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The Loneliness and Courage of Thomas Drake: A Whistleblower's Journey

“As a student of history and politics, I firmly believe that we have reached a breaking point in this country, when the government violates and erodes our very privacy and precious freedoms in the name of national security and then hides it behind the convenient label of secrecy.

This is not the America I took an oath to support and defend in my career. This is not the America I learned about while growing up in Texas and Vermont. This is not the America we are supposed to be.” --  Thomas Drake,
from his acceptance speech of the 2011 Ridenhour Prize for Truth–Telling 

Thomas Drake tried to do everything right. He thought that the road he was on of government service was the same road that was consistent with his values.(Portrait of Thomas Drake by Robert Shetterly. All rights reserved. Courtesy of the artist.)

Immediately after his first day on the job at the National Security Agency --- September 11, 2001 --- he began to see those roads diverge. For years he tried to straddle them --- one foot on the road of loyalty to the NSA and procedural complaint, one foot on the road consistent with his oath to uphold the Constitution. Finally he had to choose or be ethically dismembered. He chose to blow the whistle on waste, fraud, and patent illegality at the NSA. He chose consistency with his ethical sense of Constitutional duty. He knew that illegal wiretaps and the obsessive secrecy to hide them was inconsistent with democracy and the rule of law. 

Thomas Drake is being charged under the Espionage Act, section 793(e), only the fourth American ever. The first was Daniel Ellsberg. He’s been charged with mishandling classified information. Not with spying. His crime was to tell the truth about illegality and corruption. "This has become the specter of a truly Orwellian world," Drake said in his Ridenhour speech, "where… whistleblowing is now equated with spying. Dissent has become the mark of a traitor. Truth is equivalent to treason and speaking truth to power makes one an enemy of the state. And yet who is really the enemy here?” 

Jesselyn Radack, a former whistleblower while in the ethics division of the Department of Justice, who is now a lawyer  for the Government Accountability Project defending whistleblowers,  said this while introducing Tom at the Ridenhour ceremony: 

“This Administration has brought more ‘leak’ prosecutions than all previous presidential administrations combined. When first elected, President Obama acknowledged that often the best source of information about government wrongdoing is an employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. He called such acts courageous and patriotic. So it is especially hypocritical to be prosecuting public servants under the Espionage Act. 
 
Painting whistleblowers as spies serves another ugly purpose: alienating these brave employees from their natural allies in the legal, civil rights and civil liberties community. It is rank hypocrisy for our government—preaching openness and transparency—to criminalize whistleblowing that exposes embarrassing or illegal government conduct. This Administration—whose mantra is to ‘look forward, not backward’—gives war crimes, torture and warrantless wiretapping a pass . . . but is going after the whistleblowers who exposed that misconduct.  
 
The prosecution of Tom Drake is the most severe form of whistleblower retaliation I have ever seen and it sends a chilling message. It is tragic when serving your country gets you prosecuted under the Espionage Act, and when telling the truth gets you charged with ‘making false statements.’ “ 

We have all cheered the mass demonstrations for justice, human rights and democracy whether in Tunisia, Yemen, Syria or Madison. But the ordeal of the whistleblower is not part of a collective movement. It’s the isolated courage of a gang of one. And the fate of democracy hangs on the success of that one person as much as it does on the success of a mass protest -- except that the whistleblower’s conditon is a lot more lonely. When Tom Drake’s trial opens in Baltimore on June 13th, he faces 35 years in prison. 

I have just finished painting Tom Drake’s portrait as part of my Americans Who Tell the Truth project. Being with him, being in the presence of his integrity and determination, being able to witness the suffering our government has put him through, was extraordinary. I tried to portray those qualities in the painting. I placed him in the corner of the composition to suggest his isolation and to convey a feeling of his looking back at America in disbelief -- and defiance. His defiance is that he adhers to the truth of this country’s ideals even if the country has betrayed and abandoned them. 

Thomas Drake needs our support as much as Bradley Manning needs it.

You can support his cause by signing the Change.org petiton here.

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