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Susan Wood and Thomas Drake on The Campbell Conversations

Susan Wood and Thomas Drake speak with Campbell Conversations host Grant Reeher

In a continuation of last week's conversation about government whistleblowing, host Grant Reeher talks this week with two actual whistleblowers, both of whom tell powerful stories about their experience.  Susan Wood blew the whistle on the Food and Drug Administration's political stonewalling on the approval of the morning-after pill "Plan B," and Thomas Drake blew the whistle on the National Security Agency's "Trailblazer" data collection project, and was later charged with espionage, before the government dropped its charges amidst public outcry. 

Grant Reeher (GR): Welcome to the Campbell Conversations, we are continuing the conversation that we started last week on whistleblowing. Last week I spoke with Louis Clark, the President of the Government Accountability Project. Today I am talking with two whistleblowers who are affiliated with the project and are part of the American Whistleblower Tour that the project is sponsoring. Tom Drake is a former Senior Executive with the National Security Agency. He was prosecuted by the Justice Department under the Espionage Act after blowing the whistle on NSA’s Trailblazer data collection program. These charges were dropped days before the trial and after stories about the prosecution aired on Sixty Minutes and appeared in The New Yorker magazine, among other places. In 2011 Tom received the Ridenhour Prize for Truth Telling.

Susan Wood is a former Assistant Commissioner for Women’s Health for the Food and Drug Administration. She resigned her position in 2005 in protest over the FDA’s holding up of approval for Plan B - a morning after pill. She is currently a professor at the George Washington University, School of Public Health and Health Services.

Susan and Tom, welcome to the program.

Tom Drake (TD): Thanks for having us.

Susan Wood (SW): Thank you.

GR: Tom, let me start with you. Briefly, if you can, what was the problem that you encountered at NSA and how did you encounter it?

TD: I was trifled. I was faced with the stark reality that the government was in violation of the Constitution through the secret surveillance program that was implemented shortly after 9/11. Massive multi-billion dollar fraud, waste, and abuse, and then significant 9/11 intelligence failures.

GR: And how did you become aware of this? Was it a part of what you are actually working on?

TD: Well, it is a long story but given my position there it was bought to my attention, and I discovered it as part of my responsibilities and duties while I was there.

GR: And what did you initially do to try to change what you saw going on?

TD: Well, I was staring deeply into the abyss a Pandora’s Box. And I could not remain silent in the face of the Constitution being subverted by my own government. I could not remain silent while all the fraud, waste, and abuse, and the intelligence the NSA had and had not shared prior to 9/11. So I ended up blowing the whistle through multiple channels.

GR:  Before you did that, were you trying to say, “Look, we need to change what we are doing”, or did you immediately think that’s not possible and you have to go public with it.

TD: No, the public didn’t – That was many years later.

GR: Oh, okay. Explain that part to me then.

TD: Well there are channels in which you could bring a government wrong doing to the attention of other officials and other parts of government. I started within NSA. So I went to my immediate supervisor, I ended up talking to one of the attorneys in the Office of the General Counsel as well as others. Ultimately I went to two 9/11 Congressional investigations, as well as staffers on the two Intel Committees in Congress, as well as the Department of Defense office of Inspector General.

GR: And then the last piece before I get to Susan and get her part of the story, is you mentioned that this was in violation of the Constitution. This may be an obvious thing but just give me a brief explanation of what was it in violation of?

TD: The NSA, there is history here that is very dark. NSA in the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s and on into the ‘70s under the Nixon administration—it was discovered that NSA had been in violation of American rights—spying on Americans. And so a legal regime was put into place in 1978 in the Carter administration called the Fraud Intelligence Surveillance Act. That regime existed for twenty three years, and they simply unchained themselves from the Fourth Amendment after 9/11. The rest of it is just what I call classic fraud, waste, and abuse. The problem was—this is the Trailblazer program—it was in the billions and billions of dollars and it was a choice that NSA made that they were going to buy this solution from the Defense Intelligence Industry.

GR: And I want to hear more about what happened after this, after you blew the whistle. But I want to get a similar introduction now from Susan. Susan, you worked from a completely different area from Tom; the FDA versus the NSA. What was the problem that you encountered?

