Hale’s case reflects the twisted morality and corruption of the legal system in an imperialist nation.
In our upside-down world, good guys often go to jail, and bad guys get promoted and live luxuriously.
Ex-President Barack Obama, a key architect of modern drone warfare, today lives in an $11.75 million, 6,892 square-foot waterfront mansion on a 30-acre property on Martha’s Vineyard, and is regarded by many people as a great moral leader.
Donald Trump, who expanded the drone war even further than Obama, is also enjoying life these days at his $160 million Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida.
Daniel Hale, by contrast, a principled former Air Force officer and defense contractor who publicly exposed the drone program, will likely be spending at least the next two years in federal prison.
On March 31st, Hale pleaded guilty in the Eastern District of Virginia to one count of illegally retaining and transmitting classified national defense information in violation of the Espionage Act of 1917.
The documents pertaining to the U.S. drone war were transmitted to The Intercept reporter Jeremy Scahill in 2014/5 and published as part of a series called “The Drone Papers.”
Hale is scheduled to be sentenced on July 7th. He is expected to receive between two and five years in prison, which is what other whistleblowers have received after pleading guilty to similar charges.
Under the terms of the plea deal, four other counts against him were not dropped but placed in abeyance, giving the government the theoretical option to bring them to trial in the future.
Hale’s lawyer, Jesselyn Radack, stated in an exclusive interview with CovertAction Magazine (CAM) that Hale accepted the plea deal because he “would not have received a fair trial because the arcane Espionage Act does not allow for a public interest defense. Meaning, Hale’s motive of wanting to inform the public could not be raised as a defense to the charge of disclosure of information.”
According to Radack, “the U.S. government’s policy of punishing people who provide journalists with information in the public interest is a profound threat to free speech, free press, and a healthy democracy.”
“Classified information is published in the press every day; in fact, the biggest leaker of classified information is the U.S. government. However, the Espionage Act is used uniquely to punish those sources who give journalists information that embarrasses the government or exposes its lies.”
“Those Who Speak for Reasons of Conscience Get Punished”
Before Hale, Radack represented national security whistleblowers Edward Snowden, John Kiriakou, and Thomas Drake. She is the founder of the Whistleblower and Source Protection Program (WHISPeR) at ExposeFacts, which she helped establish to protect investigative journalism and provide pro bono direct legal representation to whistleblowers.
Radack became a whistleblower herself in 2001 while working at the Department of Justice (DOJ), which suppressed emails she had sent to a DOJ counterterrorism prosecutor stating that the FBI’s initial interrogation of John Walker Lindh, a U.S. citizen who fought for the Taliban, was illegal because it was not conducted with a lawyer present and the information gained could not be used for criminal prosecution.
The DOJ subsequently dismissed Radack and tried to have her disbarred, and she was blacklisted for a period from the legal profession in Washington.
One of the lessons that she says she learned from her experience was that “those who speak out for reasons of conscience get punished.”
This is certainly the case for Hale, whom Radack said “was accused of giving an investigative journalist truthful information in the public interest about the secretive U.S. drone warfare program. That information revealed gross human rights violations, and that drones were more deadly and less accurate than the U.S. presented publicly.”
John Ivy, Hale’s Air Force roommate, described Hale as “a kind and caring person who promised his life in defense of this nation and its values. The people conducting secret illegal killings in other countries are criminals. Standing up for human rights makes Daniel a hero.”
Chip Gibbons, policy director of Defending Rights and Dissent, who has aided in Hale’s legal defense, further noted that “it is a disgrace to this country that time and time again, when brave truth-tellers, many of them relatively young, expose the crimes of our government, it is they who go to jail.”
A Man Trying to Right a Wrong
Hale, now 33 years old, was born in Nashville, Tennessee. He participated in the drone program from 2009 to 2013 as an Air Force officer.
During that time, he deployed to Afghanistan as an intelligence analyst with the National Security Agency (NSA) and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), where he worked at the Bagram Air Force Base helping to identify targets for drone strikes.
From December 2013 to August 2014, while employed by the defense contractor Leidos, Hale worked as a political geography analyst with the National-Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where he maintained a top-secret security clearance.
In April 2013, while he was still working for the NSA, Hale met with Jeremy Scahill at Busboys and Poets bookstore in Washington, D.C., following a signing for Scahill’s book, Dirty Wars (2013). Hale subsequently messaged a friend saying that Scahill wanted him to talk about his experiences in the drone war.
The two began communicating via an encrypted messaging service, Jabbar, and Hale provided Scahill at least 17 documents he had printed from an NGA computer in 2014.
At least 11 of these were classified as top secret or secret and marked as such.
They included PowerPoint presentations on counter-terrorism operations and documents describing military campaigns targeting Al-Qaeda including in Northern Africa (Somalia) and the Arabian Sea. Others pointed to the existence of hit-lists and “baseball cards” of terrorists and a watchlist of 1.2 million people who were targets for drone surveillance.
