Courage our network

Free Daniel Hale

The Courage Foundation calls for the immediate freedom of drone whistleblower Daniel Hale, a former Air Force and NSA intelligence analyst who is serving nearly a four-year prison sentence for passing classified U.S. military documents to reporters at The Intercept. In 2015, The Intercept published The Drone Papers, giving the public an unvarnished window into the incredibly secretive U.S. remote assassination program, including how it selects targets to kill and how the government “masks the true number of civilians killed in drone strikes by categorizing unidentified people killed in a strike as enemies, even if they were not the intended targets.”

Who is Daniel Hale?

Daniel is a young veteran whose conscience changed his life. Like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden before him, Daniel was quickly disillusioned by the gulf between what he saw in his daily work and the picture the Obama administration was painting in public and felt compelled to close the gap. 

New York Magazine profiled Daniel in 2021, just before his sentencing, outlining the various forces that finally converged culminating in his blowing the whistle. 

On Daniel’s upbringing:

Daniel did not come to the Air Force so much as he surrendered. He had grown up the son of a disapproving, Bible-quoting truck-driver father in Bristol, Virginia, which is just across the state line from Bristol, Tennessee. He is a descendant of Nathan Hale, hanged by the Brits in 1776 for attempting to pose as a Dutch schoolmaster and steal information on troop movements (according to Daniel, “not a very good spy”). Daniel’s parents were under constant stress: food pantries, endless dinners of rice and beans. The services he attended as a child were “fire and brimstone” — country music, his sister said, was sufficiently sinful to send you to hell. Among the various Appalachian churches was one, Emmanuel Baptist Church, where the pastor was revealed to be raping and torturing a young girl he and his wife had kidnapped. It was 1998, and Daniel was 11.

On his deployment:

When he arrived in Afghanistan in 2012, it became Daniel Hale’s job to stare at a screen and direct a drone from wherever it was to the location of a cell-phone number in which the military had interest. He and the other analysts spent their days in a wooden shed, surrounded by dusty old computers still running Windows XP. There were phones and televisions and knots of thick black cable. From the computer, he turned on the box in the drone that searched for the cell-phone data. He loaded the box with the information for people the military was thinking about tracking. He tweaked settings to try to lock on. When he was done, he told someone by chat, and that person focused the camera. It was out of his hands at that point, but he could, if he wished, watch the missile, in a fraction of a second and with a force that shatters concrete, incinerate a group of men.

Assigned to the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency,

Daniel began searching on his work computer, using terms he’d picked up in Afghanistan. For the most part, the documents he found were as new to him as they would be to the public; he was learning about what he had been involved in as he both read his screen and tried to monitor the room so he could switch back to his work if someone passed by his computer. There was a graphic of the “kill chain,” the bureaucratic process through which Obama approved a strike: little yellow arrows pointing on a diagonal all the way up the page, landing at POTUS. There was further evidence that when military-age males were murdered in a strike, they were classified as militants, an accounting trick that lowers civilian-death counts, and there was an account of a five-month period in Afghanistan in which U.S. forces hit 19 people who were targets of strikes and 136 who were not the targets. There were admissions that the intelligence on which strikes were based was often bad and that strikes made it difficult to get good information because the people who might have provided that information had just been killed by the strike. There was the report detailing the secret rules the government uses to place people on the terrorist watch list. “Each thing that I would discover would lead to something else,” Daniel said, “something more.” Together, these documents form a picture of a country vacuuming up massive amounts of information and struggling to transform that information into knowledge. One gets the sense that the Obaman air of “certainty” and “precision” around drones is possible only if one has considerable distance from the process.

On blowing the whistle:

Nearly no one knew who Second Snowden was then or for years afterward. After he was seized in the early-morning raid and released on bail and prosecuted through a pandemic, he stopped shaving and grew what a friend called “a ZZ Top beard.” He lost weight and began to wear clothes donated by concerned acquaintances; someone else’s large khakis hung off him, the waistband folded over, a belt yanked to the last loop. Friends pressed him to go public with the story of how and why, but Daniel maintained that in talking about himself, he would be taking the spotlight from victims of the drone war. He rarely left his room.

Drone Revelations

In 2017, The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill published “The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program.” As the Washington Post reported, “A chapter in the book, “Why I Leaked the Watchlist Documents,” was written by “Anonymous.” Hale admitted in court Wednesday to writing the chapter anonymously.”

As Scahill wrote in the initial exposé,

“Additional documents on high-value kill/capture operations in Afghanistan buttress previous accounts of how the Obama administration masks the true number of civilians killed in drone strikes by categorizing unidentified people killed in a strike as enemies, even if they were not the intended targets. The slides also paint a picture of a campaign in Afghanistan aimed not only at eliminating al Qaeda and Taliban operatives, but also at taking out members of other local armed groups.”

Taken together, the secret documents lead to the conclusion that Washington’s 14-year high-value targeting campaign suffers from an overreliance on signals intelligence, an apparently incalculable civilian toll, and — due to a preference for assassination rather than capture — an inability to extract potentially valuable intelligence from terror suspects. They also highlight the futility of the war in Afghanistan by showing how the U.S. has poured vast resources into killing local insurgents, in the process exacerbating the very threat the U.S. is seeking to confront.”

Scahill outlines key revelations:

  • How the President authorizes targets for assassination
  • Assassinations depend on unreliable intelligence and hurt intelligence gathering
  • Strikes often kill many more than the intended target
  • The military labels unknown people it kills as “enemies killed in action”
  • The number of people targeted for drone strikes and other finishing operations
  • How geography shapes the assassination campaign
  • Inconsistencies with White House statements about targeted killing

Espionage Act for whistleblowing

Hale was prosecuted under the draconian Espionage Act of 1917, which was created in World War I to target spies but became the Obama administration’s weapon of choice against whistleblowers who are clearly operating in the public interest. The U.S. DOJ charged Hale with five counts under the act, each carrying a decade in prison, for a total threat of half a century behind bars. Knowing a conviction was all but guaranteed, Hale pleaded guilty to one count, hoping for a reduced sentence. 

“Daniel Hale may have pleaded to a count under the Espionage Act, but he is not a spy,” his attorney Jesselyn Radack wrote upon news of his plea. 

“He was accused of giving an investigative journalist truthful information in the public interest about the secretive US drone warfare program. That information revealed gross human rights violations, and that drones were more deadly and less accurate than the US presented publicly.

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.”

At his sentencing hearing in July 2021, Hale read an impassioned letter he wrote to Judge Liam O’Grady, explaining his motives and how he finally came to blow the whistle.

He concluded,

“My conscience, once held at bay, came roaring back to life. At first, I tried to ignore it. Wishing instead that someone, better placed than I, should come along to take this cup from me. But this too was folly. Left to decide whether to act, I only could do that which I ought to do before God and my own conscience. The answer came to me, that to stop the cycle of violence, I ought to sacrifice my own life and not that of another person.

So, I contacted an investigative reporter, with whom I had had an established prior relationship, and told him that I had something the American people needed to know.”

Hale was sentenced to 45 months in federal prison.

Read more and how to help

Courage will continue to report on Daniel’s conditions and experiences in prison, in addition to actions you can take to support him.