On June 13th, a fifty-four-year-old former government employee named Thomas Drake is scheduled to appear in a courtroom in Baltimore, where he will face some of the gravest charges that can be brought against an American citizen. A former senior executive at the National Security Agency, the government’s electronic-espionage service, he is accused, in essence, of being an enemy of the state. According to a ten-count indictment delivered against him in April, 2010, Drake violated the Espionage Act—the 1917 statute that was used to convict Aldrich Ames, the C.I.A. officer who, in the eighties and nineties, sold U.S. intelligence to the K.G.B., enabling the Kremlin to assassinate informants. In 2007, the indictment says, Drake willfully retained top-secret defense documents that he had sworn an oath to protect, sneaking them out of the intelligence agency’s headquarters, at Fort Meade, Maryland, and taking them home, for the purpose of “unauthorized disclosure.” The aim of this scheme, the indictment says, was to leak government secrets to an unnamed newspaper reporter, who is identifiable as Siobhan Gorman, of the Baltimore Sun. Gorman wrote a prize-winning series of articles for the Sun about financial waste, bureaucratic dysfunction, and dubious legal practices in N.S.A. counterterrorism programs. Drake is also charged with obstructing justice and lying to federal law-enforcement agents. If he is convicted on all counts, he could receive a prison term of thirty-five years.
The government argues that Drake recklessly endangered the lives of American servicemen. “This is not an issue of benign documents,” William M. Welch II, the senior litigation counsel who is prosecuting the case, argued at a hearing in March, 2010. The N.S.A., he went on, collects “intelligence for the soldier in the field. So when individuals go out and they harm that ability, our intelligence goes dark and our soldier in the field gets harmed.”
Top officials at the Justice Department describe such leak prosecutions as almost obligatory. Lanny Breuer, the Assistant Attorney General who supervises the department’s criminal division, told me, “You don’t get to break the law and disclose classified information just because you want to.” He added, “Politics should play no role in it whatsoever.”
When President Barack Obama took office, in 2009, he championed the cause of government transparency, and spoke admiringly of whistle-blowers, whom he described as “often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government.” But the Obama Administration has pursued leak prosecutions with a surprising relentlessness. Including the Drake case, it has been using the Espionage Act to press criminal charges in five alleged instances of national-security leaks—more such prosecutions than have occurred in all previous Administrations combined. The Drake case is one of two that Obama’s Justice Department has carried over from the Bush years.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a conservative political scientist at the Hudson Institute, who, in his book “Necessary Secrets” (2010), argues for more stringent protection of classified information, says, “Ironically, Obama has presided over the most draconian crackdown on leaks in our history—even more so than Nixon.”
One afternoon in January, Drake met with me, giving his first public interview about this case. He is tall, with thinning sandy hair framing a domed forehead, and he has the erect bearing of a member of the Air Force, where he served before joining the N.S.A., in 2001. Obsessive, dramatic, and emotional, he has an unwavering belief in his own rectitude. Sitting at a Formica table at the Tastee Diner, in Bethesda, Drake—who is a registered Republican—groaned and thrust his head into his hands. “I actually had hopes for Obama,” he said. He had not only expected the President to roll back the prosecutions launched by the Bush Administration; he had thought that Bush Administration officials would be investigated for overstepping the law in the “war on terror.”
“But power is incredibly destructive,” Drake said. “It’s a weird, pathological thing. I also think the intelligence community coöpted Obama, because he’s rather naïve about national security. He’s accepted the fear and secrecy. We’re in a scary space in this country.”
The Justice Department’s indictment narrows the frame around Drake’s actions, focussing almost exclusively on his handling of what it claims are five classified documents. But Drake sees his story as a larger tale of political reprisal, one that he fears the government will never allow him to air fully in court. “I’m a target,” he said. “I’ve got a bull’s-eye on my back.” He continued, “I did not tell secrets. I am facing prison for having raised an alarm, period. I went to a reporter with a few key things: fraud, waste, and abuse, and the fact that there were legal alternatives to the Bush Administration’s ‘dark side’ ”—in particular, warrantless domestic spying by the N.S.A.
The indictment portrays him not as a hero but as a treacherous man who violated “the government trust.” Drake said of the prosecutors, “They can say what they want. But the F.B.I. can find something on anyone.”
Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, says of the Drake case, “The government wants this to be about unlawfully retained information. The defense, meanwhile, is painting a picture of a public-interested whistle-blower who struggled to bring attention to what he saw as multibillion-dollar mismanagement.” Because Drake is not a spy, Aftergood says, the case will “test whether intelligence officers can be convicted of violating the Espionage Act even if their intent is pure.” He believes that the trial may also test whether the nation’s expanding secret intelligence bureaucracy is beyond meaningful accountability. “It’s a much larger debate than whether a piece of paper was at a certain place at a certain time,” he says…
Roland Jahn had only been in office as the new Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives for a month before he met with a select group of about 30 agency employees with special skills in matters of state security.
The meeting was organized by Sigurd Schulz, a union official with a well-documented past. Indeed, Schulz’s name appears on the list of former full-time employees of the Ministry for State Security, East Germany’s notorious secret police more commonly known as the Stasi. He worked in the personal protection department.
