The Washington Post

Daniel Hale given 45-month prison term for leak on U.S. drone warfare


In 2013, Daniel Hale was at an antiwar conference in D.C. when a man recounted that two family members had been killed in a U.S. drone strike. The Yemeni man, through tears, said his relatives had been trying to encourage young men to leave al-qaeda.

Hale realized he had watched the fatal attack from a base in Afghanista­n. At the time, he and his colleagues in Air Force intelligen­ce viewed it as a success. Now he was horrified.

It was such experience­s, Hale told a federal judge in Alexandria on Tuesday, that led him to leak classified informatio­n about drone warfare to a reporter after leaving the military.

“I believe that it is wrong to kill, but it is especially wrong to kill the defenseles­s,” he said in court. He said he shared what “was necessary to dispel the lie that drone warfare keeps us safe, that our lives are worth more than theirs.”

U.S. District Judge Liam O’grady sentenced Hale, 33, of Nashville, to 45 months in prison for violating the Espionage Act, saying his disclosure of documents went beyond his “courageous and principled” stance on drones.

“You are not being prosecuted for speaking out about the drone program killing innocent people,” O’grady said. “You could have been a whistleblo­wer . . . without taking any of these documents.”

Hale’s attorneys and advocates argued that the disclosure­s provided a valuable public service. The documents included a report finding that reliance on deadly attacks was underminin­g intelligen­ce gathering. During one fivemonth stretch of an operation in Afghanista­n, the documents revealed, nearly 90 percent of the people killed were not the intended targets.

Hale also disclosed the criteria for placing a person on the terrorism watch list, informatio­n that Muslim civil rights lawyers said in a letter to the court had helped them challenge the constituti­onality of that system.

“I believe he only spoke out for humanitari­an and educationa­l purposes,” journalist Sonia Kennebeck told the court in a letter. She featured Hale in a 2016 documentar­y about drone warfare.

Prosecutor­s countered that Hale had put Americans at risk to boost his ego. They noted that he began taking classified informatio­n to his home only a few weeks into a job at the National Geospatial-intelligen­ce Agency in 2014, not long after swearing to preserve the government’s secrets.

“Hale did not in any way contribute to the public debate about how we fight wars,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg said in court. “All he did was endanger the people who are doing the fighting.”

Friends and family members said military service was an awkward fit for Hale, who suffered from mental health issues throughout his life. His attorney said he joined the Air Force to escape an abusive atmosphere in a poor, fundamenta­list home.

“Recently, someone asked me to tell them a happy memory I have with Daniel,” his sister wrote to the court. “Sadly, this was not an easy task.”

But Hale tested well and was steered into signals intelligen­ce. He went to Afghanista­n in 2012.

When he left the following year, he said, he already had deep misgivings about the work he had done. He recalled in a letter to the judge learning after one drone strike on a car that a small child had been killed and another seriously injured. He wondered whether any of the other strikes he had helped carry out had killed innocent civilians deemed “enemy combatants” by virtue of being male and of military age.

“You had to kill part of your conscience to keep doing your job,” he said in court Tuesday.

He began connecting with journalist­s and activists critical of the use of drones, but he also took a new job at a defense contractor in 2014. One day after work, he said, two colleagues invited him to watch footage of drone strikes.

“My conscience, once held at bay, came roaring back to life,” he wrote. He printed out over three dozen documents, some classified, the government said, and shared several with Jeremy Scahill, a reporter for the Intercept.

Authoritie­s searched Hale’s home in 2014, his attorneys said — before the documents were published. But he was not charged or arrested until 2019. Between 2014 and 2019, he worked on and off in restaurant­s, and he adopted a cat.

He mused about becoming a reporter himself, leading prosecutor­s to argue that his motive had been self-aggrandize­ment.

In his letter, Hale said that he has been diagnosed with posttrauma­tic stress disorder and often wonders whether he is “deserving of my life and the right to pursue happiness.”

None of the government agencies involved reported any direct harm resulting from Hale’s disclosure­s. But the Justice Department said two of the leaked documents were incorporat­ed into an online guide for Islamic State fighters to avoid detection, and that the documents contained details useful to foreign government­s and terrorist groups.

“I’m sure it wasn’t Mr. Hale’s intention to support ISIS, but that’s what he did,” Kromberg said in court.

The Justice Department sought a nine-year sentence, which would have been the longest yet in a leak case.

Such prosecutio­ns were rare until the Obama and Trump administra­tions, when they became increasing­ly common. Under President Biden, the Justice Department has banned the use of secret orders and subpoenas to obtain journalist­s’ informatio­n. But the Justice Department is still pursuing an espionage case against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange that began under Trump.

A group of First Amendment and media law scholars wrote to the court in support of Hale, calling him “a classic whistleblo­wer, who acted in good faith to alert the public of secret government policies that deserved to be debated by the citizens in a truly functionin­g democracy.”

In court, Hale said he is a descendant of Nathan Hale, who was executed for spying on the British during the Revolution­ary War. Quoting a line often attributed to his ancestor, he said he accepted punishment for taking the documents and for taking innocent lives.

“I have but this one life to give in service of my country,” he said.

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