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Keeping State Secrets 

Fair Game

Published December 22, 2010 at 10:01 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

You’ve probably heard of Wikileaks and its founder, Julian Assange. Maybe even Bradley Manning, the Army private and former intelligence officer who allegedly turned over thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks.

But chances are you don’t know the name Thomas Drake, a former Vermonter charged under the Espionage Act for mishandling classified information. His alleged crime? Drake blew the whistle on a wasteful surveillance program within the National Security Agency.

Drake grew up in southern Vermont, attended a one-room schoolhouse and later went to Burr and Burton Academy, where his father taught, in the early 1970s. His mother was the personal secretary for writer Pearl S. Buck when the author lived in Danby.

Drake, who now works at an Apple store in northern Virginia, had “top-secret” clearance when he worked at the NSA, according to court records. He began work there as a contractor in 1989, after 10 years in the U.S. Air Force. Drake became a full-time NSA employee in August 2001. His first day on the job was September 11, 2001.

Drake was assigned to a secret surveillance detail that collected and reviewed millions of pieces of data — some of them personal — in search of suspected domestic terrorist activity.

Over time, Drake came to believe the program was a “budget sponge” used to pad the agency’s expenditures. He also believed some of the personal data collected likely violated protections against illegal search and seizure, court records indicate.

“In short, he believed that NSA was spending exponentially more for a system that flunked the ‘War on Terrorism,’ but passed a secret war on America’s constitution with flying colors,” reads “Whistleblower Witch Hunts,” a report issued last month by the Government Accountability Project (GAP), a group devoted to defending whistleblowers.

There were more secure, and less costly, options, Drake told his superiors. They ignored him. So, in early 2006 he took his story to a reporter at the Baltimore Sun. Siobhan Gorman wrote and published stories about the surveillance program over the course of 18 months.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation was not pleased. Determined to find the source of the Sun’s stories, agents raided Drake’s home in late 2007. He cooperated with federal investigators until April 2008, when Drake realized that he was a target of the probe and not just a witness. He then resigned from the NSA.

Only four people in U.S. history have been charged under the Espionage Act for mishandling classified information. The first was Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked “The Pentagon Papers” to the New York Times. The documents revealed the United States’ military strategy in Vietnam and helped turn the public against the war, triggering events that led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

Ellsberg’s prosecution was overturned due to government misconduct. Drake may not be so lucky. If convicted, he could face up to 35 years in jail.

“Too often, whistleblowers end up choosing their conscience over their career, but in Mr. Drake’s case, speaking truth to power may cost him his very liberty,” said Jesselyn Radack, GAP’s homeland security director. Drake’s prosecution has also had a “chilling effect on national security and intelligence community whistleblowers,” she adds, “arguably the category of people you would most want to hear from if the government is torturing people or secretly surveilling its own citizens.”

Radack is hoping Congress will use the Drake case to push for stronger whistleblower protections.

“From what I can tell, he didn’t do this for himself or any grand cause,” said Chris Frappier, who attended Burr and Burton with Drake and is now an investigator* at the public defender’s office in Burlington. “That’s very much like Tom. He always had a strong sense of wrong and right and of honor. Maybe he did the right thing, maybe he didn’t, but the consequences are horrific; they are disproportionately horrific.”

“I fear the storm ahead for him,” said Frappier. “Clearly, they are trying to send a chilling message, but it’s on the back of the wrong guy.”

Battle for Recognition

At least three of Vermont’s Native American tribes will seek state recognition from the legislature next year in hopes of boosting their chances of receiving a federal designation to sell handmade goods as “official” Native American wares. The official stamp would also allow Vermont’s American Indians to access federal education funds.

A bill designed to grant recognition to select tribes was nixed last year due to infighting between Abenaki and non-Abenaki, as well as disputes within the Abenaki community itself. Lawmakers took sides, too, in these generations-old battles.

Rather than grant recognition, lawmakers established nine hoops, er, criteria a tribe must meet to be legit in the eyes of the legislature. It also called for all new appointments to the nine-member Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs.

The VCNAA, along with several outside scholars, has the task of reviewing each recognition request. If VCNAA gives the OK, requests are forwarded to the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee for review. Whatever it recommends goes to a full-floor vote.

