ThinThread Whistleblowers

Thomas Drake, William Binney, and J. Kirk Wiebe

Former United States National Security Agency (NSA) workers William Binney, Thomas Drake, Ed Loomis, and J. Kirk Wiebe believed ThinThread, an in-house electronic surveillance data collection system, which was both cost-effective and protective of American citizens’ privacy rights, was wrongly rejected in favor of Trailblazer, a conceptually similar program created by NSA contractors for billions of dollars. Loomis, Wiebe, and Binney led the design of ThinThread at a mere $3.2 million cost. But they were all also concerned that the NSA’s umbrella mass surveillance program, STELLARWIND, would violate constitutional protections. Drake also raised concerns about massive 9/11 intelligence failures. After lodging individual internal complaints, testifying to Congressional committees, and drafting collective motions, members of the group protested resignations and leaked unclassified information to media. A May 2006 article in The Baltimore Sun (primarily sourced by Drake) detailed the failings of the NSA and Trailblazer. The stories prompted massive public outcry about NSA surveillance activities, and all of the whistleblowers faced considerable retaliation, including FBI home raids, with Thomas Drake even being charged in April 2010 with 10 felonies, including five under the Espionage Act for improper retention of classified documents. After stories ran in The New Yorker and on 60 Minutes in May of 2011, the Department of Justice dropped the charges against Drake on June 9, 2011, four days before trial, in exchange for a plea to a misdemeanor charge of “Exceeding Authorized Use of a Computer” with no jail time or fines but a sentence of 240 hours of community service and one year of probation. Drake is the recipient of the 2011 Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling, regarded as the nation’s highest honor that a whistleblower can receive.