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Advocates Call on Biden to Commute Sentence of Drone Whistleblower Daniel Hale

Rep. Ilhan Omar, human rights attorney Steven Donziger and whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg joined calls for a full pardon.

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicle awaits a mission at an air base in the Persian Gulf region on January 7, 2016.

Anti-war and First Amendment advocates are among those ramping up pressure on President Joe Biden to commute the 45-month prison sentence of Daniel Hale, a former Air Force intelligence analyst and Pentagon employee who disclosed documents regarding the U.S. drone assassination program and was convicted last year of violating the Espionage Act.

Human rights attorney Steven Donziger and political activist Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked classified information about the U.S. war in Vietnam to the New York Times five decades ago in what became known as the Pentagon Papers, are scheduled to join Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) at a press conference Thursday morning where they plan to appeal to the president and highlight what the congresswoman called Hale’s “courageous” and “patriotic” actions.

“What he did was a public service, informing the debate on an issue that has spent far too long in the shadows,” Omar told Common Dreams on Wednesday. “I will continue to push for a full pardon for his actions, and short of that, a commutation of his sentence.”

Hale worked as an intelligence analyst for the Air Force between 2009 and 2013. He began identifying, tracking, and targeting “high-value” terrorism suspects in 2012 in Afghanistan while working with the DOD’s Joint Special Operations Task Force.

He began communicating with a journalist the following year and after being honorably discharged from the Air Force, he disclosed documents that showed the drone assassination program was not, as the military claimed, minimizing civilian casualties when it targeted suspected “enemy combatants.”

The documents, which provided the basis for The Intercept’s extensive report titled “The Drone Papers,” showed that during one five-month period in Afghanistan, nearly 90% of people killed by the drone program were not the intended targets.

Hale was sentenced to 45 months in prison in July 2021 and is being held in a “communication management unit” (CMU) at U.S. Penitentiary, Marion in southern Illinois. CMUs have been condemned by human rights experts for severely restricting inmates’ communications with their families and the outside world and have earned the nickname “Little Guantanamo.”

“It appears he was singled out for a really harsh sentence because, in my opinion, it’s sort of proportional to the degree of embarrassment that he caused the Pentagon,” Donziger told Common Dreams, adding that “prolonged detention under those conditions can amount to torture in violation of international law.”

“Daniel exposed a drone program as a whistleblower exercising his right to free speech,” continued Donziger, who served a total of 993 days in detention, including six months in a federal prison, after being charged with criminal contempt in connection with a decadeslong legal battle with oil giant Chevron.

“I think that when someone does something that is truly effective, holding accountable the wrongdoing of these powerful institutions, they want to strike back — not only because it’s psychologically satisfying, but also because it’s strategically necessary to try to use it to intimidate others who might think of doing the same,” he said. “And I think that’s just a bad reason to prosecute someone or to lock them up under such difficult conditions.”

When Hale was sent to prison, U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady said his nearly four-year sentence was necessary to “deter others from disclosing government secrets,” while prosecutors claimed Hale’s actions put “national security” at risk.

However, the federal government acknowledged that it had no evidence Hale’s disclosures resulted in direct harm.

Earlier this year, Omar supported an amendement to the National Defense Authorization Act, proposed by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), which would reform the Espionage Act, allowing whistleblowers like Hale to make the case that their disclosures to journalists were in the public interest.

With a “public interest test,” Ellsberg told Common Dreams, “Daniel Hale would have had a fair trial, which he did not have and could not under the current procedures, just as none of the whistleblowers have had.”

Donziger pointed out that advocates including anti-war group CodePink, investigative journalist Spencer Ackerman, and Natasha Erskine of About Face: Veterans Against the War are holding Thursday’s press conference a week after WNBA star Brittney Griner was released from a 10-month detention in Russia. Her freedom was painstakingly negotiated over the course of several months and was secured in exchange for the release of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

“People forget that there are Americans being held right in our own country for political reasons, who the world regards as political prisoners, who President Biden has the power to release immediately without any negotiation with anybody,” Donziger told Common Dreams. “And Daniel is one of them.”

Biden faced opposition from his own Justice Department regarding the prisoner swap that led to Griner’s release, and Donziger called on the president “to look at [Hale’s case] with his own eyes and his own conscience and not run it through the filter of the DOJ or the intelligence agencies, and make a decision just like [he] did with Brittney Griner.”

“He made a decision, and I think it was the correct one,” said Donziger. “[He] should do the same with Daniel Hale.”

Donziger also called on members of Congress, such as those who advocated for his own release last year, to join Omar in pressuring the White House to commute Hale’s sentence — and ultimately pardon him.

“It’s very important that members of Congress step up,” he told Common Dreams. “I had the good fortune of having several members of Congress support me when I was unjustly detained… I think it’s important that all people of conscience speak out in support of Daniel.”