The Guardian published a stunning new chapter in the saga of NSA whistleblowers on Sunday, revealing a new key player: John Crane, a former assistant inspector general at the Pentagon who was responsible for protecting whistleblowers, then forced to become one himself when the process failed.
An article by Mark Hertsgaard, adapted from his new book, Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden, describes how former NSA official Thomas Drake went through proper channels in his attempt to expose civil-liberties violations at the NSA — and was punished for it. The article vindicates open-government activists who have long argued that whistleblower protections aren’t sufficient in the national security realm.
It vindicates NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden who, well aware of what happened to Drake, gave up his attempts to go through traditional whistleblower channels – and instead handed over his trove of classified documents directly to journalists.
And it adds to the vindication for Drake, who was already a hero in the whistleblower’s pantheon for having endured a four-year persecution by the Justice Department that a judge called “unconscionable.”
The case against Drake, who was initially charged with 10 felony counts of espionage, famously disintegrated before trial – but not before he was professionally and financially ruined. And now it turns out that going through official channels may have actually set off the chain of events that led to his prosecution.
Drake initially took his concerns about wasteful, illegal, and unconstitutional actions by the NSA to high-ranking NSA officials, then to appropriate staff and members of Congress. When that didn’t work, he signed onto a whistleblower complaint to the Pentagon inspector general made by some recently retired NSA staffers. But because he was still working at the NSA, he asked the office to keep his participation anonymous.
Now, Hertsgaard writes that Crane alleges that his former colleagues in the inspector general’s office “revealed Drake’s identity to the Justice Department; then they withheld (and perhaps destroyed) evidence after Drake was indicted; finally, they lied about all this to a federal judge.”
Crane’s growing concerns about his office’s conduct pushed him to his breaking point, according to Hertsgaard. But his supervisors ignored his concerns, gave him the silent treatment, and finally forced him to resign in January 2013.
Due to Crane’s continued efforts, however, the Department of Justice has opened an investigation into the Department of Defense for its treatment of whistleblowers, and Hertsgaard tells The Intercept that a public report on the results of the investigation is expected next year.
Crane brings unprecedented evidence from inside the system that ostensibly protects whistleblowers that the system isn’t working. And defenders of the system can’t accuse him of having an outside agenda. Crane has never taken a position for or against the NSA’s programs, or made contact with Drake during the investigation.
“Crane kind of made it a point not to know him,” Hertsgaard told The Intercept on Monday. “He didn’t want it to become something personal.”
For him, it was about whistleblowing, Hertsgaard explained, and the principle that “anonymity must be absolutely sacred.”
Snowden told The Guardian that Drake’s persecution was very much on his mind when he decided to go outside normal channels. And he told The Guardian that colleagues and supervisors warned him about raising his concerns, telling him, “You’re playing with fire.”
In his Guardian interview, Snowden called for changes.
“We need iron-clad, enforceable protections for whistleblowers, and we need a public record of success stories,” he said. “Protect the people who go to members of Congress with oversight roles, and if their efforts lead to a positive change in policy – recognize them for their efforts. There are no incentives for people to stand up against an agency on the wrong side of the law today, and that’s got to change.”
U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, have insisted that Snowden should and could have gone through channels – and would have been heard.
“When people look at Edward Snowden, he’s the most famous,” Hertsgaard told The Intercept. “What they don’t realize is just how exceptional he is. He actually got his message out and he lived to tell the tale. … That is highly unusual. In most cases, whistleblowers pay with their lives to save ours.”
Hertsgaard writes in his book about many other whistleblowers whose stories are slightly less dramatic, but no less important. “I’m hoping campaign reporters will press Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump on this,” he said.