From 9/11 to Mass Surveillance, The Man Who Knew Too Much - Thomas Drake on RAI Pt 3/5

On Reality Asserts Itself, Mr. Drake says the suspension of the Constitution that took place in secret after 9/11, for all intents and purposes, developed with executive orders, regulations, statutes, and oftentimes in cooperation with the Congress – since 1947. This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced August 4, 2015, with Paul Jay.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself. I’m Paul Jay. We’re on The Real News Network. And we’re continuing our series of discussions with Thomas Drake. You’ll find his biography just below here. And I’ve read it out all the other times, so I’m not going to do it again. But just quickly, Thomas worked at the NSA, was a whistleblower, was charged with espionage, eventually more or less beat the charges. You had to agree to–. Well, Thomas is here in the studio. First of all, thanks again. You agreed to plead to what was–amount to a misdemeanor, was it? 

THOMAS DRAKE, WHISTLEBLOWER AND FMR. NSA SENIOR EXEC.: Well, there was quite a story behind it in terms of how it all happened. But on my own terms, I pled out to a minor misdemeanor for exceeding authorized use of a computer under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act with the proviso they would drop all of the ten felony counts from the indictment, and no fine and no jail time. So I had one year probation from the judge and 240 hours of community service, in which I ended up interviewing veterans from World War II to the present day. 

JAY: So let’s do the back story, because you’ve said several times that it’s hard not to get just extremely cynical, I guess, about America, about the world, about life. But to feel like you’re getting so cynical, you must have kind of believed in it in the first place. So kind of go back in terms of you grew up in a house. Your father’s military, right? 

DRAKE: My father was a World War II veteran. He was a bombardier navigator, but also flew missions in support of the–. 

JAY: Same with mine. 

DRAKE: He also flew missions in support of the OSS. He was the only man that got out of an airplane that went down in flames. He was behind the lines for six months. So he also lives with survivor’s guilt. And he made the military–it’s true. He was in the Strategic Air Command. So when the Air Force was created in 1947 as part of the National Security Act, he then rejoined the military with the newly created Air Force after he got his degree with the G.I. Bill. 

JAY: So you were a military kid. You grow up in the culture of being–. 

DRAKE: I was born in Louisiana. Moved to England. He was an exchange officer, Royal Air Force. Moved back to Texas, where he retired in the early ’60s. And I was a very young child growing up in Texas, a republic before it became a state. And then we moved to Vermont shortly after he retired. 

JAY: And how would you describe the political culture of the house in terms of how they voted, what they believed in? 

DRAKE: Well, he was–. 

JAY: Americanism, how important was that? 

DRAKE: He was military. Mean, he was–you serve your country, you support your country. He had spent a whole career, right. And the World War II veterans in particular, I mean, that was sort of like the last great war that mattered. Everything else since then has never been a war. In fact, that’s the last time we even declared war, Congress declared war, which is the only branch of government that has the prerogative of doing so. But we haven’t done that since World War II. So it was very much a kind of very orderly, to the T kind of a household. Father was a very difficult man to live with. You know, he had a lot of burdens that he carried himself, I think, just from his own history, and it wasn’t always easy dealing with him. 

JAY: You grow up believing that America fights for truth, justice? 

DRAKE: Well, I mean, I’m now living in New England, daughters of the American Revolution. I mean, it’s–you have–for the center of, you know, Ethan Allen, the Green Mountain Boys. You know. And it was a grand experiment. It was launched in 1789 when it was ratified. It took two years, but we now have a Constitution. For all its faults and foibles, that was this new form of government. 

JAY: You become a or you enter your teens, the Vietnam war is still on. 

DRAKE: Vietnam war is still on. I actually remember as a freshman seeing seniors burning their draft cards in the back parking lot. 

JAY: What did you think of that? 

DRAKE: Well, the Vietnam War by that point was–it was part of the social revolution, and it was clearly very negative. It was a waste. It was a huge [crosstalk] 

JAY: But did you feel that at the time? And how did your father feel about it? 

DRAKE: Well, my father actually, in that period, he was first for it and then became quite disillusioned and turned on the Vietnam War. 

JAY: And what about you? 

DRAKE: Yeah, same with me. But, see, I was the next generation. It was not part of the Vietnam generation. The Beatles are history for me. For me it’s Peter Frampton and Grand Funk and, you know, the Bee Gees a year later. So I graduate in 1975. We were actually the first year of the non-Vietnam generation. 

