The line between honorable whistle-blowing and dishonorable breach of duty can be pretty blurry. In the case of former National Security Agency official Thomas A. Drake, the line may not exist at all.
Drake, who worked for the NSA from 2001 to 2008, may be looking at a significant prison sentence for leaking classified information about several troubled NSA programs to a newspaper reporter. Prosecutors have charged him with retention of classified information, obstruction of justice and making false statements. Though the indictment does not identify the journalist, it appears to have been Siobhan Gorman, who was a reporter for The Baltimore Sun at the time and now works for The Wall Street Journal.
Drake’s attorney, James Wyda, insists that his client is an honest official who “loves his country.” That may be true, and it also may be true that Drake — unlike a spy who turns over secrets to a foreign power for personal gain — sought nothing for himself. But it does not matter. Prosecutors have good reason and every right to pursue Drake, if only to make the point that government employees owe their first loyalty to the government that employs them.
Gorman’s articles detailed how billions of dollars were misspent at the NSA, one of the federal government’s most secretive agencies. The public generally has a right to know when its money is being wasted (though cynics might argue that it is more newsworthy when government spending is efficient and economical). It may even be true that no national security interests were at stake in keeping the misdirected spending secret, and that the NSA bureaucracy was more interested in avoiding embarrassing disclosures.
That, however, was not Drake’s call to make. Taxpayers may owe him thanks for his act of civil disobedience, but that does not get Drake off the hook. Civil disobedience often requires its practitioners to pay a personal price for the greater good. Like Mohandas K. “Mahatma” Gandhi and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. before him, Drake may end up spending at least some time behind bars for his actions. Not that I am putting him on a par with the 20th century’s two most famous practitioners of civil disobedience.
The government has a responsibility to protect national security, and to do so it must aggressively enforce rules that keep sensitive information from being revealed. Lanny Breuer, head of the Justice Department's criminal division, said about the Drake case, “Our national security demands that the sort of conduct alleged here, violating the government's trust by illegally retaining and disclosing classified information, be prosecuted and prosecuted vigorously.”
Assuming the government did not illegally tap the reporter's phone or otherwise conduct its investigation improperly (as it did when it investigated the leak of the Pentagon Papers in 1971) then it is doing the right thing by prosecuting Drake. Government employees have a legal and contractual commitment to protect government secrets. While reporters who accept leaked information are simply doing their jobs by publishing whatever information they can obtain, sources who leak classified data do so in direct defiance of their official duties. They may manage to fulfill higher, moral obligations, but in the eyes of the law they are guilty and must take the fall.