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

TRNN Replay: On Reality Asserts Itself, Mr. Drake says that in the name of national security we are eating out the very heart of democracy; what will be left will be a garrison state. This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced August 7, 2015, with Paul Jay.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. We’re continuing our series of interviews with Thomas Drake. He joins us again in the studio. Thanks for joining us. 


JAY: So, one more time, fast, Thomas is a former senior executive at the U.S. National Security Agency and he’s a whistleblower. And you’ve got to watch the other parts. So I’m kind of–I don’t know if I’m surprised, amazed, or whatever, but it seems important how well this national security state, how well this system can adapt to whistleblowers. Like, Bradley Manning showed us video of helicopters slaughtering people down in the street, including in a van a kid and this and that. 

DRAKE: War crimes. 

JAY: It’s a war crime. And it’s a story for a few days, and the Snowden revelations, the fact that a million people get killed in the Iraq War, I mean, maybe the most important one of them all, the fact that the whole Iraq War is illegal and based on a total fabrication. 

DRAKE: Complete, utter fabrication. 

JAY: Utter. Move on. 

DRAKE: Everything Powell said was a lie in front of the world at the United Nations. 

JAY: And they knew it. In fact, my own little speculation here is that the reason they wanted the UN inspectors to go in was to make sure that there was no weapons of mass distraction, ’cause if there actually was, you wouldn’t have invaded. If Powell was telling the truth, that there are SCUD missiles all around Baghdad with biological weapons pointed at Israel, you’re actually going to invade under those conditions? You actually want to make sure that there’s nothing there, and then you go in. But anyway. My point is is what do you make of that the fact that–and Snowden revelations–actually, here’s a little clip of Michael Hayden talking about the U.S.A. Freedom Act and how important a blow this was to his surveillance state.


MICHAEL HAYDEN, FORMER NSA DIRECTOR: If somebody would come up to me and say “Look, Hayden, here’s the thing: This Snowden thing is going to be a nightmare for you guys for about two years. And when we get all done with it, what you’re going to be required to do is that little 215 program about American telephony metadata — and by the way, you can still have access to it, but you got to go to the court and get access to it from the companies, rather than keep it to yourself” — I go: “And this is it after two years? Cool!”


DRAKE: It’s an NSA-approved act. That should tell you everything. They have no problems with the U.S.A. Freedom Act. 

JAY: So, before we get into the detail of that, but what do you make of there’s been such revelations, such exposures, and they can kind of just shrug it off and keep going? 

DRAKE: Well, it reminds me of Catch-22, the Joseph Heller novel. We have the power. Who’s going to stop us? Even when they’re exposed, because they’re the ones that have the power, and that kind of power, as Frederick Douglass said back in the 19th century, does not yield willingly. 

JAY: And what do you make of the role of the media in all this? ‘Cause this isn’t possible without such an important enabling role of mainstream TV news. 

DRAKE: Mainstream is mostly complicit. It’s to their advantage to maintain the status quo, which means they’ve sold out to power, they’ve sold out to access. They’ve become stenographers for the government, mouthpieces for the government, parroting government talking points. 

JAY: I guess also they rightly have judged–and not just the media, but the people who have such power–and that’s not just people in political positions, but people that have lots of money that can pick up the phone and get people in political positions whenever they please and finance their election campaigns and all that–they have judged, and correctly to a large extent, that for most people day-to-day life is such a struggle that a lot of these other issues we’re talking about just are abstractions. They just don’t seem to affect your life. 

DRAKE: Much of it is. I mean, for most people, they’re not affected by all this. The wars that you’re talking about take place elsewhere. They’re someone else’s problem. Better there than here. And, hey, the government’s supposed to keep us safe, so, well, if they’re keeping us safe, then I don’t have any reason to question them. And I hear this all the time. I have nothing to hide, so what am I worried about? I don’t care if they’re listening in on my conversations, even if I’m not doing anything wrong. 

JAY: What’s your answer to that? 

DRAKE: Well, I actually do a privacy exercise with people. And everybody to date, it’s been thousands of people, and no one has said yes when I run this exercise, which is turn over all your keys and all your passwords and all your accounts and all your health records and everything else and put them in a lockbox, and I’m going to keep them safe for you. And everybody, with the exception of one person, said maybe, and he was being cute, have said no. And then we have a real conversation on why, ’cause if you’re not willing to do that with me as a consenting adult, as a fellow citizen, then why would you be willing to let the government do it in secret? That somehow the government is more trustworthy than me? That’s where we have a real conversation about what matters. It does come back to we the people. Someone said if there was a fatal flaw in any form of democracy it’s the people. So part of it, power recognizes that most people don’t have the cycles to deal with this, they don’t have the time to deal with it. And yet we have a fundamental responsibility as a civic responsibility as citizens to remain informed and keep informed. That means there is an obligation on the part of the press to inform the public. Well, what if the press is not informing the public? What if it’s not actually providing everything the public needs to know in the public interest? Now that means whistleblowers in essence are–they’re the canaries in this constitutional coal mine or the coal mines of democracy, ’cause we’re the ones that are giving the warnings. 

