There are a very few people on this Earth who can relate to having their home ransacked by the FBI in search of classified documents thought to be held in violation of the Espionage Act. One of those people is a former senior NSA official named Thomas Drake.
In November 2007, a swarm of armed FBI agents showed up to his house with a ram they never got to use, because Drake’s 12-year-old son simply answered the door. Drake was searched on suspicion of improperly taking classified material and later charged with “willful retention” of various documents under the Espionage Act. These charges are widely believed to have been retaliation for complaints and disclosures Drake made about illegal surveillance, intelligence failures, and massive waste, fraud, and abuse within the National Security Agency in the wake of September 11, 2001, which was, coincidentally, Drake’s very first day on the job.
Among the papers that Drake was accused of taking was one marked “unclassified” and posted on the NSA’s internal website, but the government would argue that it should have been classified and that Drake should have known this. After a lengthy and financially devastating legal battle, 11 of the 11 felony charges were dropped, and Drake pled out on “Exceeding Authorized Use of a Computer,” a misdemeanor. Drake had essentially won, though not before losing his job, his marriage, and his savings. We spoke after Drake’s shift at an Apple Store, where he has worked for the last 13 years.
What is your reaction to learning that Trump’s home was raided for classified materials?
It is incredibly rich. It is rich in terms of the hypocrisy and in terms of who he is. It has come full circle given all he did going after people, including Reality Winner, Daniel Hale, Terry Albury. He really ramped up leak investigations even beyond Obama in terms of actual number of investigations. They wanted scalps. Reality was the first.
Did the raid in Florida remind you of yours at all?
It wasn’t a raid. It would be what you would call a regular search. A search and seizure based on an authorized warrant to show up with a list of what they’re looking for. They’re not banging on doors. They may be armed but it’s discreet. As a former president he has a Secret Service detail; it obviously was coordinated, had to be. The other big thing: He wasn’t there. The thing about a raid — they want to shake your boots, believe me, this is jackboot Gestapo-like. Talk to Reality Winner, talk to Daniel Hale and others; it is not pleasant at all.
And yours? You said you were having flashbacks when you found out all of this went down.
Oh, far different! That’s why we refer to it as a raid. They’re ready for bear. I was getting dressed in the upstairs bedroom to go to the National Defense University where I worked at the time. So it was my son that answered the door. He was downstairs in the kitchen finishing up his breakfast to get ready to go, so my spouse could take him to his middle school a few miles away. It’s a super-loud knock; what he saw was a bunch of lined-up FBI agents, including the special agent in charge. I heard some commotion, I look out the window; I see all these cars pull up, a dozen-plus agents spilling out of cars, rushing up the front lawn, going behind the house. It was quite dramatic. It’s an imprint in me in a very negative way; I’ve gotten through it of course, but that was the flashback.
They ended up in my house for about the same time they were in Mar-a-Lago, nine hours, agents everywhere. They had these special rods, to see in case I had any hidden containers. I had a mouse problem when I first moved, I had mouse traps, but some of them obviously weren’t sprung; they were springing mouse traps in my basement office. I just found it funny. They were popping the tile for the false ceiling, and as they were popping those tiles there were mouse traps snapping off. They had these special poles; outside, agents were poking in case I had a hollow and had buried something.
What kind of information would motivate a search on a former president’s house?
At his level, there are literally one-off copies of some things. The sensitivity of the material is so extreme, there’s a specialized compartment called ECI [Exceptionally Controlled Information] that most people never have even heard of. And then there’s “president’s eye’s only” — we are talking incredibly small distribution list. Super-close hold. It’s only printed typically. Only the most sensitive stuff. I’m familiar with lower levels of things that are highly classified, where it’s one of 50 or one of 100, the number of copies that are actually made. We are talking about formal stuff, formal authorizations, executive findings. Things like the secret surveillance regime that I came across. And I think they were trying to account; something wasn’t right. The National Archives Records Administration missing records of certain activities. Because that’s their job. They are literally the nation’s SCIF.
There are categories where that’s the limit: one piece of paper. And so they’re trying to account for it. There’s a process for that. I’m sure they got quite alarmed. Now it’s like, holy crap, there is all this stuff, tons of stuff, that ended up at Mar-a-Lago. And as a side note: Where else has stuff ended up? Because he has other properties.
Do you think the national-security community is worried that this is information they’ll be embarrassed by? Or that this is an actual national-security threat?
Actual national-security threat. Think of Trump and how he operates, this massive man child. I’m president. When he would be be given the PDB [President’s Daily Brief] — I used to support that when I was at the NIMJC [National Military Joint Intelligence Center] — there’s all this “most relevant for president only,” for him to have an understanding of what’s going on and updates and all of that. I can imagine him: I want a copy of that. Can I keep that? And I think even well before the 2020 election he started collecting.
Other presidents would not have said, “I want a copy of that”?
No. Would not have.
So he’s improperly asking for copies, and they’re giving them to him?
He’s the president! It’s me! It’s like, Hey that’s something, that’s precious, I can own that! It’s there for the taking. I’m serious!
It’s a shiny object.
Yes! A shiny object. That’s also super-sensitive and only he is getting to see it, or very few people. You can imagine the seductive nature of this. He ends up wanting to own it and he becomes obsessed. The most sensitive operations you could imagine would be included because he’s the president. He has no security clearance. He is automatically read in. No matter what. So he just started taking stuff.
What do you make of the idea that Trump declassified all of this before taking it?
Most of the time when the national-security state says that some leaked document threatens national security, that seems not to be true.
That’s correct. You are correct to be cynical. But this is Trump. There are real national-security secrets. Whether or not they should endure for decades is a different question. We are talking special access programs. I used to be part of some of those. He has bragged about having certain weapons that no one else knows about.
What advice do you have for Trump?
[Laughing.] He won’t take it. Because his narcissism so infects him he’s not going to admit any guilt whatsoever; he’s always going to be playing victim. People underestimate his ability to play victim. He plays the system against itself.
But as one of only two people who have been charged under this particular Espionage Act statute and not sent to jail, surely you have some guidance here.
You’re going to face the music because the — I could use an F-word — they don’t mess around when it comes to this stuff. They do not. I know how they treated me, and I had unclassified! We are talking some of the most sensitive secrets, the most sensitive classification categories, and who knows what else was buried in that stuff.
These aren’t presidential papers in any traditional sense. They are owned by the secret side of government, and we entrust those to those who have taken an oath and signed nondisclosure agreements not to reveal that stuff. This is all the shiny coins of the realm. He could not help himself. His little classified keepsakes.