassified information," Drake told reporters. "Looking backward and not forward by criminalizing whistleblowing and charging individuals under the Espionage Act also sends a most chilling message for anyone daring to speak truth to power — or attempting to hold the government to account for its actions, only to have the government label them as a traitor or an enemy of the state.
"In the end, I was just being an American who simply stood up as a public servant in defense of truth, justice and our Constitution," Drake concluded. "I now look forward to getting my life back, so I can live free again knowing that freedom is never free — it requires eternal vigilance."
Drake grew up in southern Vermont, attended a one-room schoolhouse and later went to Burr and Burton Academy, where his father taught, in the early 1970s. His mother was the personal secretary for writer Pearl S. Buck when the author lived in Danby.
Drake's case has drawn national attention from whistleblower groups and open-government advocates. In April, Drake received the prestigious Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling — an annual honor given to whistleblowers, investigative journalists and other private citizens for “bringing an issue of social importance to the public’s attention.”