Photo Gallery: The Risks Faced by Whistleblowers

Foto: Felix Kasten / SPIEGEL TV

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

US President Barack Obama has said that Edward Snowden should have used official channels instead of taking NSA spying public. Now, a former high-ranking US government official has revealed how the Pentagon retaliates against internal critics.
Von Mark Hertsgaard, Felix Kasten, Marcel Rosenbach und Holger Stark

John Crane doesn't live far from CIA headquarters on the south bank of the Potomac River, with its verdant forest and rolling hills. The Pentagon is just a few miles upstream. Crane, as a child of the US military-intelligence complex, feels at home here. He served as a part of the system for more than 25 years and he still believes in it -- even if it has since declared him as its enemy.

Crane is sitting in his kitchen. In front of him lies a leather briefcase embossed with the US seal. He is 60 years old, though he looks younger with his slicked-back hair and neatly trimmed beard. He still wears the typical uniform of day-to-day government business in Washington: a shirt monogrammed with his initials, cufflinks and a blazer with golden buttons. It's the way he showed up to work for more than a quarter century, when he flashed his badge to security and drove up to his office inside the complex on Army Navy Drive in Arlington, Virginia. For a long time, he could see the Pentagon, the American Department of Defense, right out his office window.

Later they moved, to a non-descript office tower a little further out, but Crane and his staff remained an important part of the Defense Department. Over the years, he made a career within the US military hierarchy. In his final role as assistant inspector general, he had finally made it up into the senior leadership ranks. Around 1,600 civil servants report to the inspector general, of whom around 90 worked for Crane until his departure. Their job is to follow up on internal problems, corruption and other violations of the law. In modern democracies, an inspector general is a kind of free safety who is supposed to ensure that the government apparatus is functioning according to the principles of the rule of law.

Crane's work inside the Pentagon was sensitive. It was his job to deal with grievances -- from small squabbles to major scandals -- within the military apparatus. He was responsible for relations with Congress and, first and foremost, the US defense apparatus' internal whistleblowing program -- a kind of complaint box for the close to 3 million civilian and military employees of the Pentagon as well as for the NSA, which is subordinate to the Defense Department. He remained in the position until he began suspecting that his superiors had bent the rules in order to nullify one unwelcome whistleblower.

The conflict led Crane to question almost everything he had ever believed in or worked for. The man who, during his career, had attended to dozens of whistleblower cases decided to become one himself. In a new book,* and in several interviews with SPIEGEL, SPIEGEL TV and the Guardian, he has now told his story for the first time. It's one that covers far more than just the fate of a single high-ranking Pentagon employee who was ousted from his job in 2013 as a result of a dispute with his superiors.

Not Quite So Simple

The row stems from the fact that Crane disputes the version of events still put forward today by President Barack Obama and Democratic Party presidential candidate Hillary Clinton when discussing Edward Snowden, the most prominent whistleblower of our times. Snowden didn't have to go underground and he didn't have to take his story public -- that's the message the US government constantly repeats. The system works, the error was made by Snowden: That has been Obama's subtext.

In reference to Snowden, Obama says there "were other avenues available for somebody whose conscience was stirred and thought that they needed to question government actions." Hillary Clinton has also expressed a similar sentiment during the primary campaign. Snowden "could have been a whistleblower" within the government apparatus, she said. "He could have gotten all of the protections of being a whistleblower. He could have raised all the issues that he has raised. And I think there would have been a positive response to that."

At his home in Virginia, Crane casts his gaze across the Potomac towards the Pentagon. He knows that the truth is rather different and that things aren't quite as simple as Obama and Clinton seek to portray them. How could Snowden have taken advantage of the internal avenues available? He wasn't a government official. He was the employee of a private company that worked for the NSA. As such, it was unclear whether Snowden enjoyed the same legal protections as whistleblowers within the government. And even if he were, Crane has doubts today that he would have been treated appropriately.

Crane sighs and struggles to find the right words to explain his doubts. "I witnessed a dramatic example of what can happen to a whistleblower if he behaves as stipulated and turns to the official channels," he says. Yet everything had seemed so well thought out when the government in the 1970s provided a contact point for whistleblowers within the military apparatus and the NSA.

After completing his university studies, Crane worked for a Republican Congressman named Bill Dickinson, a leading member of the Armed Services Committee. Dickinson had been one of the proponents of the idea of establishing an Office of the Inspector General. Once the position was created, Crane became one of the first employees in the office of the newly named inspector. During his career, he worked under around a dozen different inspector generals and helped build the so-called "hotlines" for whistleblowers. For Crane, whistleblowers are a pillar of the democratic system and he is convinced that they help improve the work of government.