SW: The FDA was considering the approval of emergency contraception, which is just high dose birth control pills, as an over the counter product. And it was being blocked repeatedly, against the scientific and medical advice of essentially everyone. Both internal experts as well as external experts, there was great consensus that this was a public health and individual health matter; this should have been a routine approval.  And FDA – similar to NSA but very different – has lived under similar regulations and laws about how it should operate and make its decisions. And it was clearly not following that process, not because the people inside were not doing the right thing, but the leadership of the FDA and the political leadership beyond were essentially coming in and interfering with how FDA should make its decisions.  In this case it is a single product but it actually has ramifications beyond that for how FDA makes its decisions on food, drugs, devices, and everything else that it regulates. So at that time when they made one particular step in that in 2005, it really sort of crossed the line and I felt I really could no longer represent the agency—certainly not as the face of women’s health there—and so I resigned.

GR: And the resignation was in essence when you blew the whistle.

SW: Right.

GR: So before you resigned, did you make any effort to change this, to get this thing approved or to change the process from within?

SW: Well, yes and no. My position was not one in a direct line of authority of an approval process but rather it was part of the Commissioner’s Office to advise and to work in larger policy issues. But I was following the Plan B over-the-counter application very closely, and as it was going through the usual steps.

And the Commissioner’s Office should never ever have been involved at all, and the decision should have been made much lower and it should have been fairly routine. But when the Commissioner’s Office got involved, as much as I could I was asking questions trying to find out what was going on, trying to understand why certain things were happening but frankly everyone at the agency was cut out, and it was held very tightly at the political leadership level.

GR: I’m speaking with two government whistleblowers, Tom Drake, formerly of the National Security Agency and Susan Wood, formerly of the Food and Drug Administration.

Susan, let me stick with you now for what came next. You already said something to this effect. The issue that pushed you over the edge is obviously tied up in some pretty big political arguments, some pretty big cultural politics that have been going on for a long time. So what was the kind of reaction that you got after you went public with this?

SW:  It was very interesting, first of all I got a lot more publicity and notoriety than I ever imagined. I was thinking maybe I would get one line on page 10 of The Washington Post, but instead it was on the front page. So I think it actually got a lot of support from both my colleagues inside FDA who felt that they had been totally ignored and the process had been abused and things turned on its head, and so they really felt I was doing the right thing and backing them up. I also got a lot of support from the communities that I want to remain in good standing with—the medical community, the scientific community. The only people who raised objections were people actually from the sort of far edge of the Right Wing who were objecting, and who apparently had the influence to make the change to begin with.  But, nonetheless, there was very little public pushback because the science and the medical evidence was clear, the fact that FDA was off track was pretty clear, so it was hard to make arguments against what I was saying and doing.

GR: Did your doing this have any change in the policy—was there any effect there ultimately?

SW: Well, It’s a ten year long story so I won’t spend ten years telling it, but it started in 2003 with the first application, I resigned in 2005. The first temporary partial approval occurred at 2006 and in part that was because my resignation served the purpose of clarifying that the system was broken, and so that other people in positions of power felt that they had the credibility to make the argument. So senators, other advocates, other folks around the country and the media felt like they had something that they could understand and talk about. So that allowed for clarity and allowed for change starting in 2006. However it was not resolved until 2013, because even the Obama administration was trying to block final full approval.  And it took legal action and courts here in New York State to finally take it into the finale of the story, when it is finally approved fully over the counter today.

GR: And Tom, were you fired for your whistle blowing, or did you resign?

TD: I ultimately resigned from NSA in April of 2008 when it became clear that the government was going to permanently revoke my [security] clearance, which is a condition of continued employment.

GR: Okay. So had you not resigned in a sense, in essence, you would have been fired.

TD: Well, it is equivalent to being fired because if you cannot keep a security clearance as a condition of continued employment, then effectively you cannot do your job.

GR: And I wanted to know from you, what did you personally lose when you lost this employment string?

TD: Income, option to retire, no pension, went into severe debt.

GR: And did you get drawn into a larger political argument surrounding the issues that you are involved in. Did you get drawn into those afterwards?

TD: Well my case was seminal. The Obama administration wanted to make me exhibit number one in speaking truth to power. And it is a much longer story, but charging an American with Espionage is about the worst thing you can paint a person with, it’s quite something. And it was clear that they considered my actions – although they had actually taken place under the Bush administration – was a way to send an extraordinarily chilling message to any other potential whistleblower or anybody who would speak truth to power, particularly in the national security sector. And yet this was involving, as I have said publicly, high crimes and misdemeanors, particularly with the secret surveillance program as defined by the constitution.

GR: And in particular what I was getting at there is whether in the aftermath of this or in all of the process after you went public and blew the whistle that you then became part of this political argument, or were you the object of it?

