Ethics Issue of Thomas Andrews Drake

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Ethics Issue

Thomas Andrews Drake worked for seven years as a senior executive in the National Security Agency. During his time in the organization, he attempted to inform the management of the various examples of misconduct that he witnessed. Unfortunately, his efforts did not bring any changes, so he decided to take a more controversial approach by leaking what he saw to the media. Despite using an encrypted email, he was caught and could face a 35-year prison sentence. After the trial, all the original charges have been dropped, and Drake left with a relatively light punishment consisting of probation and community service (Kaufmann, 2018). Now, Thomas Drake is widely recognized as a whistleblower; however, not every aspect of his case is as unambiguous from an ethical standpoint.

Shortly after blowing the whistle on NSA’s surveillance program – Trailblazer, which was highly inefficient and wasteful, Drake was arrested by FBI agents as though he was a dangerous criminal. He was charged with all sorts of crimes, and the government was extremely persistent in their attempts to convict him; “the more I resisted, the nastier they got,” Drake told a reporter from The Guardian (Hertsgaard, 2016). Despite all the effort to make Drake plead guilty, he ultimately persevered and only admitted to a single misdemeanor. The fact that several years of government pressure could not break Drake proves that he was a legitimate whistleblower and acted in accordance with the law.

Drake’s Ethical Principle

In the simplest, most general terms, what Thomas Drake did was tell the truth, which is perfectly ethical and commendable. When looking at the Drake case in more detail, one can see that Thomas made attempts to bring his concerns to the attention of his superiors, but to no effect (Keating, 2019). Having no other way of stopping what he perceived as morally and logically wrong, Drake went to the press – a risky action, but done with good intentions. In fact, everything Drake did in his attempt to change the Trailblazer program was ethically acceptable.

The controversial part is whether any of it needed to have been done at all. Basically, this is the question of whether the Trailblazer project could benefit from Drake’s reveal or whether it served no purpose. The Trailblazer was aiming to give the NSA the ability to analyze traffic carried over networks such as the internet, and it was also intended to have entity-tracking capabilities (Drake, 2019).

Having such impressive features, the project was going to cost the American taxpayer billions of dollars. Some would say that national security is worth any amount of money, which could have been a valid argument if it had not been for the fact that the Trailblazer was chosen over the ThinThread that was more efficient and only cost $3 million. Since the ThinThread was an internal project, unlike the Trailblazer that could benefit third party contractors, suspicions of corruption might arise. From this evidence, a conclusion can be made that blowing the whistle on the Trailblazer project was the ethical choice.

Management Performance

The way both the NSA and the government, in general, handled the issue was less than ideal. To begin with, the NSA should not have ignored Drake’s internal complaints, as they were valid. The fact that the executives approved a project that was flawed and overpriced might be accounted to a lapse of judgment, but refusing to take action when their mistakes were revealed to them is significantly more alarming. Such reckless waste of funds, time, and other resources on a massive scale is likely to take place only if those in control stand to benefit from it.

When the information about the Trailblazer project was revealed to the public, the NSA still did not take notice of Drake’s recommendations. Instead of admitting their mistakes and overhauling their surveillance program, the executives elected to proceed with their original plan. Not only did that decision put the NSA’s reputation at risk, but it also led to billions of dollars being spent on a project that ultimately failed. In addition to that, terminating a public worker for trying to serve the people and not let them be deceived is unethical.

As for the FBI’s handling of the situation, it was not as appalling, but still questionable. The fact that agents were entering with their guns drawn to arrest a person who was not suspected of any violent crimes is worrying at the very least. Moreover, this government organization spent years charging Drake with severe crimes that he was not guilty of. It appears that the FBI, too, had some sort of anterior motivation, although there is no direct proof at the moment.

Lessons learned

Being one of the first whistleblowers in the US history, Thomas Drake had to face challenges that would seem absurd in the present day. Unfortunately, this is the price many people have to pay if they want to change the world they live in. Although Drake did not receive a prison sentence or any other major punishment directly from the court, his life was still affected dramatically by the aftermath of his decision (Pacella, 2019). The negative publicity from this story made it impossible for him to ever become a civil servant again, and other career options were limited as well.

Despite all of that, years later, there are still people who share Drake’s passion for exposing the truth at all cost. These people will knowingly risk their future to do what they consider right for the greater good of society. It seems that the public opinion has gradually changed to welcome those people, instead of seeing them as traitors, and the media can be thanked for that. Still, there is a lesson to be learned for governmental and private organizations.

In the world where information can spread incredibly quickly, there is little sense in trying to conceal something negative from the public. Instead of ignoring inconvenient criticism, companies should make efforts to remedy their mistakes and prevent them from happening in the future. It should also be stated that terminating, demoting, or otherwise fighting people who actively seek ways to improve the efficiency of an organization is not advisable.

These are the people who are ready to act, and conflict with one of them could easily turn into another whistleblower scandal. Finally, if an employee complains publicly about some aspect of the company’s inner workings, this should not always be seen as an attempt to harm the employer’s reputation. Instead, these criticisms should be viewed as a stimulus to improve, and while rewarding such actions might not be the best idea, neither is punishing them.


Drake, T. (2019). How a Government Censored an NSA Whistleblower. Common Dreams. Web.

Hertsgaard, M. (2016). How the Pentagon punished NSA whistleblowers. The Guardian. Web.

Kaufmann, Z. (2018). Former high-ranking NSA official reflects on life after whistleblowing. The Black and White. Web.

Keating, J. (2019). Your Entire Life Is Blown Up. Slate. Web.

Pacella, J. M. (2019). Intelligence whistleblowers often pay a severe price. The Conversation. Web.

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