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After the whistle

Whether hero or scofflaw, revealing government secrets changes lives

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Thomas Drake blew the whistle on violations of Americans' privacy by the NSA. He now sells iPhones. He's pictured with Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability  Project, an advocacy group for whistle-blowers.


Thomas Drake blew the whistle on violations of Americans' privacy by the NSA. He now sells iPhones. He's pictured with Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project, an advocacy group for whistle-blowers.

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.

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.

Peter Van Buren, a veteran foreign service officer who blew the whistle on waste and mismanagement in 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, Va., 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."

"Let's sit in the back," Thomas Drake says when choosing a booth at Parker's Classic American Restaurant in downtown Bethesda, Md., during his lunch break from Apple. "I have a lot to say. I was a public servant. That's a very high honour. It's supposed to mean something."

Drake was prosecuted under the First World War-era Espionage Act for mishandling national defence information.

His alleged crime: voicing concerns to superiors after 9/11 about violations of Americans' privacy by the nation's largest intelligence organization (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.

Drake, now 56, 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, Md., 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.

Richard Barlow started his career as a rising star tasked with organizing efforts to target Pakistan's clandestine nuclear-buying networks. He won the CIA's Exceptional Accomplishment Award in 1988 for work that led to arrests, including that of Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan.

He testified before Congress under direct orders from his CIA chain of command, but he says he later became the target of criticism from some of those in the CIA who were supporting the jihadists (including Osama bin Laden) in the first Afghan war against the Soviets.

He says he chose to leave the CIA, and in early 1989, he went to work as the first weapons of mass destruction (WMD) intelligence officer in the administration of George H.W. Bush. Barlow continued to write assessments of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program for then-secretary of defence Dick Cheney. He concluded that Pakistan already possessed nuclear weapons, had modified its F-16s to deliver these weapons, and continued to violate U.S. laws.

The intelligence would have legally precluded a sale of $1.4 billion worth of additional F-16s to Pakistan.

But in August 1989, Barlow learned that the Defence Department had asserted that the F-16s were not capable of delivering Pakistan's nuclear weapons. Barlow said that Congress was being lied to, and he objected internally.

Days later, he was fired.

"Back then I was disgustingly patriotic and I thought the government is allowing Pakistan to develop and spread nuclear weapons and I got destroyed for trying to stop it," he said, said Barlow, who now lives in a motorhome outside of Yellowstone National Park.

He was 35 at the time.

After a 1993 probe, the inspector general at the State Department and CIA concluded that Barlow had been fired as a reprisal. The Defence Department maintained that the Pentagon was within its rights to fire Barlow. A 1997 GAO report largely vindicated Barlow, and his security clearances were restored. But, he says, he was unable to get rehired permanently by the government because his record was smeared.

He eventually found some work as a consultant, helping to start and run the FBI's counter-proliferation program out of Sandia National Laboratories.

Meanwhile, he has been trying for years to collect the $89,500 annual pension and health insurance that he believes he is owed.

Much of what he tried to report about Pakistan's nuclear program is common knowledge today, and several national security bestsellers have included his story, including George Crile III's 2003 book Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History, which describes Barlow as a "brilliant young analyst who gave devastating testimony."

Today, the consulting work has dried up, he has run out of money and thinks he is about a month from being homeless.

"I served my country for 23 years. I could go get a job for $10 at Walmart," he said. "But that's not the issue, the issue is where's my money?"

He feels part of the problem is that there's no structure to compensate whistleblowers in the intelligence field. He also says that the Obama administration has criminalized whistleblowing at levels he's never seen before.

-- The Washington Post


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 3, 2013 D5

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