TD: I was the object. Again, my whistleblowing took place over many years within the system. I ultimately made a fateful decision to go to the press with what I knew, but that didn’t take place until early 2006.

GR: Tom, how do you view how your action turned out? This may be an impossibly difficult question but was it successful, do you think?

TD: That’s a more challenging question to answer by virtue of the government coming after me in such a grievous manner, charging me with espionage as a part of a ten felony count indictment in April of 2010. I became more than just a passing footnote in history, because I was the first whistleblower since Daniel Ellsberg who was actually charged in a like manner. In fact people were having to go back to that period to even understand why the government would charge an American with espionage for non-spy activities.

So by virtue of the publicity, it was put right onto the front pages and many of these articles were above the fold as they say. What were the issues at hand?  And it also held up the mirror because the press – even mainstream media – was now showing what the Obama administration was going at. I was the first, there was a smaller case with Shamai Leibowitz, but after me many people were charged with espionage and some of those cases are still ongoing.

GR: So do you think though that because of all this, the climate for public thinking about this and for policy makers deciding this has changed?

TD: Well, if Snowden’s disclosures from June of 2013 were an indication, and I always hoped that someone like Snowden would come and step forward with the fuller documentation of what I had exposed within the system—had revealed to the press going back to 2006 and 2007.  We’re now finally having the debate that we never had since 9/11. And where do you draw that line, which is a false dichotomy, between security and liberty?

GR: Susan I want to turn to you now and I want to go back to this decision to go public. You both have already spoken about it but going back to this decision and taking the hits that you did for doing that from your government, from your employer, from others outside. What do you think was the difference in you doing this when we know that most employees do not? Why you, do you think?

SW: That’s a good question. I think the benefit of having someone from inside the government who has been there for a long time to stand up and say,” Enough. No more.” The reason that it had impact coming from me is that I had actually been, and was seen as and was, a team player. I am very much a team player; I get along with the bureaucracy. I had been referred to by good friends as the nicest bureaucrat they know, in the nicest possible way.

And yet the fact that I sort of stopped and said, “This goes too far.” It had more impact than someone who may have had a reputation as someone with a hot temper or someone who was an outside rabble-rouser. And I love all of my outside rabble rouser friends, and I think I am probably considered one now. But I think the fact that I was the kind of person who had worked through the system for this many years and then finally said no it helped clarify that FDA was broken.  And in this manner, it helped clarify that politicization of science is really not acceptable, and that you really have to defend the integrity of how an agency like FDA works if we are going to depend on it for our health and safety. So I think who I was and where I sat made a difference in the impact that it had.

GR: Now that is a powerful testament as to you being particularly effective as a whistleblower. But I want to push you on my question. Why do you think you did it though, what was it about you that made do that, when if you take ten other people and you put them in the same position, they figure out a way to go along.

SW: Well, I was sitting, at that time I was the face of women’s health at the agency. It was sort of a personal integrity kind of thing. If I had been sitting somewhere else in the agency where I wasn’t supposed to be the public face of how FDA handled women’s health issues, I might have been able to put up a wall and say that’s not about me. But I was going to be put in an extremely awkward position of either defending publicly a step that the agency had taken at that point, which is to deny the approval and throw it into a bureaucratic black hole forever, defend that decision, stay silent on that decision, which is really not credible. Or stay inside and be a more classic whistleblower of making noise while inside, or leave. And for me the best decision to maintain my scientific integrity and credibility amongst again the folks I have been working with for decades—it was the best decision for me to do.

GR: Tom, your decision involved the highest personal stakes possible. Again, same question. What do you think made you do this when other people didn’t?

TD: Well I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution and the idea of how to govern ourselves—a grand experiment launched over 220 years ago—and I could not stand idly by. And if I did I would simply be an accomplice to the crime. I’d be an accomplice to a massive taxpayer’s fraud—the use of taxpayer money, the use of billions and billions on what ultimately was a program that was cancelled.  Standing aside watching this subversion of the Constitution.  Standing aside without saying anything about intelligence that NSA had never shared about 9/11, that had buried it and had it covered up. It was an act of conscience, and it was never about me. It was always about who we were as people, who we were as Americans, and I was not going to break that faith with the American people.

GR: Now, when you made that decision, did you know what you were in for?

TD: Yes. Some people have actually called me naïve in the past, as if I didn’t know what I was doing. I think in part it was because of where I was positioned within the national security establishment.  I was at rather senior levels. You know I used to be at executive sessions with the highest levels of NSA and so when you see power being exercised in violation of the Constitution, you see power being exercised not on behalf of the American people but to serve other interests in secret, I chose to make noise. It started within the system over many years and then I ultimately made that fateful decision, but I knew that by going to the press that at a minimum I was in violation of an administrative policy because I was having unauthorized contact with a reporter, and I knew that I could lose my job and I knew given the climate that they could actually move against me.

