'We're All Foreigners Now': Thomas Drake Rails Against the Dark Art of Surveillance at MoMA

Drake offered an eerie reminder about the direction he sees government surveillance going.

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Jul 1 2013, 8:10pm
Video and photo by Alex Pasternack

It wasn't Thomas Drake's typical venue. But the former NSA mathematician-turned-whistleblower, whom the government accused in 2010 of violating the Espionage Act, was one of three panelists who sat before a rapt audience on Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 outpost in Long Island City.

The topic of the panel—surveillance in the age of the Internet—was picked for the museum's EXPO 1 series months before Edward Snowden's revelations, but those revelations left their mark: one of the original speakers, filmmaker Laura Poitras, was a no-show, and understandably so: she is one of the journalists involved in the Snowden affair (it was a video of hers that reportedly inspired him to come forward). Cryptographer Jacob Appelbaum, a leading advocate of the Tor anonymizer project, was also absent.

In their stead, the organizer, Triple Canopy, invited Drake and one of his lawyers, Jesselyn Radack, a former ethics advisor to the Department of Justice who once blew the whistle herself against the FBI for ethics misconduct in their interrogation of the American Taliban member John Walker Lindh. They were joined by Trevor Paglen, the artist who launched an image time capsule into space earlier this year and who has applied his geography-inspired artwork to state secrecy and drone warfare.

Drake was passionate in his warnings about an "Orwellian" future. "I'll channel Frederick Douglas: power will not yield willingly. These are institutions that have extraordinary power, they enjoy control over others, they're parasites that feed off of privacy and information about people," he said. "They will not let it go willingly."

Drake questioned the impact of regulations on government and corporate incursions on privacy, and urged the audience to march on the 4th of July during a set of nationwide protests to "restore the Fourth Amendment." And he offered the audience some pressing advice: "encrypt the crap out of your life."

In discussing the case of Edward Snowden and others like Drake who have been charged under the Espionage Act, Radack offered a useful distinction between whistleblowing and leaking. A whistleblower is someone who brings to light secret information they think that the general public will benefit from knowing about. Someone who “leaks” information, Radack argued, allows secret information to be made public regardless of whether or not its of public value or discussion.

To take the recent example of Edward Snowden’s initial leak: it’s fair to say that telling American citizens that they are being surveilled by the United States government without their consent is of value to the American people, and therefore proper whistleblowing.

But this weekend's account, based on a leak from Snowden to Der Spiegel, about the United States government’s espionage of European Union offices and internal networks, may qualify as a leak, but no more. Its uncertain what public benefited from knowing that the US government is spying on the European Union.

Ms. Raback also provided an interesting history lesson about the NSA. In 1978, after the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was put into place to regulate issues pertaining to intelligence gathering abroad, a special court began to decide whose data would be roped even further into the law enforcement system. Very few requests made to the court have been denied.

In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center, several amendments to this act have extended the purview of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is responsible for reviewing federal surveillance warrant requests for foreign spies or for terrorists within the United States. The Patriot Act and the Protect America Act are both memorable, but then there are the lesser known laws, too—the Terrorist Surveillance Act of 2006, for instance, or the Lone Wolf Act of 2004.

The latter allows the government to issue surveillance on an individual without tying that individual to a foreign government or terrorist group. All of these amendments make it easier for the government to spy on individuals in the United States, whether they’re immigrants or citizens.

To that point, Thomas Drake, who has suffered persecution at the hands of the government for speaking out against the NSA and some of its more controversial programs like Trailblazer (he was ultimately not charged with wrongdoing), offered an eerie reminder about the direction he sees government surveillance going. "It's not just about this country. It's about the rights of citizens of other countries. There's a whole lot at stake here." 

But, he said, in the age of the Internet, being born on US soil doesn’t necessarily guarantee one's rights. “We’re all foreigners now. Everyone is treated in that regard."

For more on government spying:

Hello, NSA

Is Anyone Really Surprised the NSA Is Currently Spying on Millions of Americans?

Trevor Paglen's "The Last Pictures"

A Photo History of the NSA, from its Own Secret Archives