With drone warfare, sometimes nine out of ten people killed are innocent. You have to kill part of your conscience to do your job. But what possibly could I have done to cope with the undeniable cruelties that I perpetuated? The thing I feared most was the temptation not to question it. So I contacted an investigative reporter ... and told him I had something the American people needed to know.
- recipient of the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence
- author of "Why I Leaked the Watchlist Documents"
- former National Security Agency (NSA) intelligence analyst
- disclosed classified information about US drone strikes as an act of conscience
Before sentencing, Daniel Hale begins his 11-page letter to Judge Liam O’Grady with a quotation from US Navy Admiral Gene LaRocque: “We now kill people without ever seeing them. Now you push a button thousands of miles away … since it’s done by remote control, there’s no remorse … and then we come home in triumph.
Daniel Hale is a former intelligence contractor who disclosed information to The Intercept pertaining to the American drone warfare program. Hale leaked documents in response to his guilt in participating in identifying targets for drone strikes. He was first charged in 2019 for multiple counts, including theft of government property and disclosing intelligence information. On Wednesday, March 31, 2021, Hale pled guilty to violating the Espionage Act and in July was sentenced to 45 months in prison. His role as a whistleblower has sparked conversations about the use of the Espionage Act today and the role of the United States as an imperial power.
Hale grew up in a rural mountain community in Tennessee. Though critical of the armed forces, he joined the Air Force after suffering from homelessness citing he had few other options. In the Air Force, Hale was assigned to the National Security Agency as an intelligence analyst from 2009 to 2013. He worked for the Joint Special Operations Task Force at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, where as a signals analyst, he worked in “identifying, tracking, and targeting” terror suspects for assassination. Hale stated he was troubled by “the uncertainty if anyone I was involved in killing or capturing was a civilian or not. There’s no way of knowing.” Throughout his service, as he witnessed children inadvertently killed in airstrikes, Hale became more certain that the war in Afghanistan and the drone attacks were not about the terrorist attacks in the United States and had “little to do with preventing terror from coming into the United States and a lot more to do with protecting the profits of weapons manufacturers and so-called defense contractors.”
Hale has experienced post-traumatic stress and depression following his deployment with the Air Force to Afghanistan in 2012. He left the Air Force, became a contractor at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and began to speak out against US drone policy, US targeted killing program, and US foreign policy. As a supporter of whistleblowers, in 2013 Hale met with Jeremy Scahill, a journalist at The Intercept, at a bookstore in Washington, D.C. He has admitted to leaking eleven classified documents.
The leaked documents showed that from January 2012 to February 2013, US special operations airstrikes killed over 200 people, only 35 of whom were the intended targets. During one period of five months, close to 90 percent of the victims killed were not intended targets. The documents further displayed how the government chose its targets. Hale’s leaks have called attention to the US Military practice of categorizing people killed in drone strikes as “enemies killed in action” unless proven contrary, possibly underrepresenting the estimates of deaths. Hale played a prominent role in the 2016 documentary National Bird, following the stories of three whistleblowers determined to end the silence surrounding the United States’ use of drone attacks.
Hale pled guilty to one count of violating the Espionage Act for leaking documents and presented the judge with an 11-page handwritten letter. He wrote, “Not a day goes by that I don’t question the justification for my actions. I am grief-stricken and ashamed of myself.” He furthermore stated, “I believe that it is wrong to kill, but it is especially wrong to kill the defenseless.” In defending his actions, he stated he believes he revealed what “was necessary to dispel the lie that drone warfare keeps us safe, that our lives are worth more than theirs.”
Federal public defender Todd M. Richman said, “the bottom line is that Mr. Hale acted out of conscience” and “his disclosures didn’t harm anyone but were of vital public importance.” The charges brought against Hale are similar to those brought against whistleblowers Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Reality Winner. Hale was awarded the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence from a group of whistleblowers within the national security community, a prize awarded to Edward Snowden in 2013.
Minnesota House of Representatives member Ilhan Omar has asked President Biden to pardon Hale following his guilty plea and 45 month prison sentence, stating the information “has shone a vital light on the legal and moral problems of the drone program and informed the public debate on an issue that has for too many years remained in the shadows.” Prosecutors argued Hale could have jeopardized American lives with his leaks and that some details were reproduced in Islamic State Publications; U.S. agencies have no reports of harm caused by the information. Harry P. Cooper, a former CIA senior official, argued the documents did not present any risk of harm to the US or national security, while Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg contended that the information could be used by foregin adversaries in the future.
In addressing the court at sentencing, Hale echoed his ancestor Nathan Hale, the American patriot and spy for the Continental Army: “My only regret is that I have but one life to give my country, whether here or in prison.”