Protecting sources: Lessons from whistleblowers

August 14 / 141

Thomas Drake speaking at the Stop Watching Us rally in 2013. Original photo: Flickr/firedoglakedotcom.
Thomas Drake speaking at the Stop Watching Us rally in 2013. Original photo: Flickr/firedoglakedotcom.

Master of Journalism student Daryl Holland recounts the lesson learnt from US whistleblower Thomas Drake, about the importance of protecting all communications with sources.

In between appearing at Splendor in the Grass and The Wheeler Centre, famed US whistleblower Thomas Drake and his lawyer Jesselyn Radack stopped by for a chat with staff and students from the Centre for Advancing Journalism (CAJ). 

Mr Drake told us of his mission – in the mid-2000s – to expose what he said were criminal and unconstitutional actions by the “super-secret agency” he worked for, the US National Security Agency (NSA). 

His whistleblowing saw him indicted under the Espionage Act and facing 35 years’ jail. The charges were later reduced to a misdemeanor, which he said was largely thanks to a media campaign run by Ms Radack that succeeded in turning public opinion in his favour.

Mr Drake said the experience gave him an enormous appreciation for what it meant to be free.

Edward Snowden, who is in exile in Russia while facing charges of espionage in the US, has said Mr Drake inspired his decision to leak thousands of classified documents from the NSA.

Even after the Snowden revelations, Mr Drake warned that the scale of NSA surveillance “has not been fully revealed”.

The seminar was timely, with new laws before the federal parliament that would make it an offence for a journalist to report information obtained from an ASIO whistleblower.

Ms Radack, who represents both Mr Drake and Mr Snowden, described the new law as “draconian” and said she had not seen anything this severe in “an open democratic society”.

Mr Drake told us we needed to protect our sources at all costs.

Dr Margaret Simons, the director of the CAJ, said that whistleblowing and surveillance are two of the biggest issues in journalism today. 

“Thomas Drake and Jesselyn Radack are at the centre of international developments in media practice.

 “It was wonderful for students to hear first hand from these two about the issues a whistleblower faces, and how important and difficult it is for journalists to protect their sources.

“As a direct result of this visit, we will in future years be teaching students some of the skills which, in the modern world, are essential to properly protect sources.”

Asked if he had one piece of advice for new journalists, Mr Drake said, “Don’t be seduced by power.” 

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