Day 6

Anti-surveillance group tells spies: 'Listen to your heart, not private phone calls'

A new campaign wants surveillance workers to quit the business. IntelExit, a group of anti-surveillance activists, have put up billboards near intelligence agencies around the world. And they say they'll provide support for employees who choose to leave. Brent speaks with Thomas Drake, an ex-NSA executive, about why it's so hard to break free from the spy game.
Laura Murphy, Director of the Washington Legislative Office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), speaks during a rally outside of the U.S. Capitol to demand that Congress investigate the NSA's mass surveillance programs on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, in Washington. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana) (The Associated Press)

Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden joined Twitter this week. @Snowden already has more than a million followers, but he only follows one account - the NSA's. Snowden's been in Russia since 2013, after he leaked classified documents that blew the lid off the U.S government's mass surveillance program. His whistleblowing made headlines around the world and he's still wanted by the U.S government on espionage charges.

But now, a new campaign is urging other surveillance workers to act on their conscience and call it quits. IntelExit, a group of anti-surveillance activists in Berlin, have put up billboards near intelligence headquarters around the world, with slogans like "listen to your heart, not private phone calls." They say they'll support employees who break free from their surveillance jobs. 

Brent speaks with Thomas Drake about why it's so hard to leave the spy game whether you're a whistleblower or not. Drake used to be a senior executive at the NSA. In 2005, he was charged under the Espionage Act with leaking classified documents to a Baltimore Sun reporter about wasteful spending and the government's surveillance program. The charges were ultimately dropped, after Drake pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Brent Bambury: You ended your career as a whistleblower but that doesn't seem to be what you're encouraging people to do here. What is the message that you and IntelExit want to get to people in the surveillance industry?

TD: Well it's actually both. I recognize that there are people who do want to blow the whistle and that there's an entire support structure of social wellbeing, advocacy as well as legal aid that is available for those who wish to blow the whistle on wrongdoing, fraud-based abuse, violations of  threats  to public safety or health. But there's also people who simply want to leave the intelligence world because they no longer find it compatible with who they are, or their values. Or they've just reached a point where it's time to move on.

BB: I'm interested in this idea of a values because IntelExit says that many surveillance workers feel a cognitive dissonance when they're doing their work. That they're in the service of the state, but they're also breaking the state's law. What did that feel like for you?

TD: Well that was a fundamental conflict because with respect to my position at NSA and my function, I was a senior executive. I had taken an oath to support and defend the constitution. That took priority over everything else including any secrecy agreements. I recognized I was bound by certain secrecy agreements but that didn't mean they could use that as cover to violate the law or engage in unethical behavior. So that's where the cognitive dissonance is, because you are working for the state, you're an employee or employed by the state and yet you've got to that point where it's "wow, this is incompatible with even the ethical standard that even the agency or department set forth." In my case, it was the constitution that was violated. 

BB: And that is a clear violation, but are the ethical violations always that clear, I mean doesn't somebody who enters this field know that there's a lot of moral gray area or a lot of ambivalence in espionage?

TD:  Yes. You're entering into a very secret world, which has its own customs, its own traditions, and it's behind windows, you know, that are dark, or no windows. Walls and fences and barbed wire and guards and so when you enter that world, you are giving up a fair amount of your own sovereignty and even your own anonymity. But then you get it, well are we doing this for what purpose? And that's where this dissonance occurs. For some, that dissonance reaches a point where they have to make that moral or conscious or ethical choice to leave.

BB: So pushing back, whether it's the decision to leave or doing more as you did and becoming a whistleblower must be threatening to the people who stay. How did your colleagues react to your decision to speak out?

TD: It's the Omerta principle. You don't speak ill will of each other, let alone the institution, so the institution which is the people want to protect themselves. Their identity is largely given in part by by the institution so if you are leaving or contemplating leaving, that is oftentimes viewed by those who remain as disloyal. 

