Thomas Drake, left, and Jesselyn Radack are whistleblowers. (Matt McClain/The Washington…)
The former high-ranking National Security Agency analyst now sells iPhones. The top intelligence officer at the CIA lives in a motor home outside Yellowstone National Park and spends his days fly-fishing for trout. The FBI translator fled Washington for the West Coast.
This is what life looks like for some after revealing government secrets. Blowing the whistle on wrongdoing, according to those who did it. Jeopardizing national security, according to the government.
Heroes. Scofflaws. They’re all people who had to get on with their lives.
As Edward Snowden eventually will. The former NSA contractor who leaked classified documents on U.S. surveillance programs is now in Russia, with his fate in limbo. The Justice Department announced last week that it won’t seek the death penalty in prosecuting him, but he is still charged with theft and espionage.
Say he makes it out of there. What next, beyond the pending charges? What happens to people who make public things that the government wanted to keep secret?
A look at the lives of a handful of those who did just that shows that they often wind up far from the stable government jobs they held. They can even wind up in the aisles of a craft store.
Peter Van Buren, a veteran Foreign Service officer who blew the whistle on waste and mismanagement of the Iraq reconstruction program, most recently found himself working at a local arts and crafts store and learned a lot about “glitter and the American art of scrapbooking.”
“What happens when you are thrown out of the government and blacklisted is that you lose your security clearance and it’s very difficult to find a grown-up job in Washington,” said Van Buren, who lives in Falls Church and wrote the book “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” “Then, you have to step down a few levels to find a place where they don’t care enough about your background to even look into why you washed up there.”
The Apple Store employee
“Let’s sit in the back,” Thomas Drake says when choosing a booth at Parker’s Classic American Restaurant in downtown Bethesda during his lunch break from Apple. “I have a lot to say. I was a public servant. That’s a very high honor. It’s supposed to mean something.”
Drake was prosecuted under the World War I-era Espionage Act for mishandling national defense information.
His alleged crime: voicing concernsto superiors after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks about violations of Americans’ privacy by the nation’s largest intelligence organization (the NSA) and later, in frustration, speaking to a reporter about waste and fraud in the NSA intelligence program. (He says he revealed no classified information.)
He lost his $155,000-a-year job and pension, even though in 2011 the criminal case against him fell apart. The former top spokesman for the Justice Department, Matthew Miller, later said the case against Drake may have been an “ill-considered choice for prosecution.”
Drake, now 56, is tall and lanky and dresses as though he’s ready, at any moment, to go on a gentle hike. He is the type of person who likes consistency. He went to work at Apple the day after the charges against him were dropped, surprising his co-workers who thought he would at least take a day off. In 2010, he got an adjunct professor job at Strayer University but was fired soon after, he says, while he was under government investigation.
“I was just blacklisted,” he said, adding that he started his own company but has only had minor work. “People were afraid to deal with a federal government whistleblower.”
Drake long planned to be a career public servant. He enlisted in the Air Force in 1979 and flew on spy planes and once was a CIA analyst and an expert in electronic intelligence missions. On Sept. 11, 2001, he reported for his first day of work as a senior executive at the NSA’s Fort Meade campus, and shortly thereafter, he voiced “the gravest of concerns” regarding a secret domestic surveillance program that, he says, was launched shortly after the attacks.
In 2006, he was reassigned from the NSA to be a professor at the National Defense University, but he was forced to leave in 2007 when his security clearance was suspended.
Ironically, he was teaching a class called “The Secret Side of U.S. History.”
Now working at the Apple Store and living in Howard County, he is extremely grateful for his hourly wage retail job. He has no choice. He has massive legal debts and a son ready to go to college.
Last year, he was working when he spotted an unlikely customer: Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who came in to check out iPhones.
Drake introduced himself and asked: “Do you know why they have come after me?”
“Yes, I do,” Holder said.
“But do you know the rest of the story?,” he asked.
Holder quickly left with his security detail, Drake said.