JAY: And did you–you were old enough to attend some protests. Did you ever get engaged in that way? 

DRAKE: Not then. That was all through television. That’s how I saw it. I was not part of any protest during that time. I mean, in fact, those protests had taken place–that was all history for me. You have to remember, I was–the bulk of the protests that you’re talking about, right, I was eight, nine, ten, 11 years old, right? So it was all history. 

JAY: Well, you’re born in ’57. 

DRAKE: Fifty-seven. 

JAY: So ’67, you’re ten. 

DRAKE: Yeah. 

JAY: The war’s certainly going on. 

DRAKE: I was growing up on a farm in Vermont. Yeah. Not unaware. And, of course, in high school, obviously, those classes ahead of me were very much against the war and were very much against government abuse. And, of course, you have to remember, I’m eyewitness. My civic awakening took place in the ’70s. So I’m there with Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers. You know, I’m seeing a young Hillary Rodham, who was actually serving on the House impeachment committee, drawing up articles of impeachment of the whole Watergate with Woodward and Bernstein. You know, an extraordinary set of events. And then seeing a president of the United States resign their office. I mean, it’s quite something. 

JAY: And how much does that shape–. 

DRAKE: And all the abuses that came out from the Church and Pike committee hearings. And just once again, [incompr.] you can’t trust authorities. 

JAY: Why do you join the Air Force? 

DRAKE: That didn’t happen right away. That happened in the late ’70s. 

JAY: It’s not that much later. 

DRAKE: Well, ’79. I had done a number of other things for four years after I graduated. I decided that I would join the military for the experience. I wanted to see what it was like. I knew I wasn’t going to make it a career, and I didn’t. I did not actually make the military career, although I served for two enlistments during the Cold War. 

JAY: This kind of a–if–you know, going back to some of the earlier conversation, it’s kind of a double track here. You’re a contradictory man in some ways. 

DRAKE: That’s a fair statement. 

JAY: And we all are. But you’re–seem to be aware of the dark side of American power. 

DRAKE: And the human condition, not just American power.

JAY: Yet you’re fighting–like you say, it’s not the country I signed up to defend, meaning the Bush-Cheney Patriot Act era. But what is the country? I mean, is the country you’re fighting for an abstraction, and your actual experience is something else? 

DRAKE: The abstraction’s the Constitution. Now, you’re probably the first person that’s made that distinction. The abstraction is the piece of paper called the Constitution with the Bill of Rights. It mattered. That’s the thing that mattered as a U.S. citizen. That’s what mattered. And so I did not take that oath lightly to support and defend it against all enemies foreign and domestic. What I didn’t imagine is that I would find myself face to face in secret with my own government. 

JAY: That that would be enemy. 

DRAKE: That the enemy would become–but then I would be turned into an enemy of the state by virtue of holding up the mirror and speaking truth to enough power. 

JAY: In your eyes, the state is actually the enemy of the Constitution. 

DRAKE: Actually, yes. The whole time, all I was doing was standing on it, defending it against–as it turned out, against my own government. If they’re going to set aside the Constitution, then what does that mean for our form of governance as a people? I could make a very powerful argument as more than a passing student of history and politics, even having majored and minored in national security and history and government, right, and international relations with my first master’s, I can make a very powerful argument that without a Constitution, we’re not America, and if we’re not America, then we’re not–then who we are as Americans–. 

JAY: And you can also make a powerful argument that more or less the Constitution is suspended in real terms at the establishment of the national security state. 

DRAKE: Actually, yes. 

JAY: Back in the ’40s. 

DRAKE: It was–became subordinate. 

JAY: And the conditions created for it by McCarthyism, House Un-American Activities Committee. 

DRAKE: Yes. That is the basis for–remember, 9/11 didn’t just happen. The suspension of the Constitution that took place in secret after 9/11, for all intents and purposes, didn’t just happen because of 9/11. They had already been suspending major parts of it in secret, executive orders, regulations, other statutes, and oftentimes in cooperation with the Congress since 1947. 

JAY: I mean, Watergate went public, but you don’t do that kind of stuff unless you can do that–think you can do that kind of stuff. 

DRAKE: Yes. But, remember, that–but, see, it’s critical to understand me, that that was my civic awakening. Even the president was not above the law, that even the president could lose his very office for violating the special oath that he took to preserve, protect, and defend. 

