US Justice Department retreats on Trailblazer whistleblower

The US Justice Department has been routed in its elaborate case against a National Security Agency worker who handed data to a reporter.

The Justice Department has reached a plea deal in a controversial leak case against Thomas Drake. He will plead guilty to one charge of unauthorised use of a computer because he accessed the agency’s intranet, but Drake will not go to jail over the matter.

This is a far cry from the 10 charges that the DoJ had against Drake, including obstruction of justice, lying to the FBI and illegal possession of classified NSA documents under the seldom-used Espionage Act of 1917. If he had been convicted he could have been banged up for 35 years.

Drake blew the whistle on some of the antics of the NSA which had been using a tool called Trailblazer Project which violated privacy, the Fourth Amendment, shedloads of other laws and cost a bomb.

Drake worked his way through the legal processes that are prescribed for government employees who believe that questionable activities are taking place in their departments, including the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act, but he did not get very far.

In 2003, Trailblazer was declared an expensive flop and secretly axed. But Drake felt the NSA was committing serious crimes and decided to reveal information to a reporter.

He contacted Siobhan Gorman, of The Baltimore Sun, sending her emails through hushmail and discussing various topics.

Drake said that he never gave her sensitive or classified information but Gorman had enough to write several articles about waste, fraud, and abuse at the NSA, including articles on Trailblazer. She even got an award for it.

In November 2007, Drake was charged with “disclosing classified information to a newspaper reporter and for conspiracy”.

The case has not gone very well for the DoJ. Not only was there a huge backlash against Drake’s prosecution, the government was being seen as hassling whistleblowers.

Not only that, a judge involved in the process ruled that there was no evidence to suggest Drake had passed any classified information to any reporter.

Drake’s lawyers claim he is a beleaguered whistleblower, while prosecutors say the only issue in the case is whether he illegally kept classified materials on a personal computer and in his basement.