In a continuation of last week’s Campbell Conversation, Grant Reeher speaks with whistle-blowers Tom Drake, a former senior executive with the National Security Agency who was prosecuted after blowing the whistle on an NSA data collection program, and Susan Wood, a former assistant commissioner for women’s health for the Food and Drug Administration who resigned in 2005 in protest when the FDA postponed approval for the morning-after birth control pill.
Grant Reeher (GR): Tom, let me start with you. What was the problem that you encountered at NSA and how did you encounter it?
Tom Drake (TD): 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.
GR: What did you do to try to change what you saw going on?
TD: I could not remain silent in the face of the Constitution being subverted by my own government. I could not remain silent … so I ended up blowing the whistle through multiple channels. … 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, to staffers on the two intel committees in Congress as well as to the Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General.
GR: You mentioned that this was in violation of the Constitution. 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 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. That regime existed for 23 years, and they simply unchained themselves from the Fourth Amendment after 9/11.
GR: Susan, you worked in a completely different area, the FDA. What was the problem that you encountered?
Susan Wood (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. … The leadership of the FDA and the political leadership beyond were essentially coming in and interfering with how FDA should make its decisions. … 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: What was the kind of reaction did you get 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. 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 … 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. There was very little public push-back 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 10-year-long story. It started in 2003, with the first application. I resigned in 2005. The first temporary partial approval occurred at 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: Tom, were you fired for your whistle blowing, or did you resign?
TD: I ultimately resigned from NSA in April 2008 when it became clear that the government was going to permanently revoke my (security) clearance, which is a condition of continued employment.
GR: What did you personally lose when you lost this employment string?
TD: Income, option to retire, no pension, went into severe debt.
GR: Did you get drawn into a larger political argument surrounding the issues that you are involved in?
TD: Well, my case was seminal. The Obama administration wanted to make me exhibit number one in speaking truth to power. … It was clear that they considered my actions — although they had actually taken place under the Bush administration — 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.
GR: Susan, 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: 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.
GR: Tom, 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. 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: 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. … 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 the 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. … 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: Tom, 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: Finally, Tom, what professional or creative achievement in your life 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.
One of Syracuse’s most intriguing mayors is Democrat James McGuire, who in 1896 bucked a Republican establishment to be elected, at 26 years of age. This week on the Campbell Conversations, host Grant Reeher talks with McGuire’s biographer, Onondaga County Court Judge Joseph Fahey, about the mayor’s times, his legacy and his controversial activism on behalf of Irish independence. In his six years in office, McGuire built 38 schools, initiated extensive street paving and was a key figure in the creation of the first Everson Museum and the Carnegie Library, among other landmarks. Joseph Fahey also discusses his own experiences as a judge. The new book is titled James K. McGuire: Boy Mayor and Irish Nationalist.