Former Airman Sentenced to 45 Months for Leaking Drone Warfare Details

July 28, 2021Hannah Ray Lambert

An MQ-9 Reaper sits on the flight line at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, Dec. 17, 2019. US Air Force photo by Senior Airman Haley Stevens.

A former Air Force intelligence analyst has been sentenced to 45 months in prison for leaking details about the US military’s drone program.

Daniel Hale, 33, told a federal judge he felt compelled to share classified documents with a journalist because his own experience with the drone program had horrified him, The Washington Post reported. According to court documents, the Nashville resident was enlisted between 2009 and 2013. He deployed to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, in 2012, where he helped identify and track targets for drone strikes using cell phone signals, The Associated Press reported.

In April 2013, while still enlisted in the Air Force and assigned to the National Security Agency, Hale met with a reporter in person multiple times and communicated with the reporter via phone, text, email, and encrypted messaging platform, referencing drones, Hale’s background, Edward Snowden, and a news article about a court ruling that journalists can’t keep sources secret, according to court documents.

An MQ-9 Reaper flies a training mission over the Nevada Test and Training Range, July 15, 2019. US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class William Rio Rosado.

After Hale was honorably discharged, he attended an anti-war conference in Washington, DC. There, a Yemeni man tearfully recounted that two of his family members, who he claimed were trying to convince men to leave al Qaeda, were killed in one such drone strike, the Post reported. Hale and his colleagues had been behind the attack, initially seeing it as a success.

Beginning in February 2014, Hale used his role as a cleared defense contractor to print dozens of documents, many marked “Top Secret” or “Secret.” Court filings never named the recipient of the leak, but a reporter at The Intercept “used the documents as part of a series of critical reports on how the military conducted drone strikes on foreign targets,” the AP reported.

The documents revealed nearly 90% of people killed in airstrikes “were not the intended targets” during one five-month stretch of an operation in Afghanistan. Hale’s lawyers argued disclosure of that information served the public.

MQ-9 Reaper aircrew from the 22nd Attack Squadron fly a training mission at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., April 15, 2020. US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class William Rio Rosado.

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

US District Judge Liam O’Grady said Hale had other whistleblowing options besides leaking documents to a journalist, the AP reported. O’Grady sentenced Hale to 45 months for violating the Espionage Act, a term longer than the 12 to 18 months sought by Hale’s lawyers, but significantly shorter than the nine-year sentence prosecutors wanted.

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

Prosecutors argued Hale knew the documents “risked causing serious, and in some cases exceptionally grave, damage” to national security and leaked them anyway, the AP reported. Prosecutors allege the documents were later found in an internet manual used by Islamic State group fighters.

An MQ-9 Reaper sensor operator for the 22nd Attack Squadron flies a training mission at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., April 15, 2020. US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class William Rio Rosado.

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

Hale pleaded guilty to retention and transmission of national defense information in March of this year.

According to the Post, Hale told the judge he accepted his punishment for leaking the documents but felt more regret over taking innocent lives through wartime actions.

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

Read Next: Dozens of Afghan Soldiers Flee Into Pakistan Amid Taliban Advances

Hannah Ray Lambert
Hannah Ray Lambert

Hannah Ray Lambert is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die who previously covered everything from murder trials to high school trap shooting teams. She spent several months getting tear gassed during the 2020-2021 civil unrest in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not working, Hannah enjoys hiking, reading, and talking about authors and books on her podcast Between Lewis and Lovecraft.

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