Thomas Andrews Drake, the former NSA employee accused of felony espionage but convicted of a misdemeanor computer violation, was sentenced Friday in Baltimore's federal court to 240 hours of community service and one year's probation.
It was an abrupt end to a lengthy case that became a rallying point for both free-speech advocates and those seeking to plug media leaks. It had also threatened to imprison Drake, who was accused of retaining classified information to give to a Baltimore Sun reporter, for up to 35 years before a surprising plea deal was struck on the eve of trial last month.
This has been "an extraordinarily difficult ordeal for me, and [it caused] tremendous pain [for] my family and friends and colleagues," Drake, 54, told the court in a quiet voice.
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In delivering the sentence, U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett had harsh words for the government, calling it "unconscionable" that Drake and his family were dragged through "four years of hell" only to have prosecutors ultimately back down on all felony charges.
He refused to impose a fine on Drake and warned the Justice Department that if the evidence doesn't support the charges, prosecutors need to act swiftly in making amends.
"What kind of message is sent by the government when the government dismisses a 10-count indictment?" Bennett asked. "If the executive branch of the government doesn't provide an explanation, it's up to the judicial branch to note the impropriety of it."
After the sentencing, Drake said he was tired and looking forward to rebuilding his life. "I paid a very high price as a public servant for choosing my conscience over my career and blowing the whistle on government wrongdoing," he said.
FBI agents searched his Glenwood home in November 2007, but he wasn't indicted — on 10 charges of retaining classified information, obstruction of justice and making false statements — until April 2010. Then, days before his scheduled June 13 trial, prosecutors offered him a chance to plead guilty to "exceeding the authorized use of a computer," a misdemeanor.
Drake was never charged with leaking, though it was a constant subtext to his criminal case, which came to symbolize an increasing government intolerance toward the disclosure of unauthorized information.
Five alleged leakers have been pursued under the Espionage Act by President Barack Obama's Justice Department — more than all previous administrations combined, though two cases, including Drake's, were carried over from the Bush years.
Drake's case was built on a "house of cards, and it collapsed beneath the weight of truth," Jesselyn Radack, an attorney and director at the Government Accountability Project, which advocates for whistle-blowers, said after the sentencing.
She and others fought for Drake's freedom through a media campaign that included interviews with The New Yorker and "60 Minutes" and the circulation of grass-roots petitions, along with a contingent of bloggers who repeatedly called the charges against Drake a stretch.
While prosecutors described Drake as ego-driven, he was often portrayed by sympathizers as an honest, patriotic man, and even won a $10,000 Ridenhour prize in April for truth-telling.
Court documents filed by his federal public defenders, Jim Wyda and Deborah Boardman, claim that Drake believed he was protecting his country when he told The Sun reporter — identified in court documents as Siobhan Gorman, who now works for The Wall Street Journal — about allegedly wasteful programs at the Fort Meade intelligence agency.
Gorman, who wrote a series of award-winning articles about NSA mismanagement and programmatic problems for The Sun in 2006 and 2007, declined to comment through a Journal spokeswoman.
"In the end, I was just being an American who simply stood up as a public servant in defense of truth, justice and our Constitution," Drake said after the sentencing.
The criminal case against him was his first "brush with the law," according to his attorneys, who described him in a 17-page sentencing memorandum as living an "exemplary life" dedicated to hard work in the public interest.
Friends and family "herald his honesty and patriotism, and laud his commitment to family, citizenship and the ideals of the Constitution," the lawyers wrote.
Drake grew up in Texas and Vermont, where he attended the second and third grades in a one-room schoolhouse.
A former Burr and Burton classmate described Drake in a letter to the editor, as a "quiet, kind and thoughtful guy."
In 1979, when he was 22, Drake enlisted in the Air Force — the same military branch in which his father served — and took a special interest in German, learning the language and becoming an Airborne Voice Processing Specialist, who translated and analyzed intercepted communications.
He and his young family were stationed in England during the early 1980s, and moved to Arizona in 1985, where he flew on electronic warfare missions. His service evaluations call Drake an "outstanding airman" with "unlimited potential." He is called "mature and capable," "directly responsible for [his] unit's success," and was selected as an instructor of the year.
A fellow German linguist, who has known Drake for 20 years, said in a letter to the court that Drake was "the straightest arrow I have ever known," who's never even tried marijuana. "He follows the rules," the man wrote.
Drake earned several degrees while enlisted, including a bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland, Europe. He was honorably discharged in 1989. He and his family moved to the Washington area, where he worked for several consulting firms and defense contractors, primarily dealing with government NSA contracts, and the U.S. Navy Reserves.
In late 2001, Drake began working for the NSA directly as a senior executive in signals intelligence.
"Tom chose to work for the government because he felt that it was the best way he could make a positive difference," a former NSA colleague wrote in a letter to the court.
Drake held a Top Secret security clearance and worked at NSA's Fort Meade location until the summer of 2006, when he took a teaching assignment at the National Defense University. He stayed there until late November 2007, when the NSA suspended his security clearance.
According to the indictment against him, Drake had already reached out to Gorman by then, saying he was referred to her by "someone we both knew" — identified in court documents as former congressional staffer Diane Roark, who once had NSA oversight while working for the House Permanent Selection Committee on Intelligence.
In a court document filed this week, prosecutors claim that Drake was obsessed with Roark, who retired in 2002, and had been feeding her information since 1999. He agreed to talk to Gorman to impress Roark, they claimed.
Roark could not be reached for comment Friday, and Drake declined to discuss the government's allegations after the sentencing.
The case against him started to unravel in the week before the June 13 trial date, when prosecutors chose to withdraw certain classified exhibits. Drake pleaded guilty to the much lesser charge of unauthorized computer use on June 10.
"What he pled to is really theft," prosecutor William M. Welch II said in court, asking that Drake be forced to pay a $50,000 fine along with probation and community service.
But Judge Bennett said the financial toll has already been severe.
Bennett chastised him for exercising poor judgment and being careless, and ordered Drake to perform his community service at Fort Detrick in Frederick. He commended all attorneys, particularly the public defenders, and again voiced concerns about the duration of the case.
Afterward, Drake said he would have more to say about the ordeal in the months to come.
"I now look forward to getting my life back, so I can live free again knowing that freedom is never free," he said. "It requires eternal vigilance."