Hale’s whistleblowing led to the revelation furthermore that nearly half of the people on the U.S. government’s widely shared database of terrorist suspects were not connected to any known terrorist group.
In Scahill’s Intercept series, Hale is referred to as “the source,” and quoted as stating that he provided the documents to The Intercept because “he believes the public has a right to understand the process by which people are placed on kill-lists and ultimately assassinated on orders from the highest echelon of the U.S. government.”
Hale was further quoted in the article, entitled “The Assassination Complex,” stating that “this outrageous explosion of watch-listing—of monitoring people and racking and stacking them on lists, assigning them numbers, assigning them ‘baseball cards,’ assigning them death sentences without notice on a worldwide battlefield—it was from the very first instance, wrong.”
Hale first spoke out publicly against the drone war at a November 2013 Drone Summit in Washington, D.C., organized by the peace group CodePink, where he apologized for his involvement in the program, and again at a January 2014 rally outside the White House where he called for the closure of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.
In 2016, he was featured in the award-winning documentary, National Bird, produced by Sonia Kennebeck and famed director Errol Morris, which spotlighted dissenting drone pilots.
Hale stated in the film that, while the government claims that drones protect American lives, in fact they embolden military commanders and make going to war too easy.
The military assumed that anyone killed in a drone strike had to have been associated with the target, when many were innocent bystanders.
What ate away at Hale was the uncertainty of whom he had killed when he was planning the strikes—which could never be known.
Continuing War on Whistleblowers and Its Double Standards
In August 2014, Hale’s home was raided by the FBI, three days after he had printed out his last document at the NGA, and two weeks after The Intercept had published the first article based on his material.
The Intercept, it should be noted, has a particularly poor track record in protecting its sources: Reality Winner, who leaked classified documents to The Intercept on Russia-Gate, for example, is currently serving a five-year prison sentence—the longest-ever sentence for disclosure of information.
At Hale’s home, FBI agents found a USB flash drive with the TOR software and the TAILS operating system, both used for anonymous internet communications. Also found on a thumb drive was the unclassified (and unpublished document) T on his computer and one page of document A, which was classified secret and published in October 2015.
Hale’s case lay dormant until his arrest in May 2019 as part of the Trump administration’s accelerated and aggressive crackdown on leaks and whistleblowers.
In her interview with CAM, Jesselyn Radack affirmed that Hale’s prosecution signified a continuation of this war on whistleblowers and leakers under the new Biden administration.
Radack stated that, “while it’s unlikely that the Biden administration would [have] step[ped] in to stop an ongoing case, by continuing Hale’s case and continuing to seek extradition of Julian Assange [WikiLeaks founder who is also being prosecuted under the Espionage Act], it’s clear that the Biden administration does not plan to stop the war on whistleblowers.”
Biden’s personal support for these measures is not surprising, considering his call as a Senator in the late 1970s to lock up CIA whistleblower Philip Agee.
According to Radack, the double standards of today’s war on whistleblowers was epitomized by the leniency granted to General David Petraeus, the former CIA Director.
He got off with a mere $40,000 fine and two years’ probation, after pleading guilty in 2015 to a charge of mishandling classified documents about the war in Afghanistan, which he had leaked to his mistress, Paula Broadwell.
While his case was pending, Petraeus spent his time teaching at Harvard, making lucrative speeches across the globe, pulling in a massive salary as a partner in one of the world’s biggest private-equity firms, KKR, and reportedly even advising the White House.
Petraeus’s offense was actually quite serious—he lent “Black Books” to Broadwell that, according to a U.S. attorney, “contained classified information regarding the identities of covert officers, war strategy, intelligence capabilities and mechanisms, diplomatic discussions, quotes and deliberative discussions from high-level National Security Council meetings, and discussions with the President.
In addition, they contained “national defense information, including Top Secret/SCI [Sensitive Compartmentalized Information] and code word information.” According to the court documents, Petraeus also admitted to making false statements to the FBI, another felony.
The crucial difference between Petraeus and Hale was not in rank and status but the fact that Petraeus has continued to toe the official line on U.S. foreign policy, whereas Hale has not.
For that, he will have to pay a steep price—just like Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and, a generation ago, Philip Agee.
 Dissent: Voices of Conscience, Colonel (Ret.) Ann Wright and Susan Dixon, Eds. (Kihei, Hawaii: Koa Books, 2008), 82, 83, 84.
 Dissent: Voices of Conscience, Wright and Dixon, Eds., 84.
 Dissent: Voices of Conscience, Wright and Dixon, Eds., 84.
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About the Author
Jeremy Kuzmarov is Managing Editor of CovertAction Magazine.
He is the author of four books on U.S. foreign policy, including Obama’s Unending Wars (Clarity Press, 2019) and The Russians Are Coming, Again, with John Marciano (Monthly Review Press, 2018).
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.