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NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake at U of T

Thomas Drake, whistleblower and former senior NSA official speaks at the U of T iSchool. (photo by Johnny Guatto)

Thomas Drake, whistleblower and former senior National Security Agency (NSA) official, began his talk at the University of Toronto by telling the audience that he was told at the airport that his American passport was not enough to get into the country.

He had to provide papers showing he was invited to give a lecture at U of T's Faculty of Information (iSchool).

Drake cited this as an example of what’s at stake for democracy and liberty as he began his talk, "Secret NSA/CSEC Surveillance versus Democracy: What's at Stake for the US & Canada?"

With interested followers from around the world watching a live feed, Drake explained how, after working at the NSA for six-and-a-half years, he was investigated and charged with espionage for allegedly disclosing secret information. The charges were dropped and since then Drake has devoted his life to helping citizens become more aware.

“When you see what I went through for five plus years, at the receiving end of a surveillance state in the US, you gain a better appreciation for what truly is at stake," Drake said. "I’ve already lived in a surveillance state. And I don’t want anyone else to live it with me, and don’t want the future to be owned by a surveillance state.

"We are individuals, human beings, we have rights. That makes us sovereign."

Professor Andrew Clement invited Mr. Drake to speak after recent explosive disclosures made by another former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, that have challenged notions of privacy and democracy.

“The little we know about these surveillance agencies comes not through our usual institutions of democratic oversight, but because of a few very brave whistle blowers who have worked on the inside, and who have not been able to tolerate what they see, and who at great personal risk, expose the information to let us, the public, be much better informed, to what we have a right to,” Clement said in his introduction.

As listeners expected, Drake didn’t hold back, discussing how in a post-911 era, he feels the government has gone far beyond investigating legitimate threats.

“National security, an extremely overloaded phrase, is now the state religion in many democracies, including in the US, now increasingly in Canada. When you invoke the label of national security, you are exempt from all inquiries, from all queries, from oversight, and you do not question the high priests of secrecy,” Drake said.

Master of Information student Greg Hughes said he thought the December 5 talk was riveting. “It was like hearing all the thoughts you've buried or put to the back of your mind about the truth of the surveillance state come to light."

Drake urged the crowd to stand up for the truth, and support their right to freedom.

"I will never forsake my sovereignty for the sake of the State."

iSchool alumna Christina Darvasi watched the lecture from Mexico City and tweeted, “So jealous I'm no longer at the iSchool to see it live.”

Kathleen O'Brien is a writer with the iSchool at the University of Toronto.