JAY: But he got caught in such a public way that it starts to reveal the way the deep–that dark deep state works. 

DRAKE: Yes. 

JAY: So he has to be thrown under the bus. 

DRAKE: He effectively was, and I think it was an historical mistake for Ford to pardon him. I think he should have actually been put on trial. 

JAY: Well, that really would have opened up a can of worms. 

DRAKE: But Cheney was a critical player in ensuring that Ford pardoned Nixon. 

JAY: What’s that story? 

DRAKE: He’s chief of staff, the youngest chief of staff. Already had his first heart attack. And we’ve got to preserve the presidency for the future. He had said, if people actually go back and listen to Cheney in some years after that, he said, if I ever find myself in a position, I’m going to essentially restore what was lost as a result the Nixon administration, ’cause he always thought that Nixon got a raw deal. JAY: This is the idea of the imperial presidency. 

DRAKE: Yeah. And that’s a very powerful argument. It’s extremely appealing. It’s very seductive, especially in crisis. It doesn’t matter if the government was part of it. It doesn’t matter if the government was–didn’t prevent the crisis. The fact that there is a crisis allows authoritarianism and autocracy to assert itself. 

JAY: It’s a little bit of a distraction from talking about your history, but I’ve always thought, especially now, although they’re not new, but these kind of television shows, like Scandal, I guess to some extent 24–there’s whole range of them now–which is kind of all about this dark deep state. And it’s public. It’s entertainment programming. It kind of makes it all really acceptable. 

DRAKE: Yes, it does. Normalizes it, actually. Makes it rather banal, to be quite frank about it. Just in the background. It all happens. So it should be no surprises. It’s not just entertainment, though. But, hey, we’re the elite. We’re the ones in charge. You know, as Bush said after 9/11, go to the mall and shop. Don’t mourn. Shop. Interesting response, isn’t it? 

JAY: That would be your patriotic duty. 

DRAKE: Patriotic duty was to continue to be a consumer in the economy. Just be a consumer and you’ll be happy. 

JAY: So you join the Air Force. What year did you join? 

DRAKE: Nineteen seventy-nine. 

JAY: And you’re in for how long? 

DRAKE: A little over nine years. 

JAY: Nine years? 

DRAKE: Two enlistments. I went to–and then I worked with the CIA for a short time as an imagery analyst. 

JAY: So I’m going to keep coming back to this, ’cause you’re already–a lot of your Americanism has been disillusioned. You’ve made the point of Watergate, growing up in that Nixon era. Why do you–I keep asking the same question, I’m sorry. But why do you–. 

DRAKE: Because it’s worth–the Americanism was worth defending until you can no longer defend it. That moment of truth for me, interestingly enough, was actually in secret the first week in October 2001. That’s when you can say I was radicalized by the truth of Pandora’s box. 

JAY: And that was? 

DRAKE: Well, as you–the phrase you put, right, in terms of the Constitution. For all intents and purposes I’m eyewitness to the suspension of the Constitution in secret. 

JAY: And that’s the institution of mass surveillance. 

DRAKE: The mass surveillance regime in particular, knowing it was unleashed in an extraordinary way across the United States and rapidly metastasized. I was eyewitness to all of that. And I reported all that to the 9/11, the Congressional 9/11 investigations, particularly the joint inquiry, all censored and suppressed. 

JAY: Not a word in the final report. 

DRAKE: The only evidence anybody can find to date after almost 13 years is that I was interviewed. 

JAY: Now, there’s two. There’s the 9/11 Commission. There’s the joint congressional investigation. 

DRAKE: The JIIC. Yeah. 

JAY: Which one are we talking about? 

DRAKE: The joint inquiry, the Congressional with the House intel and Senate intel committees. 

JAY: Well, Bob Graham, who, as we referred to earlier, was the chair. 

DRAKE: That’s right. I was never actually interviewed for the 9/11 Commission. 

JAY: Why? 

DRAKE: Because I think my testimony was so explosive. It was smoking gun evidence of NSA’s culpability. 

JAY: Yeah. Just to remind people, we talked about this in an earlier segment, that the NSA actually had eavesdropping hard evidence of the connection between these guys, two guys that end up on the American Airlines flight in San Diego and what was known as a Yemeni switchboard for al-Qaeda, and I’m sure much more than that. 

