If you follow current events closely enough to read opinion columns, the odds are you've heard about Edward Snowden, who told a British newspaper the National Security Agency is spying on American citizens.
But have you heard of Thomas Drake, William Binney, J. Kirk Wiebe, or Edward Loomis? They also worked for the NSA, also believe the collection of electronic data on Americans doesn't protect us from terrorists, and violates the law.
If you haven't, its probably because they did what Edward Snowden's critics say he should have done. They expressed their concerns through proper channels.
Thomas Drake was working in the Signals Intelligence Directorate at Fort Meade in Maryland in 2001 when he became concerned that data mining programs directed at American citizens begun after 9/11 wasted millions of dollars, and violated the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.
"I took my concerns up within the chain of command, to the very highest levels at the NSA, and then to Congress and the Department of Defense," Mr. Drake said. "But as I found out later, none of the material evidence I disclosed went into the official record. It became a state secret even to give information of this kind to the 9/11 investigation."
William Binney was a top code breaker prior to his retirement from the NSA in 2001. A year later he, Mr. Wiebe, Mr. Loomis, and Diane Roark, a Republican staffer on the House Intelligence Committee, filed a formal complaint with the inspector general for the Defense Department against "Trailblazer," a system designed to analyze communications traffic carried on various networks, including the Internet.
NSA could have prevented 9/11, were it not for corruption, mismanagement and an unwillingness to share information with other agencies, they alleged.
Mr. Binney and Mr. Loomis designed the software around which Trailblazer was built. But the smaller, cheaper system they designed, code named "ThinThread," had safeguards built in to prevent collection of data on U.S. citizens. A month before 9/11, NSA director Gen. Michael Hayden canceled ThinThread because of the commitment to go with Trailblazer.
But Trailblazer wasn't up and running, so "NSA intelligence basically stopped in its tracks when they canceled ThinThread," Mr. Wiebe said.
Trailblazer was an expensive failure, the inspector general for the National Security Agency said in 2003. NSA "disregarded solutions to urgent national security needs," the IG said.
Trailblazer was hundreds of millions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule, Gen. Hayden told the Senate in 2005. It was canceled the next year.
Vindication did the whistleblowers little good.
"For their troubles, each of these individuals lost their security clearances, while Binney and Wiebe were treated to a full-scale FBI raids on their homes in 2007," noted "Former Spook," a retired intelligence officer turned blogger (In from the Cold). "The whistle-blowers were threatened with criminal prosecution."
The charges against them later "evaporated," Former Spook said. But "all paid a steep price for their actions."
"By following protocol, you get flagged -- just for raising issues," Mr. Drake said. "You're identified as someone they don't like, someone not to be trusted."
Edward Snowden seems to be motivated as much by animus against the United States as by concern for our civil liberties. As Mr. Snowden seeks refuge from one after another of America's enemies, he is "transitioning from hero to traitor," Mr. Binney told USA Today. But considering what happened to those who went through channels, it's hard to fault him for blowing his whistle to a British newspaper instead.
We do this for your protection, say those who run the Surveillance State. But the mammoth collection of data on the innocent costs lives, because it takes attention and resources away from programs targeted at the threat that would be more effective, the whistleblowers say.
The NSA's blanket data seizure programs violate the Fourth and Fifth amendments to the Constitution, and the "secrecy of these programs makes it impossible to hold elected officials and appointed bureaucrats accountable," said Georgetown University law professor Randy Barnett.
Those who exposed Trailblazer's flaws had their careers ruined. The crimes of the guilty and the persecution of the innocent were hidden behind a wall of secrecy. By poking a hole in that wall, Mr. Snowden, whatever his motives, has done us all a favor.
This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/ Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Press and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. email@example.com, 412-263-1476.