A federal judge has sentenced a leaker to prison for helping keep Americans informed about abuses being perpetrated in their name.
Daniel Hale is a former Air Force intelligence analyst who revealed how America's secret drone assassinations in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia were likely killing untold numbers of innocent people. On Tuesday he was sentenced to 45 months in prison after he previously pleaded guilty to passing along classified documents to a reporter that were subsequently published in 2015.
It's widely believed that Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept was the recipient of those documents, though The Intercept will not confirm.
Hale's leaks were intended to show that the drone assassinations under President Barack Obama were not what the American public believed them to be. The government insisted that its secret "kill list" of terrorists was carefully vetted, and the drone strikes were only deployed to kill those the government and military believed it was unfeasible to arrest.
The reality, Hale revealed, was the drone strikes regularly resulted in the death of innocents, and the government covered it up by automatically classifying anybody killed as "militants" even when they weren't the targets of the strikes. This allowed the government to insist that civilian casualties were being kept to a minimum.
The feds finally caught up with Hale in 2019 and arrested him, charging him with espionage. After the arrest, Hale pleaded guilty and essentially threw himself at the mercy of the court, acknowledging that he violated the law while refusing to apologize for it. In a lengthy handwritten letter to U.S. District Judge Liam O'Grady, Hale described an incident where a drone strike he helped arrange failed to kill its target (an Afghan man allegedly involved in making car bombs) and instead killed his 5-year-old daughter. He wrote, "Now, whenever I encounter an individual who thinks that drone warfare is justified and reliably keeps America safe, I remember that time and ask myself how I could possibly believe that I am a good person, deserving of my life and the right to pursue happiness."
Remarkably, despite informing the American public that our drone strikes were killing innocent people, prosecutors attempted to argue that Hale's leaks were to boost his own ego and put Americans at risk.
"Hale did not in any way contribute to the public debate about how we fight wars," Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg said. "All he did was endanger the people who are doing the fighting." The Justice Department sought a nine-year sentence for Hale.
Fortunately, O'Grady didn't fully buy Kromberg's argument, but he did tell Hale that he could have been a whistleblower and spoken out against the drone tactics without stealing and leaking the documents.
O'Grady has a pretty naive attitude toward how whistleblowers in the United States in recent years have actually affected change. The documentation is important, and it's abundantly clear that leaving it to the government officials themselves to validate whether they exist won't accomplish much.
There were stories that hinted at the federal government and the National Security Agency misusing the PATRIOT Act to engage in massive secret domestic collection of Americans' communications years before Edward Snowden leaked documents to Glenn Greenwald. Back in 2006, a lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation helped expose AT&T's Room 641A, where the NSA used technology to intercept and analyze online communications.
But when Snowden leaked a trove of classified documents in 2013 showing exactly how widespread this surveillance was, that actual evidence blew the doors wide open, and the American public was finally able to grasp how much of their personal information the own government was collecting.
The documentation matters. The Washington Post notes that Hale's leaking of documentation showing how the government put people on secret terrorism watchlists helped civil rights lawyers fight for due process for their clients.
Hale is yet another case where the federal government has used espionage laws not to punish spies who reveal classified information to our country's enemies, but to punish people who reveal the government's unethical and illegal behavior to our country's own citizens.