JAY: I mean, I think part of what the media does–and it happens throughout the culture–there’s a disconnect, as if this national security state is somehow just about protecting American foreign interest abroad or against threats, and even if it oversteps. But it’s not seen as that it’s directly connected with why wages are so low, why people live in poverty, why there’s high crime rates, why schools are so bad. I mean, it’s the states in defense of a whole legal superstructure that’s all about– 

DRAKE: You have a shadow–. 

JAY: –a few people getting rich. 

DRAKE: Well, it largely is. And that’s–I’ve said this. I keep saying this. I’ve been saying this for years. The shadow government obviously is its own enterprise, and it rewards those who pay obeisance quite richly. You can make a tremendous amount of money and have a lot of access as long as you remain silent and just do your job. And if you’re a large corporation, because you now have this extraordinary alliance between government and corporations, then guess what? That alliance is–there’s not much daylight between those two. So that’s why I like the U.S.A. Freedom Act, for example. Yeah, if you’re a Hayden, director of NSA, hey, who cares whether we hold the data or if Verizon holds the data? We could argue about the particulars, but we still have access to it. So what’s the difference? Plus they get immunity, so no one can ever file a class-action suit against them, because they’ve got a national security exception. So, yeah. But what are we talking about? I mean, I keep coming back to, yeah, how much money are we spending on national security and what are we getting in return? The argument was made that mass surveillance was necessary, okay, because it stopped terrorist incident–I mean, this is the grand justification. You know, when pressed to the test, even Alexander first said 54; when it came right down to it, maybe one, and that was probably stopped by traditional law enforcement. That was a taxi driver in San Diego wiring $8,500 to Al-Shabaab in Somalia. So all of that and essentially turning the Fourth Amendment inside out under national security justifications, all that money was spent? And then what about all the overseas adventures? If you add all that up, we’re talking multiple trillions of dollars from 2001 until 2015. What could we have spent that money on? With all that money, what are we trading off is what I would argue. Are we actually saying that providing for national security, not the common defense, but just national security now takes priority and precedence over everything else, including one of the key obligations of the government, to provide for the common defense under the preamble to the Constitution? That’s what we’re sacrificing. That’s what we’re losing. 

JAY: And it’s kind of ironic, ’cause if you actually push some of these hawks in politics that support this policy, one of their main defense is how much jobs this all creates. But it’s kind of a real joke, because the same people are against any government employment program that might build schools or a green economy and all of this. But that’s precisely what all of this military spending is is a government–. 

DRAKE: But that’s a privileged–it’s effectively a privileged, gated community. That’s what it is. The vast majority of Americans don’t get to enjoy that. So what does that mean for the rest of the country? Now you’re back to, you know, it’s the 1 percent solution. That’s–Occupy Wall Street did have it right, right? The 99 percent are left out of that equation. So increasingly, you’re bankrupting the future of the country, including its own national treasure, for national security. 

JAY: Well, to defend a stratum–it’s actually more than 1 percent. One percent are certainly benefiting the most, but people who benefit might be as much as 10, 15 percent of the society. 

DRAKE: Yeah, in terms of residual trickle down–you know, that trickle, yes, probably do. 

JAY: And for those who–. 

DRAKE: But it has an enormous influence, shadow, over the rest of the economy. Enormous. There’s been a number of studies that have been done. It’s what are we doing to ourselves? ‘Cause ultimately what you’re–you’re basically eating out the very heart of your own democracy. And so what’s going to be left? Is that what we’re going to be left? We’re just going to end up being a garrison state? That’s effectively what’s happening. 

JAY: I saw a very interesting study of Germany in ’39, ’40. By the time they used militarization to stimulate the economy and get out of deep depression and crazy inflation, there was nothing left but to go to war. When your economy’s essentially militarized, then you’ve got go to war. 

DRAKE: Look, the psychology here–again, I’ve got to put it on the table–if I spend this much money in terms of militarizing–remember, we’ve declared the entire globe a battlefield. That includes the United States of America. And if you read the National Defense Authorization Act, right, section 1021, 1022, right, it’s clear they can pick up–if I define you as an enemy of the state, I can take you off the street if I want to, and then incarcerate you, and I can put special exceptions on you in terms of how we handle it. Basically, your due processes are severely–due process rights are severely restricted. 

