By SARAH BRUMFIELD
WASHINGTON (AP) — A former National Security Agency employee accused of mishandling classified information warned Wednesday that the United States is elevating national security to a state religion and that whistleblowers and dissenters are at risk of being marked as traitors.
Thomas Drake was awarded the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling on Wednesday by the Fertel Foundationand the Nation Institute. The organizations said he risked his career and freedom when he “exposed the ethical, budgetary and acquisition shortcomings at the NSA,” including a multibillion-dollar program that was designed to analyze communications data.
“I have already paid a frightfully high price for being a whistleblower, but worse still lies ahead of me,” he said in a speech at the award ceremony, the first time he has spoken publicly about his circumstances since being charged. “I now stand before you as a criminal defendant with my own life and liberty very much at stake.”
Drake said the government is making whistleblowing a crime, but he won’t “live in silence to cover for the government’s sins.”
He is charged with violating espionage laws without being accused of spying. Instead, he’s accused of shredding documents, deleting files from his computer and lying to investigators. His trial is set to begin in June in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
Drake was charged after an investigation into leaks of classified information to a newspaper. His supporters claim he’s being punished for blowing the whistle on inefficiencies and mismanagement at the NSA.
“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,” he said. “Furthermore, my case is one that sends a chilling message to would-be whistleblowers: Not only can you lose your job, but also your very freedom.”
Federal prosecutors declined through a spokeswoman to comment on Drake’s remarks.
Drake’s “real crime” was complaining, said Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower advocacy group. He reported his concerns to bosses, Congress and the Department of Defense Inspector General, which vindicated his concerns, she said.
“Tom Drake went through all the proper channels, but it made no difference,” Radack said. “He is still facing 35 years in jail.”
At Wednesday’s luncheon ceremony at the National Press Club, the organizations also awarded the Ridenhour Courage Prize to former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold for a career “valuing principle over political expediency.”
Former CIGNA spokesman Wendell Potter received the Ridenhour Book Prize for his book “Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans.” ”Budrus,” an account of a village threatened by Israel’s security barrier, was awarded the Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize.
The prizes are named for investigative journalist and Vietnam veteran Ron Ridenhour, who helped expose mass killings at My Lai during the Vietnam War. Each carries a $10,000 stipend.