In a decisive victory for whistleblower advocates, the Justice Department dropped 10 criminal charges against former National Security Agency official Thomas Drake accusing him of "illegally possessing classified information, obstructing the investigation into the leaks and lying to the FBI." Drake plead guilty on Friday to a misdemeanor count of "exceeding his authorized use of a NSA computer in 2006 and 2007," reports Reuters. If convicted under the Espionage Act of 1937, Drake faced up to 35 years in prison. With the trial scheduled to begin on Monday, Talking Points Memo's Ryan Reilly called the misdemeanor charge a "major concession for the Justice Department." So why did the government's case against Drake fall apart? Was it just poorly conceived? Or did high-impact profiles in The New Yorker and 60 Minutes shame the government into dropping the case? Here are the competing arguments.
The government's case was just problematic To recap, Blake was charged for leaking classified information to a Baltimore Sun reporter in the aftermath of 9/11. Drake believed the NSA was mismanaging its resources by building a bloated, inept surveillance system called "Trailblazer" when it already had a cheaper, more efficient system called "Thin Thread." If the case had gone to trial, the government may have had to share information about its top secret NSA surveillance system. Politico's Josh Gerstein depicts the frustration felt by federal prosecutors today. "FBI and NSA officials key to the prosecution... sat stern-faced through the court hearing capping what many analysts view as a humiliating turn of events for the government in a case officials once painted as an outrageous breach of national security," he wrote. In a statement, the Justice Department said it caved because it didn't want to give up sensitive national security secrets during the trial. “In cases involving classified information, we must always strike the careful balance between holding accountable those who break our laws, while not disclosing highly-sensitive information that our intelligence agencies conclude would be harmful to our nation’s security if used at trial,” said the head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. If you take the Justice Department at it's word, that's why Thomas Drake isn't serving any time in prison today.