High profile failure for the Justice Department

NEW YORK - Federal prosecutors today dropped nearly all charges against Thomas Drake.

The former U.S. intelligence official, who walked out of the Baltimore courthouse today, had been charged under the Espionage Act with mishandling sensitive information.

CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley reports this is a high profile failure for the Justice Department, which is cracking down on leaks of sensitive information.

Prosecutors claimed Drake betrayed his country. But in his only television interview -- on 60 Minutes -- Drake told us the only thing he betrayed was a gigantic waste of taxpayer money.

60 Minutes: The Espionage Act: Why Tom Drake was indicted

Drake worked for the National Security Agency, which electronically eavesdrops on the world. Drake was a computer expert brought in in 2001 to modernize the NSA, because the agency was drowning in digital data.

Drake said "vast volumes of data streaming across all kinds of different networks, wired, wireless, phones, computers, you name it."

"And what does that look like to NSA," Pelley asked. "Coming into their building in Maryland?"

"Choking on it," Drake replied.

NSA's solution was a computer project called Trailblazer. Contractors were spending hundreds of millions of dollars on it, but based on its design, Drake believed Trailblazer would never work. He warned his bosses, the Pentagon inspector general and Congress, but nothing changed.

"There's one final step that could be taken. But it was fraught with significant risk," Drake said.

Frustrated by the waste and worried that national security was at risk, Drake went to a reporter, Siobhan Gorman of the Baltimore Sun and became an anonymous source on mismanagement at the NSA.

"Did you ever communicate classified information to Siobhan Gorman," Pelley asked.

"Did not," Drake replied.

"Not once ever?"

"Not once ever. That was one of the fundamental rules; whether it was oral communication, whether it was written, electronic or later on, even in hard copy. It was all unclassified. Period."

An FBI investigation of leaks found Drake and the Obama administration decided to crack down.

Drake wasn't charged with leaking classified information. He was accused of taking classified papers home.

Pelley asked, "Why do you think you were charged under the Espionage Act? That`s pretty rare."

"To send a chilling message," Drake replied.

"To whom?"

"To other whistleblowers, to others in the government, not to speak up or speak out. Do not tell truth to power. We`ll hammer you."

In Baltimore today, prosecutors dropped all charges but one. Drake pleaded guilty to unauthorized use of a computer -- a misdemeanor.

The Trailblazer computer project he had warned about failed after costing taxpayers $1.2 billion.

Watch: The U.S. vs. whistleblower Thomas Drake

  • Scott Pelley

    Correspondent, "60 Minutes"