Blowing the Whistle Former US Official Reveals Risks Faced by Internal Critics


By Mark Hertsgaard, Felix Kasten, and

Part 2: Shredded Documents

What Drake didn't know at the time was that his case would turn a man of the system inside the Defense Department into its critic. John Crane felt affirmed in his desire to further investigate the fears of reprisal felt by potential NSA whistleblowers. He also had a disturbing suspicion.

In 2005, the New York Times reported on the NSA's domestic surveillance in the United States and the article drew attention around the world. Dick Cheney, who was vice president at the time, ordered that the source be tracked down. Among others, the five NSA whistleblowers quickly became suspects: They had, after all, criticized the same operation internally.

John Crane remembers his boss, in an internal meeting, presenting the idea of passing the names of the whistleblowers on to the Justice Department officials investigating the case. Crane says he objected at the time and noted that this would be in violation of the legally guaranteed protection of anonymity for whistleblowers. The dispute continued outside the meeting room and he finally even pulled out his pamphlet with the law written on it. Crane says his boss answered by saying that he was in charge of relations with the Justice Department and that he would deal with it as he saw fit.

The Pentagon and the Office of the Inspector General declined to respond in detail to SPIEGEL inquiries about the events. Crane's former boss cited his oath of confidentiality. He said he was confident that an investigation into the events would show he was innocent of any wrongdoing.

Crane's suspicions continued to grow, especially after important documents pertaining to the Drake case disappeared from the inspector general's office. Drake's lawyer Jesselyn Raddack asked the court to demand the documents, saying they would prove that Drake was only in possession of the NSA documents on his private computer because he wanted to provide them to the inspector general. This would have granted Drake source protection and prevented him from prosecution.

But the files could allegedly no longer be found in the Office of the Inspector General -- it was claimed that they had been shredded. Staff had accidently "fucked up," Crane remembers one of his superiors telling him before adding that Crane needed to be a "team player." Crane's superior told the judge that the disappearance of the files had resulted from an error made during the routine elimination of files. Crane didn't believe a word of it. He was convinced that that files had been deliberately destroyed. "Lying to a judge during criminal proceedings is a punishable offense," he says.

Crane decided against being a "team player." He stopped toeing the line, he countered and complained. He also sent the message that he would not keep silent. As had been the case with Drake, this would result in painful personal consequences for Crane. In 2013, the then-inspector general ordered him into her office and slid his termination papers across the table. In front of the office, a security guard stripped him of his ID card.

Nazi-Era Inspiration

Why did Crane rebel after a quarter-century as a loyal civil servant? Why did he risk his career, his reputation as an irreproachable civil servant, his friendships and his pension?

He strolls through Lady Bird Johnson Park near the Pentagon. Crane has a lot of free time now that he no longer has to go to the office each morning. He holds his arms crossed behind his back as he walks. When he was still serving the government, he had contact with Senators and Representatives and saw his job as being at the nexus of the executive and legislative branches. He thought that politicians like President Obama wanted to improve democracy. "I had to do the right thing," Crane says. "Just like my German grandfather did."

Crane's grandfather was Günther Rüdel, a colonel general in the German air defenses who had already served in World War I. On Nov. 8, 1923, when Adolf Hitler, together with his followers, first attempted to seize power, Riedel was inside Munich's Bürgerbräukeller together with several other soldiers as Hitler attempted to mount the Beer Hall Putsch. When Hitler pointed his pistol at one of Rüdel's friends, Rüdel stood between them and said: "Mr. Hitler, you will never liberate Germany like this."

Hitler then lowered his weapon and proceeded. Rüdel had defused the situation. Rüdel described the scene himself in an eight-page personal affidavit that was corroborated by an eyewitness. Rüdel was even named as a witness by the government in the later trial against Hitler, but he wasn't ultimately subpoenaed.

Crane says he still admires by his grandfather's courage today and that those scenes from 1923 inspired him. He is also aware that Günther Rüdel's history has darker tones. Later, after all, his grandfather decided to remain in the Wehrmacht under Hitler and to carry out the Führer's orders. He was instrumental in the development of Nazi Germany's air defenses and was promoted to general. He was only discharged in 1942, whereupon Rüdel moved with his family to a Catholic parsonage in Bavaria.

In 2000, Rüdel's role in World War II again came under review after then-German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping removed his name from an air force barracks that had been named after him. It had emerged that Rüdel had served as a volunteer juryman at the People's Court, which had sentenced myriad opponents of the Nazi regime to death. However, further research revealed that Rüdel had only attended one hearing and that he had advocated for the accused's release. In the rechristened barracks, the officers' mess was then named for Rüdel. John Crane and his mother both traveled to the ceremony.

'Moral Responsibility'

"I learned from my grandfather that there is a moral responsibility to act when the government is violating the law," he says. Crane is so proper that it's almost painful and imbued by a high sense of morals. "In my mind, the work of a whistleblower is not a job, it's a calling," he says. He pulls a piece of paper out of his jacket pocket with a version of the famous quote by German theologian and resistance fighter Martin Niemöller. Crane reads it out loud: "First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out -- Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out -- Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out - Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me -- and there was no one left to speak for me." After reading it, Crane is silent for a while.

Crane "became a whistleblower to bear witness to the fact that the whistleblowing system doesn't work," says Thomas Drake. "He took the fall for me." Drake and Crane only met personally after they had both lost their posts. Both share the hope that a moment will come when they are vindicated. Drake says he would like to get his pension rights back. For the time being, he scrapes by working as a sales clerk at an Apple Store.

Crane, for his part, has submitted several affidavits describing the abuse of authority from his perspective. His lawyer has submitted a complaint to the Office of Special Counsel accusing Crane's former colleagues of grave misconduct -- describing it as a systematic campaign aimed at curtailing whistleblowers' rights and undermining their disclosures.