JAY: Well, almost eliminated. 

DRAKE: Well, what type of governing structure is that? It certainly not a republic or a democracy. That’s a military state. That’s what we’re moving towards in terms of this structure. 

JAY: And a gated community’s pretty good. 

DRAKE: Well, you want to–you’re going to defend the gated communities, right, against any and all threats. So you have to ensure there are no threats. How do you ensure there are no threats or possible threats? I’ve got to basically surveil society at large, both within and without the gated community, just in case, this just in case, just as an insurance policy. You just never know. And have all this money to back it up. Remember, part of this trickle-down effect is infecting local police precincts, right, where they’re actually getting a lot of the largess from the military. You just see what shows up, right? 

JAY: Yeah, the whole militarization of cops. 

DRAKE: That militarization, I would argue, is deeply disturbing in terms of the future of democracy, because what do you then become? And your purpose then is to ensure you exercise that. You have to exercise that power to ensure you remain in power and to send the message that you’re in power. 

JAY: And the other thing that–I don’t think it’s new, but I think it’s more pervasive–in politics and certainly in many sectors of business, psychopaths seem to rise to the top. I mean, this is just made for psychopathy. If you have no conscience, you’ll do whatever it takes, damn the consequences, and you’re smart and know how to contain it within the law or get away with it, you can do very well. 

DRAKE: Another elephant in the room. Most of the positions of power of this type, particularly secret power, power that’s unaccountable, power that allows great irresponsibility–with great power comes great responsibility, but also with great power can exercise a great irresponsibility–attracts those who have other purposes in mind. And that’s those we have historically called psychopaths. And they can be extraordinarily high functioning adults. But they get to protect themselves in power. The other checks that normally keep them in tow aren’t there in these kind of positions. And so they get to–it’s the pathology of power. And most people that I–most people don’t seek office, most people don’t seek the presidency, most people don’t seek to control and lord it over others. They just don’t. But there are those who do. And I think this is–even the founding fathers and even in taking–stripping aside the legends, the myths about the founding fathers, realize that you had to put these checks in place. And remember, they were the radicalized elite of the day. They were the landlords. They also were going to be in power. But they didn’t want to have a military or an oligarchy in charge. Remember, George Washington resisted becoming essentially a lifer of a president. He said, no, I’ll go back to my estate in Northern Virginia. 

JAY: Would you agree with the statement that concentration of ownership also means concentration of political power? 

DRAKE: By definition it does–ownership of means, ownership of the production of the means to anything. 

JAY: So doesn’t that mean–. 

DRAKE: Particularly the national treasure. 

JAY: So doesn’t that mean change means changing the way stuff is owned? 

DRAKE: Ultimately, yes, when it comes right down to it, yes, changing the way things are owned. But, see, that’s partly–if you don’t have ownership of who you are, that’s in terms of your own space, right, which is sort of the value, moral proposition, which those [incompr.] the inalienable rights that were defined, protected [incompr.] natural law rights, but in terms of the Declaration of Independence, if you don’t have ownership of that, then you aren’t going to have ownership of anything else. And if those things that you have traditionally assigned ownership are taken away from you–why was the Fourth Amendment so huge in terms of even–remember, it went out, it was ratified, and they said, when it was in the process of being ratified, how do we protect ourselves from the government? There was no protection. That’s why the first ten amendments were added as the Bill of Rights. The Fourth Amendment is central to that, because before, the King could show up, an officer, right, could just show up with a writ of assistance and take anything away, including yourself. What ownership is that when anybody can just come onto your property–it’s not yours; I can take away your property, I can abscond with your property, I can constrain your property; I can even constrain you, I can restrain you from exercising sovereign will, and I have the power to do so. There’s no ownership in that. That means the state owns it. 

JAY: I mean, it seems to me we have had kind of two extremes in the last hundred and some odd years. You have the kind of–the socialist experiment in the Soviet Union and such where you wound up such concentration of ownership in the party, and thus concentration of power, and the idea that the individual sovereignty you talk about, on paper it was there, in practice it wasn’t. But then you have the American model of capitalism, where you have such concentration of wealth–and not even 1 percent, really; it’s the half of the 1 percent really controls the economy and the politics–on the face of it, there’s this individual sovereignty, and even that’s being eroded. But if we’re going to move forward, somehow we have to find a kind of solution to both extremes, meaning if–I don’t understand without public ownership how you can challenge concentrated political power. 

DRAKE: You can’t. You end up in the same place. 

JAY: On the other hand, you have to have a way to democratize that, or you end up with your East German Stasi. 

