National Security Agency: The “Enron” of U.S. Intelligence

The National Security Agency (NSA) is “the Enron of the U.S. intelligence community,” according to former NSA whistle-blower Thomas Drake. He cited widespread corruption and inefficiency in a cancelled $1.2 billion surveillance and data retention program.

The project, called Trailblazer, was several hundred million dollars over-budget and months off-schedule. After NSA Director Michael Hayden admitted this to Congress in 2005, the NSA cancelled Trailblazer in 2006. However, Mr. Drake reveals that the agency was guilty of much more than it let on.

Hayden had rejected a $3 million project called Thinthread (over $1 billion less expensive than Trailblazer) that offered to collect the same data as Trailblazer. Drake attributes such a seemingly irrational choice to the self-serving intelligence community culture, “Careers are built on projects and programs. The bigger, the better the career.”

Drake described Trailblazer as “a feeding frenzy” for numerous contractors to simply take taxpayer money and provide few results. Although accountability is not a trait the government has in spades, offices with classified budgets like the NSA present an especially tough challenge for whistle-blowers like Mr. Drake. He described the NSA’s budget as “unauditable … It was very difficult to determine where most of the money was going except at a very general level.” As a result, NSA officials and their contractors found it easy to line their pockets with taxpayer money.

After Drake addressed the matter with his supervisors, met with Congressional Intelligence Committees, and filed a report with the Inspector General, the NSA continued to deny the fraud and abuse within the Trailblazer program. Frustrated by a lack of internal accountability, Drake shared unclassified information about the case with a Baltimore Sun reporter. Once news of the scandal went public, the FBI raided Drake’s house and charged him for keeping classified documents at home, under the Espionage Act — a statute with severe consequences. Drake explains that the government pursued such harsh prosecution despite his respectable intentions because high-ranking bureaucrats wanted to send a message to all other whistle-blowers: “Do not speak truth to power, we will hammer you.”

Last month, the Department of Justice rescinded the charges because it didn’t want to risk making sensitive information available to the public during trial. Drake pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.

Contrary to his cries for more government transparency and accountability, President Obama has prosecuted more government leakers under the Espionage Act than any other U.S. president. Keeping an agenda crammed with reckless spending and inefficiencies away from the public eye seems like a logical motive.