In the past, Edward Snowden has cited Drake's fate as the reason he chose not to put his trust in the authorities and to go public with his leaks instead. Drake trusted the system and "did absolutely everything right," Snowden said. "Rather than protecting him against retaliation from some low-level manager or whatever, they actively retaliated against him."

Crane says he thinks it's "sad that someone has to go into exile because he has the feeling that he cannot use the different channels that are available to him. Someone like Snowden shouldn't have felt the need to have to harm themselves just to do the right thing." The one-time senior official accuses his former colleagues of having turned the Snowden case into what it became through their actions in the Drake case -- a fiasco for America's intelligence services and a problem for the country's foreign policy. "Snowden saw the Drake case and the course it took," Crane says. "It was the way Drake was handled that led Snowden to not stay within the system."

"When I was at NSA, everybody knew that for anything more serious than workplace harassment, going through the official process was a career-ender at best. It's a part of the culture," Snowden told SPIEGEL and the Guardian when asked about the Crane case. "If your boss in the mail room lies on his time sheets, the inspector general might look into it. But if you're Thomas Drake, and you find out the president of the United States ordered the warrantless wiretapping of everyone in the country, what's the inspector general going to do? They're going to flush it -- and you with it."

'Playing With Fire'

In reference to the doubts that he had, Snowden says: "I went to colleagues, I went to supervisors, I even went to the lawyers. You know what they said? 'You're playing with fire.'"

"The sad reality of today's policies is that going to the inspector general with evidence of truly serious wrongdoing is often a mistake. Going to the press involves serious risks, but at least you've got a chance," Snowden says. Even today, he says, there isn't a single whistleblower from the intelligence community whose disclosures didn't lead to retaliation. "We need iron-clad, enforceable protections for whistleblowers," he says. "There are no incentives for people to stand up against an agency on the wrong side of the law today, and that's got to change."

It is visibly apparent that it isn't easy for Crane to make the allegations he has made and that it still requires a great deal of effort. He speaks slowly and cautiously, considering every word. After all, given that Crane spent his entire career working to make things better, he's also speaking of a personal failure.

After spending several hours telling his story, Crane wants to show where he spent his professional life one more time. He drives his burgundy Volvo to a yacht harbor on the Potomac. There's a good view of the Pentagon from here, and you can also see the Washington Monument and the White Houses, all emblems of power in the United States. Jets taking off from the nearby Ronald Reagan Airport thunder overhead. Crane peers over at the Pentagon. He could be full of resentment, but he isn't.

The Office of Special Counsel, an independent tribunal that adjudicates whistle blower cases throughout the US government, reviewed Crane's complaint and concluded that there was a "substantial likelihood" his allegations are true. The Justice Department was assigned to conduct a fresh investigation. The findings are expected about a year from now and it is possible Crane will prevail. Until then, he plans to tend to his yard and look after his children.

Does he hope to one day be able to return to his old office. "Yes, of course," Crane says, appearing astounded that anyone could even ask such a question. "My return would show that the system actually does work."

*Correction: An earlier version of this story mentioned that "programs like Trail Blazer" captured information about private citizens. That could be read as if Trail Blazer was actually a live program, but it never went live. Additionally, an earlier version of this story indicated that the group first complained to the NSA inspector general. That is incorrect. The complaint to the NSA inspector general was only made by Thomas Drake. The rest of the group (Bill Binney, Kirk Wiebe, Ed Loomis and Diane Roark) complained directly to the office of the Pentagon Inspector General.

Book Bag
  • "Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden," by Mark Hertsgaard, (New York: HotBooks/Skyhorse, May 23, 2016), 158 pages plus notes, $21.99.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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Inglenda2 05/22/2016
1. Whistleblowers deserve honour, but risk their lives
If you are looking for honesty within USA policies, you are bound to be disappointed. Success is put before every other virtual quality. The best example was the war in Iraq. The war was needed to secure material advantages. After Dr. Kelly pointed out that the reasons given to attack the country had been artificially created, his body was found with slit wrists. The people responsible for this crime were never found and the police told to treat the matter as suicide. Other witnesses to the incorrect behaviour of the government, or secret services, if they are brave enough to make their knowledge known to the public, are hunted down like dogs. Such systems are a disgrace to the human race, but a look at Russia, China, Southern Arabia, or Turkey, show that the Americans are not alone when it comes to using dishonest and brutal methods.
turnipseed 05/22/2016
2. America and freedom
America seems very attractive from the outside. It is. We have many freedoms and many opportunities which people in almost every other country would relish. We are also rich. But, but: if you challenge the Military Industrial Complex you set yourself up for attack and marginalization. Once you were called a subversive and a Communist: see the movie TRUMBO. Now communist labels are out of date; the Soviets are no longer communist and the Chinese are only playing with the label communist. But there are other things they can call you and things they can do to you if you do not conform enough. 05/22/2016
3. Works both ways
Unfortunately this type of conduct is widespread through the US government. I think of more importance is that government employees acting illegally on behalf of the administration are protected and even rewarded in some cases for their actions. It happens with presidents from both parties, but the current administration has raised this to a new level: use of tax and other agencies to harass and interfere with opponents; threats of suits that are prohibitively expensive to defend against; etc.
matthew_montagu-pollock 05/23/2016
4. Congratulations!
Better (clearer, more informative) than the equivalent piece in The Guardian...
broremann 05/23/2016
5. the power of lies
Epigram A political outsider is one who does not Agree with the conventional view of the day This because the majority`s lazy approval of Popular politics which are often based on lies
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