WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Thomas Drake is one of the few people who understands from personal experience what the future may hold for Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old former NSA contractor who exposed the U.S. government’s top secret phone and Internet surveillance programs.
His advice for Snowden: “Be lawyered up to the max and find a place where it’s going to be that much more difficult for the United States to make arrangements for his return,” Drake said. “And always check six, as we said when I used to be a flyer in the Air Force. Always make sure you know what’s behind you.”
Drake, a 56-year-old former intelligence official at the National Security Agency, was prosecuted under the Espionage Act in 2010 for allegedly revealing classified information about the agency’s sweeping warrantless wire-tapping program. The government later dropped all but a misdemeanor charge.
“For me this is a déjà vu,” Drake said, adding that Snowden’s previous comfortable life was over.
“When you offer up information about the dark side of the surveillance state they don’t take too kindly to it,” he said. “They want to stay in the shadows.”
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Drake, one of six people indicted for leaking secret information since President Barack Obama took office in 2009, said the FBI investigated him because it believed he was the source of a New York Times story published in December 2005 that first revealed the NSA’s wire-tapping program. He says he was not the source of that information, and 10 felony counts against him were dropped when he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling government information.
In a series of interviews over the past week, he described the experience of coming under investigation.
“My life was turned upside down and inside out,” said Drake, who now earns an hourly wage as a technical expert at an Apple store. “I know what it’s like to live in a surveillance state because the surveillance state was on me, riding me, for so many years. They obviously wanted to do me in. It was relentless. I wouldn’t want any American to go through it.”
Snowden, who worked for three months for Booz Allen Hamilton and was contracted out as a systems administrator to the NSA Threat Operations Center in Hawaii, disclosed this weekend that he was the source of last week’s reports in The Guardian and The Washington Post, saying he acted out of conscience to protect “basic liberties for people around the world.”
Snowden said he had thought long and hard before publicizing details of an NSA program code-named Prism, saying he had done so because he felt the United States was building an unaccountable and secret espionage machine that spied on every American.
U.S. officials have defended the data collection efforts as vital to averting terrorist attacks and other threats against the United States, and insisted there were strict limits on any domestic spying.
Drake, who resigned from the NSA in 2008, said the data released by Snowden validated concerns he began raising internally as early as 2002 about a huge spike in domestic surveillance after the September 11, 2001, hijacking attacks.
Drake said he raised his concerns first with the Pentagon’s inspector general and then worked as a government source on two congressional investigations.
“None of it surprises me,” said Drake. “What you’re seeing here is simply the continuation of what was done in absolute secrecy after 9/11. Those programs were put in place and simply expanded.”
Drake, who worked in signals intelligence during the Cold War, insists he never disclosed classified information. He says Snowden was someone who seems to have done so to serve the public interest.
“History can judge the rest of him, but if Ellsberg’s case is any indication, then that long arc of history will probably bend toward seeing him as a whistleblower,” he said on Tuesday.
Daniel Ellsberg was a national security analyst who passed defense documents known as the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times during the Vietnam War.
Drake said he doesn’t know Snowden personally, although both worked at Booz Allen and the NSA, and he does know some of the journalists involved in the reports based on Snowden’s data.
Snowden flew to Hong Kong on May 20 so he would be in a place that might be able to resist U.S. prosecution attempts, he told the Guardian. He also mentioned Iceland as a possible refuge, and Russia has said it would be willing to consider granting him asylum.
Hong Kong has a long-standing extradition agreement with the United States that has been exercised on numerous occasions since 1998, but legal experts predict a long legal battle if Washington seeks his return.
Drake said he was still suffering the consequences of his actions. “My life was essentially destroyed,” Drake said, noting that the case took a terrible financial and personal toll. He lost his retirement savings and went into debt as his legal bills approached $100,000.
He declined to discuss the impact of the investigation on his family, but said he was disturbed to see a television camera following Snowden’s mother in recent days. “Other people can be affected as well,” he said.
Asked if he still believes what he did was worth it, Drake had no doubts: “Is freedom worth it? Is liberty worth it? Is not living in a surveillance society worth it?”
“If you don’t want to live it, then you’ve got to stand up and defend the rights and the freedoms that prevent that from actually happening,” he said.
Reporting By Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Claudia Parsons