Celebrating whistleblowers

The following is the acceptance speech given by Thomas Drake, former National Security Agency senior official and whistleblower, upon the receipt of the 2011 Ridenhour Truth-Telling Prize on April 13.

Thank you, Jesselyn, for your introduction. What a tribute to receive the Ridenhour Truth-Telling Prize as a whistleblower.

First, I would like to take a moment and personally express my deepest appreciation and gratitude to Jesselyn. She has become my public voice and conscience. I am truly honored to have her on my side – being who she is – doing all she can to keep me free.

This Prize did not exist, Jesselyn, when you went through all your trials and tribulations with the US government, as a whistleblower. And so this Prize is just as much for you as it is for me. May you always fly on the wings of eternal truth and justice.

I now come before you to exercise my fundamental rights under the Constitution to freely assemble with you and speak my conscience – under the protections of the 1st Amendment.

And in accepting the Ridenhour Truth-Telling Prize, I am speaking out publicly regarding my telling circumstances for the very first time.

I have already paid a frightfully high price for being a whistleblower. But worse still lies ahead of me.

Although I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution – and faithfully upheld the Law of the Land over a public service career spanning more than 20 years, I now stand before you as a criminal defendant – with my own life and liberty very much at stake – in a public trial set to begin on 13 June in Baltimore, Maryland.

(Note: In early June, the Justice Deparment dropped all felony charges, and Drake accepted a minor misdemeanor charge. His courage to go public, and the attendant publicity in the New Yorker, Washington Post and elsewhere undercut the egregious overreach, which seemed to be heading toward the use of the draconian Espionage Act on whistleblowers. Drake is due for sentencing July 15th)

My case is centered on a government prosecution bent not on serving justice, but on meting out retaliation, reprisal and retribution for the purpose of relentlessly punishing a whistleblower. Furthermore, my case is one that sends a most chilling message to other would-be whistleblowers: not only can you lose your job, but also your very freedom.

Freedom – it is a most precious space – the essence of being fully free. What happens when it is eroded and taken away?

Imagine for the moment that you cannot travel outside of Washington, D.C., Virginia or Maryland, without the permission of the Court. Imagine that you cannot leave the United States because your passport was confiscated and you are considered a flight risk.

Imagine for the moment that you have virtually no privacy left and that you have been the object of extensive and continuous physical and electronic surveillance by the government – as they attempt to find out everything they can about you.

Imagine for the moment having your very home raided by the FBI. Imagine having your family pictures, books, personal papers and computers seized and taken away. Imagine finding yourself without a job or a future and threatened with the prospect of serving the rest of your life in prison.

Imagine the government doing everything it can to isolate you from your family, your five sons, your friends, and your colleagues and their distress in wondering what has happened to you. Is that freedom?

The government regards me as an enemy of the state and a virtual political prisoner already, by virtue of having charged me under the Espionage Act. Yet for whom was I spying?

I formally raised grave concerns about government wrongdoing through proper channels – within NSA and with Congress – and also when called as a material witness before two 9/11 congressional investigations and a multi-year Department of Defense Inspector General audit investigation at NSA, regarding violations of the 4th Amendment and our Constitutional rights – revealing the existence of lawful, accountable and auditable alternative programs and approaches, rather than the unlawful and fraudulent programs and approaches the government funded with many billions and billions of taxpayer dollars in what became an abysmal funding of failure, when we simply failed to keep America out of harm’s way.

As a former government senior executive, I served in the public interest “to establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.”

I did not take an oath to support and defend government illegalities, violations of the Constitution or turn a blind eye to massive fraud, waste, and abuse simply because the government had the power to do so, hiding behind the veil of secrecy. The privilege of my Constitutional oath took precedence and priority; otherwise, I would have been complicit. I would not and could not condone unlawful orders and decisions that broke statute and regulations – even criminally.

I (and a number of others) had dedicated ourselves to the core American principle and practice that innovation and excellence are the hallmark for generating high-quality, low cost, fit-for-use products and services that would have greatly enhanced and expanded our general welfare, provided for the common defense, and vastly improved our intelligence in the wake of 9/11, without compromising our liberties or our security – believing that the clear line between innovation and infringement, creative freedom and crackdown, liberty and security was one that should never be crossed.

I can only wonder what might have been since the late 1990s, if these alternative breakthroughs – even revolutionary programs and approaches for meeting and exceeding the demands of the Digital Age – the very best of American ingenuity and innovation – had been permitted to fully deliver their law-abiding capability and capacity in support of our common defense – instead of billions and billions in wasted taxpayer dollars due to corruption and mismanagement, with an incalculable loss of intelligence, and placing at risk both our liberty and our security.

Instead, the government made my cooperation with official investigations a criminal act.

It is now apparently a federal crime to report illegalities, malfeasance, fraud, waste and abuse perpetrated by our own government.

The government is making whistleblowing a crime.