And so in 2005 when that blockbuster article was published in New York Times by Eric Lichtblau and James Risen, and because so few people knew about the secret surveillance programs, I knew it was just a matter of when, not if, that the national security investigation was launched—a massive multi-million dollar investigation looking into who were the sources for those reporters of the New York Times. I knew I was going to ultimately get caught up in that investigation.

GR: Susan, what kept you going through this—support from outside or more from within?

SW: Well I think it is always both, right? But I think within, my position on this was really defending science and defending how decisions are made about our health and our health policy.  And we find that, unfortunately, more often when we are talking about women in reproductive health—but it spans across the spectrum of health issues and how we really make our decisions that are not based on politics or ideology, but are really based on evidence and what benefits all of us and our health.

So, that conviction really kept me going. I never felt that I made the wrong decision or I shouldn’t have done it or I should have done something else. I think the decisions that were laid out in front of me left me very clear options and I took the one that was best for me. The fact that I had colleagues and communities – the scientific community, health community, women’s health community—that were very supportive certainly helped me bolster what I was doing and helped amplify the message. But for my own personal decision it largely came from this conviction that we have to have an FDA and a broader health system that really looks at the evidence, takes it seriously, and uses it to benefit people and doesn’t politicize it to the detriment of women’s health or others.

GR: And Tom as we have already heard, you went through a lot with this. What kept you, what sustained you?

TD: I wasn’t going to let National Security walk all over our Constitution and erode what was the heart and foundation of the American experience. I just wasn’t. As I have quoted from a Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan, when Spock told Kirk, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” It was always about the future that we wanted to keep in this country and as a nation and as a people.

GR: Now the two of you are on this Whistleblower Tour.  Tom, what do you hope it accomplishes?

TD: These tours really - especially at the University levels and with the larger community particularly this one [at Syracuse] - is to inform the public, inform the future leaders of tomorrow today. The students are going to inherit our own future and it is a wakeup call to understand that we as human beings sometimes do things that are not in the best interest of the commons. And that is ultimately really what this is all about, isn’t it? It is who we are as human beings together, and there are those, unfortunately, who will take advantage of the positions of power and use it for other purposes. And they will use it for purposes that are not in the best interest of the nation or who we are as people.

GR: And Susan, how do you think your whistleblowing experience has changed, will change, the way that you approach the positions that you hold now and positions that you might hold in the future?

SW: I think these types of experiences add perspective, in that small things stay small and I only get exercised about things that are really important. I think it lets you know what is important to you or to me as a person and to me and what I want to accomplish and so small slights or small hassles don’t bother me as much as they did in the past.  And it helps to let you know what is important in life as well as what is important in what you want to accomplish.

GR: And are either of you writing a book based on these experiences?

SW: I am not.

GR: Tom?

TD: Yes. There is far more to my story that just what was made public. There are many back stories, there are many threads going back all the way to World War II and the Nuremberg Trials.  That is where the book actually begins. And unfortunately, to date I am unable to find a publisher.

GR: Does this book have a working title?

TD: Yes, Enemy of the State.

GR: Okay, we will keep our eyes out for that.

GR:  So let me get to the three questions and Tom we’ll start with you. What is the title of the chapter of life you’re currently living?

TD: Defending life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

GR: Susan, how about you?

SW: Maybe teach, travelling and advocating.

GR: And Tom, what’s your worst trait?

TD: Impatience at people who simply stand aside and don’t do anything with man’s inhumanity to man.

GR: Susan?

SW: I think it must be stubbornness.

GR: And finally Tom, what professional or creative achievement in your life so far has surprised you the most?

TD: Well I went through a devastating personal ordeal by blowing the whistle. I think what I am surprised by is the faith that I have in American people and other citizens around the world who recognized that the sovereignty of the individual really does matter. And it is important to protect and defend it.

GR: And Susan?

SW: Well I was going to say something else but now I think the thing that actually surprised me the most was when FDA changed its mind at least partially one year after my resignation. That truly caught me by surprise. I did not think that they would even cave even a little bit at that stage in the process so it surprises me when the change actually happens.

GR: That was Susan Wood and Tom Drake thanks so much to both of you for talking with me.

SW: Thank you.

TD: Thanks for having us.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.