He and Radack (whom he first found when he read an op-ed she wrote in The Los Angeles Times, incidentally) both knew that in order to have a fair chance in court, he would have to give himself a fair chance in the court of public opinion. “It was very important to get the media involved, and to try to turn the Titanic, because when you only have one side speaking, meaning the government, and they have a huge megaphone, creating this caricature of you, it’s hard to fight back against that,” said Radack. “With the media, I felt like we were able to educate the public, that there’s a difference between leaking and whistleblowing. And that difference is public interest.”
This is not to say that the particular members of the media that they contacted were advocates, or that their reporting was biased. Jane Mayer’s cover story in The New Yorker and Scott Pelley’s segment on 60 Minutes, both of which came out in the month before Drake’s case went to trial, lucidly and clear-headedly explained Drake’s situation and conveyed information that the public had not previously had access to. (An especially strange segment of The Daily Show told his story, too—but that came much later, when it was finally okay to laugh about it).
After the Mayer article and the Pelley segment came out, Radack continued, “Then newspapers started suddenly writing editorials, saying, ‘Wow, the government shouldn’t be charging him under the Espionage Act, and the government is overcharging him, just like they overcharged Aaron Swartz.’ It was like a flood.” The government prosecutor’s case “basically crumbled,” and the judge excoriated the government for even taking it forward. Drake’s charges were dropped.
The necessary evil of anonymity came up in several Whistleblower Tour discussions, as well. Another stop at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln featured Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist Mike McGraw from the Kansas City-Star, who worked with a whistleblower in 2008 to expose a dangerous breakdown in the maintenance of reconnaissance planes at the Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. McGraw spoke about the inherent difficulties of keeping sources’ names out of stories. “For my purposes, I don’t like unnamed sources, and readers don’t like unnamed sources,” said McGraw. “[Readers] have a tendency to believe that it’s a figment of my imagination, or a journalistic conspiracy.”
But, McGraw said, that doesn’t mean that a source’s request for anonymity stops his pursuit of the story; it’s only the beginning of the process. “In many cases, I have relied on whistleblowers to basically draw me a map,” said McGraw. “Where are the documents I need to go to? What other possible sources can I go to, who might be named? What are other alternate ways we can get at this story? And there’s almost always alternate ways to get the information, without naming the whistleblower or using an unnamed source.”
Towards the end of the FIU event, I asked them a question via Twitter: Given their experience, what advice could Radack and Drake give to journalists who may be contacted by whistleblowers in the future, about both inviting and managing that delicate relationship?
“If you’re going to communicate with a source electronically, be safe about it, and use encryption,” responded Radak, suggesting Pretty Good Privacy as a good place to start (PGP, a free equivalent of which is GPG, is available here).
But sometimes that won’t be enough, Radack added. In her work as an attorney representing whistleblowers, all of her clients from the NSA insist on meeting her in person. “Unfortunately, we have all of this amazing technology, but you may have to do your job kind of the way that I do mine, which is: Meet with your source in person, pay in cash, use burner phones. You know, drug dealer tactics.”
The moderator asked another question about Drake’s and Radack’s decisions to blow the whistle on their employers: Would you do it all again, knowing what you know now, and considering everything you went through as a result? “Yes, without hesitation,” said Drake simply, to audience applause.
“I may have done it a little bit differently, because I tried to blow the whistle anonymously, like a lot of people do, because they don’t want the spotlight to be on them, they want the spotlight to be on the wrongdoing by the government, but instead I would have probably just held a press conference on my front stoop,” said Radack. “But yeah, I’d blow the whistle again. It was the first night I’d slept soundly in months.”