DRAKE: Oh, actually, far more. That was just one part of it. There was actually an entire intelligence report that they had done prior–months and months. It was actually in early 2001 that NSA refused to allow it to go out for distribution to the rest of the community. And the analysts were beside themselves. I didn’t find out about it until shortly after 9/11, when it was brought to me. 

JAY: What was in it? 

DRAKE: The entire network that we knew at that time, based on signals intelligence. 

JAY: The entire network that winds up doing 9/11. 

DRAKE: The entire al-Qaeda and associated movement. Yes. Not every single hijacker, but most of them were known. Yes. 

JAY: Well, I’ve got to return to something we talked about earlier. There’s a back channel to Cheney. You can’t sit on this stuff. 

DRAKE: Of course not. 

JAY: Well, watch the earlier segment, ’cause we talked about this. 

DRAKE: That was the other intelligence network. He couldn’t trust what was set up from 1947 on. This is one of the ironies of history. Cheney himself could not trust the early alert and warning system that had been put into place in 1947, in which we would never have another [incompr.] like Pearl Harbor. 

JAY: Unless you want one. 

DRAKE: Well, he knew it would take something like that. I’ll just–we’re going to put it right on the table again, ’cause we keep saying it. He knew it would take something like a 9/11 in the 21st century for Americans to just a cede to the government whatever was necessary to deal with whatever happened. 

JAY: To give this–. 

DRAKE: Pearl Harbor did to–for us, for our entry into World War II what 9/11 did in terms of what was unleashed in secret. That included mass surveillance. That included the torture regime. And everything else. 

JAY: Now, the political leadership of both parties, if we keep hearing from various people, including Cheney and Hayden, they’re all briefed into all this. 

DRAKE: Yes. 

JAY: For both parties’ leadership. They all know this is going on. 

DRAKE: Yes. And on the House intel committee, Porter Goss and Nancy Pelosi were briefed in at a high level in terms of what was happening. That’s why–remember what she said. You know, impeachment was taken off the table. She herself said that. I should tell you something. Although he clearly had violated his own oath, clearly had committed acts that rise to the level of impeachment–. 

JAY: Bush. 

DRAKE: Yes. But national security was the protecting mechanism. He was doing it for the good of the nation. 

JAY: Now, I go back to kind of what is it about people like you? And I’d include in some ways–he didn’t suffer the consequences you did, but even a Bob Graham. I mean, Bob Graham’s head of the Senate foreign intelligence committee. I mean, he could keep his mouth shut, go back to Florida, have a comfy life. 

DRAKE: Most do. 

JAY: Yeah, most to do. He didn’t have to write a book calling for Bush’s impeachment. 

DRAKE: But he did. But he did. 

JAY: But he did. So what is it about you guys that just won’t shut up? 

DRAKE: You grow a conscience or you had one. You’re also staring at history. You know, remember, the way I have put it, I’ll say it a different way. You open up Pandora’s box, which happened to me. The Pandora’s box is opened up and I’m staring into it, and the abyss is staring back at me. You could close Pandora’s box or just look away and act as if nothing was different, ’cause you didn’t give the orders, you weren’t the authorizer, you didn’t make all the decisions. 

JAY: And that’s how Germany gets to a Hitler, and that’s how various places get to police states. 

DRAKE: Interesting you say it that way. That’s why I’m burdened by history. Remember, I am burdened by the dark chapters of the 20th century. I’m burdened by my own father’s history from World War II. I’m burdened by what happened during the Cold War. I am burdened by having listened in for years and years and years on the East German surveillance and police state. You can imagine what it meant in those days, weeks, and months after 9/11, confronted on a far vaster scale, the United States was using the Stasi playbook to put place in secret a mass surveillance regime, which later became known as the collect-it-all justification from General Alexander. Collect it all? We just need it all. They told me that in early October. We just need it, we just need the data. We just need the data. It doesn’t matter how we get it, doesn’t matter where it comes from. We just need the data. So in some ways it was sort of the pathological response. We did fail. We can’t admit we failed. We are using it as a convenient excuse to suspend the Constitution, Fourth Amendment. And guess what? We get to unleash all these powers. But we have–just in case, ’cause we, quote-unquote, missed the data, right–and I say that in quotes–we’ve just got to get all the data, as if that’s the answer, which actually makes it worse. You’re actually creating greater insecurity, not more security. 

JAY: Well, that’s what we’re going to talk about the next segment. Please join us for the continuation of our interview with Thomas Drake on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.



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