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Former NSA official says mismanagement continues at spy agency

Accused leaker calls organization the ‘Enron’ of intelligence

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Former National Security Agency whistleblower Thomas A. Drake says continuing mismanagement and malfeasance have turned the nation's premier electronic spy agency into "the Enron of the U.S. intelligence community."

Mr. Drake, whose federal criminal case concluded last week, said in an interview with The Washington Times that he thinks management failures at NSA related to electronic surveillance and other issues that he protested — first through internal channels and then by sharing unclassified data with a Baltimore Sun reporter — are continuing.

"The agency never even accepted the basis for the [Pentagon inspector general's] investigation in the first place," he said, referring to the internal audit launched after he and others at NSA's Fort Meade headquarters in Maryland complained about contract fraud and mismanagement.

He compared the agency to the Texas-based energy trading giant Enron Corp., which went bankrupt in 2001 and became a symbol of corporate fraud and corruption.

Mr. Drake was sentenced to one year's probation and community service last week after the government's 10 felony counts against him were withdrawn. He instead pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor offense of exceeding authorized access to a government computer.

The judge called the prosecutors' handling of the case "unconscionable" because it took 2½ years to charge Mr. Drake and another 14 months to bring him to trial before all the major charges were dropped at the last minute.

The Justice Department said this week that it will continue pursuing other cases against intelligence officials accused of leaking classified information.

"The guilty plea of the Drake case has no affect on other pending matters," Justice spokeswoman Laura Sweeney told The Times. "Each case is unique, based on its fact and circumstances, and the department is proceeding in the pending cases."

They include the prosecutions of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling and State Department contractor Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, both involving accusations of leaks to reporters.

Another major case is that of Army Pvt. Bradley Manning, who is facing military charges related to hundreds of thousands of classified documents obtained in Iraq and passed to the anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks.

Mr. Drake's whistleblowing is related to NSA's multibillion-dollar plan to develop a digital eavesdropping and data storage system called Trailblazer, which would index and analyze large amounts of electronic data that the agency gathers from monitoring computers and telephones around the world.

Even though the public version of the inspector general's report is heavily censored, Mr. Drake said: "It is clear that NSA disputes the findings. ... They have never accepted they did anything wrong."

"There was a cover-up," Mr. Drake said. "The truth is Trailblazer was an even more abysmal failure than they let on in public."

In 2005, NSA Director Michael Hayden told Congress that Trailblazer was "a couple to several hundred million" dollars over budget and months behind schedule. The program was abandoned in 2006.

"In the end, they delivered nothing," Mr. Drake said of contractor SAIC, which was paid $280 million for the demonstration phase of the program. Mr. Drake said executives at NSA, including the deputy director at the time, William B. Black, were former SAIC employees and the contract was "hard-wired for SAIC."

Mr. Black returned to work at SAIC after his retirement from the NSA in 2006.

Through a spokesman, SAIC said the company and its executives declined to comment.

Mr. Drake, who held a senior position at NSA from 2001 until 2008, said the agency had planned to spend more than $4 billion on the program with SAIC and dozens of other contractors, and that fraud and abuse were widespread in Trailblazer and related programs.

"It really became a feeding frenzy as contractor after contractor bellied up to the Trailblazer bar," he said.

Mr. Drake said NSA's accounts — like most other Defense Department bookkeeping systems — were "unauditable."

The agency's budget is classified, but even for those inside the agency, "It was very difficult to determine where most of the money was going except at a very general level," he said.

The government "fought very hard" to keep any reference to the inspector general's report, or his other whistleblowing activities, for instance to Congress, out of the court case.

"Why were they so afraid of that getting into court?" he asked. "It's the continuing cover-up."

The NSA press office referred a request for comment to the Justice Department.

Ms. Sweeney, the Justice spokeswoman, said: "The department has long valued the legitimate exposure of waste, fraud and abuse if it occurs while at the same time protecting the rule of law.

"There are laws prohibiting government employees who are entrusted with the nation's most sensitive information from disclosing classified information to anyone not authorized to receive it."

Despite the administration's pursuit of leaks, some observers say, such cases often are difficult to prosecute without exposing secrets that the government wants to protect.

A former U.S. official familiar with the Drake case called leak cases challenging.

"You have to make absolutely sure that the victim agency understands very clearly who will be called as a witness and what they might be asked about," the former official said. "They have to be OK with that. ... If that is not adequately or sufficiently discussed, problems can come up."

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