Civil Liberties

A Drone Whistleblower Goes to Prison

Too often, the government punishes citizens who reveal the state's true behavior to their fellow Americans.


A federal judge in August sentenced Daniel Hale to 45 months in federal prison for informing the American public about secret drone killings by the U.S. military.

Hale is a former Air Force intelligence analyst who shared classified documents with reporter Jeremy Scahill. Those documents, published in 2015 at The Intercept and in a book called The Assassination Complex (Simon & Schuster), revealed that secret drone assassinations in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia had likely killed untold numbers of innocent people, a fact the U.S. government had concealed.

Hale's leaks showed that drone assassinations under President Barack Obama were not what the American public believed them to be. The administration insisted that its secret "kill list" of terrorists was carefully vetted and that drone strikes were deployed only to kill targets the government and military believed it was not feasible to arrest.

The reality, Hale revealed, was that the targeted strikes regularly resulted in the deaths of bystanders. The government hid this fact by classifying anybody killed in a U.S. drone strike as a "militant," even when he was not a target. This obfuscation allowed the government to insist it was minimizing civilian casualties.

The feds caught up with Hale in 2019 and charged him with espionage. Hale acknowledged that he violated the law and pleaded guilty to sharing classified information, but he refused to apologize.

In a lengthy handwritten letter to U.S. District Judge Liam O'Grady, Hale described an incident in which a drone strike he had helped arrange failed to kill its target (an Afghan man allegedly involved in making car bombs) and instead killed the man's 5-year-old daughter. "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," Hale wrote.

Prosecutors argued that Hale leaked the documents to boost his own ego and that doing so 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 in court. "All he did was endanger the people who are doing the fighting."

Hale's sentence is an example of how the federal government misuses laws meant for spies who reveal classified information to our country's enemies. Too often, it punishes citizens who reveal the government's true behavior to their fellow Americans.