Daniel Hale faces a sentence of at least 63 months for revealing secret information on counter-terrorism operations during the Obama administration. The letter to the judge: “We killed people who had nothing to do with 9/11”
“We cheered when the Hellfires fell on their heads.” On the night of 21 August 2013, Salim bin Ahmed Ali Jaber and Walid bin Ali Jaber found themselves in a palm grove in southeastern Yemen. Salim is a respected imam from the village of Khashamir, who has made a name for himself by denouncing the growing power of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. His cousin Walid is a local police officer. The two were on the trail of a group of jihadists. Thousands of miles away, at the US military base in Bagram, Afghanistan, Daniel Hale, a young US Air Force intelligence specialist, sits in a chair looking at a computer monitor. Then, a rain of Hellfire falls on the palm grove.
Fast forward eight years. Daniel Hale will know his fate tomorrow: the Alexandria, Virginia District Court will most likely convict him. But the verdict will not be for participating in the deaths of two innocent people. Hale, arrested in 2019, will be tried for violating the Espionage Act by leaking top secret documents on the use of drones in the war on terror during the Obama administration.
The son of a Virginia Baptist truck driver and a US Air Force intelligence analyst, Hale, 33, participated in a series of attacks conducted from Afghanistan. His job is to track cell phone signals connected to people believed to be enemy combatants. It is therefore essential to establish the exact position of the objective. In the months of what was still called the War on Terror, he witnesses dozens of operations in which Afghans – but also Yemenis or Pakistanis – are killed by pressing a button. Sometimes – Hale always says – there were civilians around the targets. Collateral damages.
Hale told the judge about the first drone strike he witnessed, just days after it was first deployed to Afghanistan. “The operation was conducted before dawn, against a group of armed men preparing tea around a bonfire in the mountains of Paktika province. The fact that they carried weapons with them should have been considered out of the ordinary in the place where I grew up, let alone in the Afghan tribal territories.Among them was an alleged member of the Taliban, betrayed by the cell phone in his pocket. As for the other individuals, being armed, of conscription age, and sitting in the presence of an alleged enemy combatant, was sufficient evidence to be considered suspect. Although they had gathered peacefully, without posing a threat, the fate of those men who now drank tea was already decided. I was sitting there when a sudden, terrifying barrage of Hellfire missiles fell down, sending purple splinters against the mountain hit by the morning light. From that time until today, I keep remembering many of these violent scenes that I witnessed sitting in a chair looking at a computer screen. None of those people were responsible for the 9/11 attacks on our nation. It was 2012, Bin Laden had already died in Pakistan. And those young gunmen we had just killed were just children on 9/11».
As time goes by, Hale’s consciousness begins to waver. “The unquestionably remorseful victorious soldier at least keeps his honor intact by facing his enemy on the battlefield,” Hale always writes to the judge. And it is always his conscience that leads him at the end of 2015 to reveal details about the drone operations to a previously met investigative reporter. Hale becomes the new Edward Snowden, a whistleblower that divulges secret information for the good of the community. And the investigative site The Intercept publishes the Drone Papers, one of the most important surveys of recent years. An investigation that showed among other things, how the drone program was not as precise as the government claimed.
In her 11-page memoir, Hale describes, in vivid terms, her struggles with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and how her decision to share confidential information with a reporter was motivated by an unstoppable sense of duty. “To say that the period of my life spent in service impressed me would be an understatement,” Hale wrote in her letter. “It is more accurate to say that it irreversibly transformed my identity as an American.” Hale leaked the documents after leaving the Air Force and accepting a civilian job with a contractor assigned to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, where he worked briefly in 2014 as a cartographer, using his knowledge of the Chinese language to help label maps. Then in 2019 he was arrested and last March he pleaded guilty.
Hale’s lawyers – who faces at least 63 months in jail after pleading guilty last March, despite the prosecution not making a specific request – argue that his motives and the fact that the government has not shown any actual damage caused by the leaks should be considered for an easing of the sentence to a maximum of 18 months. “He committed the crime to draw attention to what he believed was immoral conduct by the government committed under the veil of secrecy and contrary to the public statements of the then President Obama regarding the alleged accuracy of the US Army’s drone program. United, ”say defense lawyers Todd Richman and Cadence Mertz. Prosecutors Gordon Kromberg and Alexander Berrang say, however, that documents leaked by Hale were found in an Internet collection of material designed to help Islamic State fighters avoid detection.. But the experts consulted by The Intercept, including former CIA and military analysts are very skeptical about it.
Obviously the Hale case has unearthed the debate on the Espionage Act a highly controversial 1917 law that has recently been used by US prosecutors to make accusations against leaks that have to do with national security. One case out of all the one against Chelsea Manning. But also the events of Julian Assange or those of Edward Snowden, all overwhelmed in one way or another by the ax of the Espionage Act.
Hale’s story also brings to light another issue, that of collateral victims. According to the UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, or TBIJ, the total number of deaths from drones and other undercover killing operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia has ranged from 8,858 to 16,901 since the attacks began in 2004. Of the people killed, 2,200 are believed to be civilians, including several hundred children and several US citizens, including a 16-year-old son of Yemeni preacher Anwar Awlaki.
In reality this is almost certainly a downward estimate. As Hale’s letter to court this week and the documents he allegedly made public demonstrates, the people who are killed in American drone strikes are regularly classified as “enemies killed in action” unless proven otherwise. And it was only after years of pressure – and in the wake of the Drone Papers – that the Obama administration in 2016 introduced new requirements for registering civilian casualties in covert counter-terrorism operations. However, the Trump administration lifted the measure, leaving the public once again in the dark about who exactly is being killed and why.
July 26, 2021 (change July 26, 2021 | 13:37)