Schulz is one of 47 members of the Jahn’s agency who once worked for the Stasi. Ironically, they now work for an organization tasked with accounting for Stasi crimes. Almost all of them were given open-ended employment contracts under Joachim Gauck, the first federal commissioner for the Stasi archives.
But now’s there is a new man at the helm of the agency, and he’s made it clear that he wants to get rid of the 47 former Stasi members. When Jahn took office on March 14, he announced that: “Every former Stasi employee who works for this agency is a slap in the face of the victims.” It was a determination to get rid of this insult that led Jahn to meet with the former Stasi employees on April 14 for a sort of unofficial firing.
Victims’ Advocate or Manhunter?
Since taking office, one of Jahn’s goals has been making progress in the agency’s accounting for Stasi crimes. He also wants to make sure that the agency holds on to its independent status rather than being incorporated into the German Federal Archives, in Koblenz, as some would prefer.
But now the dispute over 47 of roughly 1,800 total employees is overshadowing all other issues. In large part, that can be attributed to Jahn’s own past and with the years in which he was persecuted by the Stasi, imprisoned and eventually deported to the West against his will. Now he sees himself as a “victims’ advocate” who is fighting passionately and prepared to take bold risks for his cause.
Jahn’s behavior raises many issues. There’s the issue of whether it’s the smart thing to do and whether the employment contracts of the former Stasi members will give them the upper hand in any dispute. There’s also the issue of whether people can be a bit more forgiving 20 years after the fall the Berlin Wall and German reunification. And, lastly, there’s the issue of just how compatible Germany’s labor laws are with morality.
The fate of the 47 former Stasi employees has also become a matter of concern for the Germany’s federal parliament and government. The federal commissioner is subordinate to Minister of State for Culture Bernd Neumann, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Neumann supports Jahn in principle — especially after Dieter Wiefelspütz, a domestic affairs expert with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), accused him of going on a “manhunt.” But internal documents show just how skeptical some people at the Chancellery are about Jahn’s approach.
Only a few days after Jahn made his announcement, government officials were already scrutinizing the contracts of the 47 former Stasi members. Almost all of them started working for the agency in 1990 and 1991. Some were hired because Gauck felt that their insider knowledge of the Stasi made them “indispensable.” Others had migrated from the East German interior ministry to that of reunited Germany and, from there, into positions in the offices of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives established by Gauck.
As former Stasi bodyguards, they were viewed more like police officers, which is why so many of them are still members of the police union. In fact, at a certain point, agency managers even argued for having their temporary employment contracts extended indefinitely.
In 2007, when Gauck successor Marianne Birthler led the agency, there was already a debate over the 47 former Stasi members. Neumann, her boss, ultimately resigned himself to allowing them to continue working for the agency. The agency’s management had confirmed that they performed their duties well and that they had also been open with their new employer about their pasts. The agency also found that there was “no reason” to assume they constituted a threat.
An internal document reveals that most of them are currently working in the section in charge of building security, while others work as drivers, messengers, archivists or handymen. Only one is a department head…
May 20, 2011
Last week my wife and I told our 13-year-old daughter she could join Facebook. Within a few hours she had accumulated 171 friends, and I felt a little as if I had passed my child a pipe of crystal meth.
I don’t mean to be a spoilsport, and I don’t think I’m a Luddite. I edit a newspaper that has embraced new media with creative, prizewinning gusto. I get that the Web reaches and engages a vast, global audience, that it invites participation and facilitates — up to a point — newsgathering. But before we succumb to digital idolatry, we should consider that innovation often comes at a price. And sometimes I wonder if the price is a piece of ourselves.
Joshua Foer’s engrossing best seller “Moonwalking With Einstein” recalls one colossal example of what we trade for progress. Until the 15th century, people were taught to remember vast quantities of information. Feats of memory that would today qualify you as a freak — the ability to recite entire books — were not unheard of.
Then along came the Mark Zuckerberg of his day, Johannes Gutenberg. As we became accustomed to relying on the printed page, the work of remembering gradually fell into disuse. The capacity to remember prodigiously still exists (as Foer proved by training himself to become a national memory champion), but for most of us it stays parked in the garage.
Sometimes the bargain is worthwhile; I would certainly not give up the pleasures of my library for the ability to recite “Middlemarch.” But Foer’s book reminds us that the cognitive advance of our species is not inexorable.
My father, who was trained in engineering at M.I.T. in the slide-rule era, often lamented the way the pocket calculator, for all its convenience, diminished my generation’s math skills. Many of us have discovered that navigating by G.P.S. has undermined our mastery of city streets and perhaps even impaired our innate sense of direction. Typing pretty much killed penmanship. Twitter and YouTube are nibbling away at our attention spans. And what little memory we had not already surrendered to Gutenberg we have relinquished to Google. Why remember what you can look up in seconds?
Robert Bjork, who studies memory and learning at U.C.L.A., has noticed that even very smart students, conversant in the Excel spreadsheet, don’t pick up patterns in data that would be evident if they had not let the program do so much of the work.
“Unless there is some actual problem solving and decision making, very little learning happens,” Bjork e-mailed me. “We are not recording devices…”
May 20, 2011
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.