After Chelsea Manning passed along to WikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of daily reports about the US campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq along with diplomatic cables from US embassies around the world, Crane advocated for the establishment of a new internal system for filing complaints about classified and highly classified procedures -- a system that was then realized. During his time at the Pentagon, Crane says, he had the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1978 printed in pamphlet form "so that employees in the Office of the Inspector General could read verbatim the law they were supposed to be implementing." Crane says he sought to "make sure there would never be an Edward Snowden."


To this day, he has refrained from publicly endorsing the actions of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. He considers Snowden's flight and ongoing exile in Russia to be a tragedy that could have been avoided. He still believes that internal channels would have been better. The errors Crane decries are those he thinks were made by the people in charge, who he thinks failed to properly implement guidelines and laws.

John Crane first began having doubts in 2004. Shortly before, he had been promoted to the role of assistant inspector general and, as such, part of upper management. These were the years immediately following Sept. 11, 2001. The attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington had fundamentally changed the way US security agencies operated, with the administration of President George W. Bush massively expanding their budgets and authority.

A small group of NSA employees viewed these changes with increasing concern. They recognized that the surveillance being undertaken* also captured information about US citizens -- which they believed violated the US constitution. They saw that close to $4 billion was being spent on this program alone -- money that was pumped into the companies that had been contracted -- and they considered it to be a waste of taxpayers' money. They argued that an internal solution named ThinThread would have been better suited and saved billions.

The group is comprised of three former NSA employees, a former employee of the House Intelligence Committee as well as Thomas Drake, who was still employed by the NSA at the time in a leading position in its surveillance programs.

Drake turned to the NSA inspector general with his complaint. The rest of the group (Bill Binney, Kirk Wiebe, Ed Loomis and Diane Roark) complained to the office of the Pentagon Inspector General, where John Crane worked.* His staff had their own office at NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, where signs have been hung in the hallways and elevators encouraging NSA employees to contact them if problems arise. In September 2002, an official complaint was submitted to Crane.

His inspectors met with Drake in January 2003 and repeatedly questioned him over the course of several years. Drake also delivered NSA documents to them in an effort to prove his allegations. Security staff logged each of his visits to the Office of the Inspector General. Drake felt he was under observation.

Crane's staff contradicted the findings of the NSA officials. After a detailed examination, they deemed the concerns to be largely well-founded -- a slap in the face to those responsible under then-NSA head Michael Hayden. In 2006, the US Congress voted to shut down the controversial Trailblazer program, though NSA continued its mass surveillance through other methods.

'Extremely Unusual'

The story of the NSA whistleblower could have been a success story. But the five petitioners feared reprisals from the very beginning. Whereas four of them used their real names in their complaint, Thomas Drake only appears as a high-ranking employee from the management level -- without his name, out of fear. Crane says he viewed Drake's fear of revenge as a warning signal and found it to be "extremely unusual." Internally, he pushed for further investigation into these concerns.

His boss rejected him. Crane was indignant. In his view, this was in violation of the rules governing the inspector general's work. "One would think that is exactly what we should be investigating," Crane says.

The fear was justified, as would become apparent during the summer of 2007. One morning that July, armed FBI officers raided the apartments and homes of the four whistleblowers named in the report. Four months later, they also turned up at the front door of the man who had sought to remain anonymous in the internal complaint: Thomas Drake.

Drake was a long-serving intelligence employee. For the intelligence service of the US Air Force, he once eavesdropped on radio communications from East Germany's National People's Army and the Stasi secret police from West German airspace. Later, he worked as an NSA contractor. His first day as a full-time employee at the agency was on Sept. 11, 2001.

Now he was being arrested by armed officers and charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 and threatened with 35 years in prison. He also lost his security clearance and, with it, his career -- all because of trying to sound the alarm from the inside as a whistleblower using official channels he had trusted. Among the allegations against Drake were that he had leaked classified information to a reporter at the Baltimore Sun -- a claim he denied. He also stood accused of saving an NSA document on his private computer.

Shortly before his trial was to begin, the government dropped all of the initial charges. Drake was sentenced to one year of probation and community service for the misuse of NSA computers. The judge in the case issued particularly harsh words against prosecutors, saying their actions had been "unconscionable." Nevertheless, Drake lost his job, his pension and many friends.

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.

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