They are making dissent a crime – especially when it embarrasses the government and calls the government to account.

What is the difference between my situation and that of the Chinese artist who was detained when trying to leave his country because Chinese authorities deemed him a threat to national security?

The fact remains that the heart of my case rests directly on whistleblowing and 1st Amendment activities – involving issues of significant and even grave public concern in terms of government illegalities, contract and program malfeasance, as well as fraud, waste and abuse – protected by the Constitution, case law and statutes.

And yet the government is censoring and criminally prosecuting PROTECTED COMMUNICATIONS I made in furtherance of government investigations and doing so under the Espionage Act. Espionage is the LAST thing my whistleblowing and 1st Amendment activities and actions were all about.

This has become the specter of a truly Orwellian world where: Whistleblowing has become espionage. Espionage includes whistleblowing. And whistleblowing is now equated with spying. Dissent has become the mark of a traitor.

Truth is equivalent to treason and speaking truth to power makes one an enemy of the state. And yet who is really the enemy here?

Speaking up at all against the abuses, malfeasance and illegalities committed by the government invites becoming the equivalent of a virtual political prisoner or worse – having a criminal indictment placed on my head.

Supporting and defending the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic (the very oath I took four times in my public service career), apparently also violates the primacy and increasing power of the National Security State characterized by fear instead of freedom.

And yet did I need to surrender the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to the National Security State Under Surveillance Always – the NSS-USA?

Truth-tellers, such as myself, are those who are simply doing their jobs and honoring their oaths to serve their Nation under the Law of the Land. We are dedicated to the proposition that government service is of, for and by the people. We emphatically do not serve in order to manipulate on behalf of the powerful nor to conceal unlawful, illegal or embarrassing ‘secrets’ from the public.

Because truth does matter. Truth may be inconvenient, it may cause embarrassment, it may threaten the powers that be and their unlawful activities, but it is still the truth.

I have but this one life to live. And as an American, I will not live in silence to cover for the government’s sins.

The Law does matter. But when is it lawful to make it unlawful to reveal a government ‘secret’ inside of which illegalities are taking place – hence it was made a ‘secret’ in the first place?

Under the Rule of Law, is it unlawful to report illegal government activity just because it involves national security? Why does the invocation of ‘state secrets’ prevent a fuller determination for discovering if that is so?

Why discard the benefit provided by the Rule of Law for the lack of protection under the Rule of Law that requires invoking national security as the pretext for abandoning the law in the first place?And nowhere do I understand that national security is a substitute for the law.

As a student of history and politics, I firmly believe that we have reached a breaking point in this country, when the government violates and erodes our very privacy and precious freedoms in the name of national security and then hides it behind the convenient label of secrecy.

This is not the America I took an oath to support and defend in my career. This is not the America I learned about while growing up in Texas and Vermont. This is not the America we are supposed to be.

From my perspective, there are yet more revelations that I believe will one day see the light of day – the best form of disinfectant – as we have seen only the tip of the iceberg. There also remain many powerful lobbyists and revolving door loyalists, whose investment in the military-industrial-intelligence-congressional complex is solely motivated by the profit motive and mentality, and not the lawful and responsible provisioning of programs and resources.

We should consider what it means when our government obsesses over the identification of enemies as a unifying cause; pursues foreign policies through the supremacy of the military and projected might; raises national security to the level of a state religion; protects corporate power; suppresses dissent and free speech; pursues with zeal pretextual crime and punishment; and engages in rampant cronyism and corruption.

And if speaking truth to power and truth about power (and those powerfully located within and without government) is criminal, we are far down the road to the accelerating erosion of what it means to be American.

No one is above the Law. Unbridled, unaccountable and unnecessary power and secrecy on the part of the government are the hallmark of tyranny and contradict the very founding principles of this Nation – and ultimately make us less safe and secure. Liberty and security are not opposites. And they are decidedly not mutually exclusive. Upholding our liberties is, in fact, the basis for our security.

For the sake of our Constitutional Republic do we forsake the security of our liberty in the name of national security power and politics?

So consider what is at stake through the prism of my experience. Consider what it means for yourself, your families, your friends, your neighbors, your communities and your colleagues.

Consider what is at stake in all that I have shared with you. Consider what you will do with what you have heard from me. Consider what difference you will make after you leave from here today.

Do we want people dependent on the government, or a government dependent on the people? The Constitution places the supreme power of government in the hands of the people.

Restoring the Constitutional Rule of Law and the public trust will not be easy – as much damage has already been done. But restore it we must, because the very essence of what it truly means to be an American is very much at stake – for this generation let alone future generations – so we are free to engage in the fullness of living life, enjoying our precious liberties, and in pursuing happiness – the heart of the American Dream – unfettered by fear and fiat.

Therefore, just consider – if not now, when? If not you, who?“With Liberty and Justice for All.” Thank you for your listening.

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