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American Journalism Review
A Victory for Whistleblowers  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2011

A Victory for Whistleblowers   

And a humiliating defeat for the Obama administration’s misguided crusade against leakers. Fri. June 10, 2011

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder ( is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

The feds caved completely. And that's a good thing.

The federal government had absolutely no business using the Espionage Act to prosecute former National Security Agency official Thomas Drake. Drake's "crime," for which he faced 35 years in prison? Leaking information to a Baltimore Sun reporter.

The case unraveled after a federal judge said the government would have to reveal some of the allegedly classified documents Drake was charged with holding. So the feds backed off. According to the New York Times, the result was a deal in which Drake agreed to admit to a single misdemeanor, "misusing the agency's computer system by providing 'official N.S.A. information' to an unauthorized person"' – the reporter. The prosecution also agreed not to seek jail time for Drake.

The plea bargain represents an ignominious collapse for a prosecution the government had no business bringing. Drake isn't a spy. He's a classic whistleblower, as this fine piece by The New Yorker's estimable Jane Mayer makes crystal clear.

Drake was appalled that the NSA had rejected a data collection and analysis system developed relatively cheaply in-house, opting instead to pursue an extremely costly and ultimately aborted alternative. He also was upset that the privacy protection aspects of the original system had been scrapped. So he made sure the public learned about it.

The Obama administration came into power promising transparency. But once in office it has exhibited an enthusiasm for prosecuting leakers that makes the Nixon administration look like a champion of freedom of information.

The Drake case is one of five prosecutions the Obama administration has brought for revealing information to journalists. That's more than the total number in the history of the nation. And that's in just two-and-a-half years.

Maybe this humiliating setback will knock some sense into its collective head.

"This is a victory for national security whistle-blowers and against corruption inside the intelligence agencies," the Times quoted Jesselyn A. Radack, a lawyer for the Government Accountability Project, which has supported Drake, as saying. "No public servant should face 35 years in prison for telling the truth."



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