BB: That's internally. And then externally, you have to explain this decision to your family or to your spouse. What is that like?

TD: That can be particularly challenging, especially if you're one of the primary breadwinners or as in my case, I had a long-term government career.  I had taken the oath to support and defend the constitution four times. So when you in essence come out from that culture and in my case in rather dramatic form, there are lots of raised eyebrows. And then you also have pushback even from family members like "what the heck happened to you" or "I don't know you" or "why would you do this" or the question is "why would the government come after you if you didn't do something wrong"?

BB: And in your case what does am ex-spy do next? How did you go about finding another job?

TD: I mean I chose to leave, but it was clearly because I was under criminal investigation and I knew that it was very likely that they could criminally indict me and I could face many many years in prison. So I left. And when I left it was quite public by virtue of what the government charged me with, you know, with espionage so that made the press and then some across the country. And it was the signature case to make an example of me. Not just to others, anybody who dares speak truth to power. But also those who remain the community. Avoid, stay away, radioactive, persona non-grata. And if you dare consider leaving, or dare whistleblow on us, then you might get the same treatment. 

BB: So what happened next to you in terms of your livelihood, in terms of finding another job?

TD: It completely turned upside down. I mean I remember I had been trained, I had skill, I now was senior manager, executive. So yeah. The very things that you had become good at are are now gone and find yourself completely outside of what was home in terms of your professional life. Extremely challenging to find other work given in my case, because I was essentially regarded as a criminal. And therefore any other position in the government or even close to the government was really blocked out for me. So I ended up having to find other work. Even though I lost some of that work like teaching at a local university and I did find employment with Apple and that's where I currently work full time. 

BB: You're working in retail right? 

TD: Yes I am. I work in retail full time with Apple. 

BB: And as you said you're working in a job that doesn't take advantage of your skills, that that doesn't pay off your experience. So why are you a good example for people who you're trying to reach?  Why is your example encouraging?

TD: What I'm saying is there is life afterwards. Obviously they went to the next level with Snowden given that he had to leave the country in order to even keep any personal freedom or liberty. I was able to hold off the government I was able to find other work. And there's a whole new set of people and networks that I'm a part of. That's the silver lining. It's extraordinary the people that are civil rights advocacy groups, lawyers and those who are extraordinary defenders of freedom. I'm part of a whole set of networks, some that are overlapping. And this is part of what I've dedicated my life to doing, besides defending life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We need to defend and support those who do leave the secret world. 

BB: So now these billboards have been placed outside of security headquarters and they are provocative. Knowing how the security establishment works, do you think they'll be threatened by IntelExit's invitation to people to leave the system? 

TD: Well it is provocative, and that's partly its intent. Remember, it is in part a publicity campaign as well. And so it's saying, "hey we haven't forgotten, you know, we're still listening to you, we're still watching you." But clearly it will in part threaten sort of the institutional culture of the secret world because in essence it is appealing, to use the word "recruiting", those who may be on the fence, those who do have moral agency and wish to exercise it.

BB: And would an exodus of those people endanger state secrets?

TD: No, not in the least. They're obviously not going to support people leaving, particularly if they're leaving for the reasons like I did, when you do see wrongdoing or maleficence. But the exodus you're speaking about, it's a very very small number of people. Most people, they're not going to leave, most people are going to just remain silent. They're not going to actually take action to dramatically alter the course of their own career, particularly when they have families and jobs and mortgages, and careers and a pension at stake.

BB: It seems to me you don't regret the decision that you made. But are there ever days when you wish that you were still a spy?

TD: No, as the days and weeks and months and even years go by now, and as I distance myself from that, although obviously I spent many years in that world, I miss it less and less. I mean look, what's the price of freedom, what's the price of liberty? I was looking at a much longer term. I mean that's that long arc of history bending towards justice. I just could no longer remain in that system given what I was exposed to and then ultimately what I blew the whistle on.

BB: Thomas Drake, thanks for being with us.

TD: Thank you.