DRAKE: Yes. And some would argue capitalism is just another face of all this in the end, the end the state of capitalism. It concentrates the wealth in the hands of a very few. So what’s the difference in the end? Maybe it takes longer to get there, ’cause you had to actually involve more people to get there. Remember, what are you feeding off of? ‘Cause you can’t take over right away, because that would be too obvious. State-owned enterprises, right? It ends up being a corporation. 

JAY: Well, again, depends on how it’s done. I mean, if it’s, like, democratized–like, we’ve seen some experiments in Latin America where you actually can have elected managements, and there’s ways to democratize. I’m not saying it was ever–it was really done, but that’s where we have to go forward. 

DRAKE: That’s what–some would argue, growing up in Vermont, that’s where I would argue, in contrast to capitalism, what you’re really talking about is free enterprise. The free enterprise system is much closer to that model. That is much more about public ownership, but with private sovereignty protected. That’s a model I grew up with. I saw that in play every day. We even had a barter system, people trading services for the other. It was in the community, it was all local, and it was regional. 

JAY: But is it inevitable, the way capitalism works, that you move towards this not just concentration of ownership and not just concentration of political power, but the dominance of the finance sector, which is completely parasitical? 

DRAKE: That becomes the engine. That’s the oil. And so, if you own those means, as we saw with what happened during this last financial crisis–then guess what? Who was truly held accountable? We bailed them out. So what happens to Main Street? That’s Wall Street. What happens to Main Street? I’m not sure where Main Street is anymore, ’cause it doesn’t look like a street most of the time, and it’s been given up to other things. It’s extremely concerning. I mean, I talk to people about this, and you [incompr.] I say, well, then, one means you have is the power of the ballot. In our system of governance, we still have the second branch of government. That’s the legislative. They’re the ones that, quote-unquote, represent the people. I mean, it does remind me of the think Frank Capra movie, right, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Look what he got caught up in. That movie was what? Almost 80 years old now. 

JAY: He got destroyed. 

DRAKE: Yeah, although, if you made public appeal, public interest, you know, but there was extraordinarily powerful interests revealed. People forget about the interests that were put at stake simply because he wanted to tell the truth. 

JAY: About a mining company, I think. 

DRAKE: Yeah. Well, it was a Boy Scout [incompr.] yeah, because they had already bought it, right? They couldn’t have some Boy Scout summer camp getting in the way, right? ‘Cause he was just a junior senator, and he’d already been picked, right? He didn’t even know that his senior senator was corrupt. 

JAY: He was supposed to be a patsy. 

DRAKE: He was already owned. Exactly. Don’t say anything. 

JAY: Well, I guess the conclusion of all this is people should stop, if they have any illusions left, that the elites that are controlling things now are going to solve anything for them. 

DRAKE: They won’t unless they’re held accountable. And even then, they’re going to hold on to the power. There’s other means. I mean, you get into public ownership, this is where I appeal directly to people. Does this matter? If it matters, you’re going to take action. If it matters, you’ll form. If it matters, you’ll align with those who do want to take back that ownership publicly. If you don’t, well, then don’t be surprised with what you get. I have some people that also have given up at all this. They just say, this is history; it has to run its course. We’re an empire no different than any other empire in history; we’re going to end up in the dustbin of–. So you’re seeing the slow dissolution of that empire. So just let it run its course, Tom, and do your best to survive for the rest of your life, right, because you already paid a high enough price and luckily you didn’t end up in prison. You know what liberty and freedom means. I said, yeah, that’s why I’m out here in public defending it. 

JAY: Yeah, ’cause if you follow that type of psychology, then you really end up in Hitler type situations. 

DRAKE: Look, I’ve spoken to people from that era. It’s really–I shiver, I mean, shiver, the conversations I’ve had with people from the 1930s. They talk about the siren call, right, of authority and order, and we’ll take care of you, and all these other exceptional threats. Don’t worry about it. Everything seemed normal. As long as the trains are running on time, as long as there’s food at the corner grocery store, doesn’t matter what else is going on. And, by the way, remember what Joseph Goebbels said, minister of propaganda, [incompr.] this is where the history just is eyewitness here, the dark eyewitness of history–you know, nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide, really. But you don’t get to make that choice. The government gets to make that choice, which means they own you. Do you really want to give up that ownership? Then you’ve got to exercise your sovereignty. You choose not to exercise your sovereignty, someone else will take it from you. 

JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us. And thank you for joining us. This concludes this round with Thomas Drake. But Thomas has agreed to come back. So sometime in the next little while we’re going to pick up the conversation. If you have questions you’d like to ask Thomas, I think he will be more than agreeable to respond to them. So write in and we’ll pick up sometime in the next few weeks or so. Thanks for joining us again. 

DRAKE: Thanks for having me. 

JAY: And thank you for joining us on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.



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