So far, three tribes have applied: Nulhegan, Koasek and Elnu. Their applications are under review and likely will be ready for a legislative vote this coming session, said VCNAA’s new chairman, Luke Willard, the former chief of the Nulhegan Tribe in the Northeast Kingdom. Others tribes are still preparing applications, but those might not be ready in time for a vote in 2011.

Some Abenaki allies have taken the unusual step of asking House Speaker Shap Smith to ban one lawmaker in particular — Rep. Kesha Ram (D-Burlington) — from the review process. Why? The perception is that Ram played a key role in derailing last year’s recognition effort at the 11th hour.

Ram tells “Fair Game” she has no intention of stepping down from the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee.

“I am hurt by the news of this letter, however, the Abenaki community is not monolithic,” said Ram. “Focusing on the role of one legislator negates the thoughtful and complex engagement of our entire legislative body in passing laws that best serve our state.”

A former VCNAA member believes the “new process” is stacked in favor of the Abenaki and the various tribes thought to be aligned with them.

“The current commission does not represent a broad spectrum of native peoples in the state of Vermont,” notes former VCNAA commissioner Brad Barrett. “It was not supposed to be slanted toward the ‘alliance’ tribes, and now it is.”

Willard hopes to smooth out past problems by proving the commission can work with all tribes and break free of past squabbles.

“I’m not interested in getting involved in a long, drawn-out process,” said Willard. “This review process was set up to avoid that.”

Travel Tally

Vermont taxpayers shelled out close to $1.7 million in out-of-state travel expenses for state workers and executives between mid-January and mid-November 2010. That’s an increase of about $300,000 over the same time period last year.

All aboard the gravy train? Sure seems like it.

According to a report provided to “Fair Game” by the Agency of Administration, state employees were reimbursed roughly $790,000 for out-of-state travel, including car rentals, airfare, hotels and meals, over the 11-month period. Another $900,000 in out-of-state travel costs was charged to state-owned credit cards.

The top four jet-setting agencies or departments were: the Department of Public Safety — $195,984; the Agency of Transportation — $166,200; the Department of Health — $112,000; the Department of Banking, Insurance, Securities and Health Care Administration — $90,000. BISHCA spent another $50,000 on travel but had those costs reimbursed by outside associations and organizations. Outgoing BISHCA commissioner Mike Bertrand said he’d been tasked by Finance Commissioner Jim Reardon to be “very aggressive about finding ways to have these costs covered by outside agencies, and we have done that.”

The Department of Public Service plunked down more than $65,000 this year on out-of-state travel — double what it spent last year.

Reardon said two critical missions kept DPS officials flying around the country: Fairpoint’s bankruptcy hearings and the state’s low-level radioactive waste compact with Texas.

Fifth Floor Feminist?

On Monday, Shumlin named Deputy Treasurer Beth Pearce to succeed Treasurer Jeb Spaulding. Spaulding will resign from office in January to become Shumlin’s secretary of administration. Come January, Pearce will be the only woman holding statewide elective office.

Is Gov.-elect Peter Shumlin trying to compensate for that gender inequity by appointing so many women to key leadership posts? To date, half of his 28 appointments have been women — for a net gain of nine sisters in the upper levels of state government.

Shumlin’s key inner circle of staffers on the fifth floor — where the executive office is located in the Pavilion Building in Montpelier — has only two Y-chromosome-configured staffers: the governor-elect and his chief of staff Bill Lofy.

I guess we know who’s got the man-date in this administration.

Media Notes

Former radio hosts Steve Cormier, Tom Brennan and Lana Wilder launched a new two-hour morning show, “Corm, Coach & Lana” on Northeast Sports Network ( At 7 a.m. Monday, the trio was guffawing over headlines, talking with guests and joking around like no time had passed.

In fact, it’s been a while. The long-running “Corm & the Coach” went silent in 2008 when the owners of 101.3 Champ FM canceled the show. The program reappeared in November 2009 on WNMR 107.1 FM, only to disappear four months later when the station ran into financial trouble.

Wilder was laid off from 92.9 FM earlier this year.

Starting January 3, the trio’s 7-to-9 a.m. show will be simulcast on WCAXtra, WCAX-TV’s secondary digital channel.

* This online version of this article has been corrected.

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About The Author

Shay Totten

Shay Totten

Shay Totten wrote "Fair Game," a weekly political column, from April 2008-December 2011.


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