One year ago this July, drone whistleblower Daniel Hale stood in front of Judge Liam O’Grady at his sentencing and explained himself. After a lengthy investigation and prosecution, it was finally the day when Hale would find out if he would spend years in prison for doing something he felt morally obligated to do: Tell the truth about the United States’ drone program.
While working as a drone analyst in the U.S. Air Force in Afghanistan, he witnessed attacks waged against innocent civilians that, to this day, still haunt him. Those experiences eventually led him to blow the whistle on the drone program. Judge O’Grady said Hale wasn’t being punished for telling the truth, but for stealing government documents that disclose that truth. For that, Hale was subjected to a lengthy investigation and prosecution where he was charged under the Espionage Act, a law that was passed over 100 years ago to deal with spies but has been used to prosecute antiwar dissidents and whistleblowers.
But Daniel Hale is no spy. He is a person who could not live with himself if he did not tell the U.S. people what was being done in their name. Thanks to him, we had proof that the drone program wasn’t as targeted as we were being told. The prosecution accused Hale of leaking the information that was included in “The Drone Papers” published by The Intercept. They included Pentagon documents that confirmed that in one drone operation in Afghanistan, 90 percent of the people killed were not the intended target.
Hale said to Judge O’Grady:
I am here today to answer for the crime of stealing papers, for which I expect to spend some portion of my life in prison. But what I am really here for is having stolen something that was never mine to take: precious human life, for which I was well-compensated and given a medal. I couldn’t keep living in a world in which people pretended things weren’t happening that were.… Please, I beg you, forgive me, your honor, for taking papers as opposed to the lives of others. I could not, God so help me, have done otherwise.
That day, Hale was facing 10 years in prison. His friends and family sat in the courtroom holding their breath, waiting to hear how long it would be until they would see him again. Judge O’Grady handed down a sentence of 45 months. Days later, Hale was moved from Alexandria, Virginia, to Northern Neck Regional Jail in Warsaw, Virginia, where he would spend his 33rd birthday. A year later, he is spending the rest of his sentence in the federal prison in Marion, Illinois.
A particular story was talked about often in the lead up to Hale’s sentencing. When he was in Afghanistan, he saw the U.S. carry out a drone strike on a car that was allegedly being driven by a target. The missile hit the back of the vehicle, and later Hale saw a woman get out of the passenger side and pull two things out of the car before they drove off again. He found out later that the woman had pulled her daughters out of the car. They had been hit by the drone strike. They were 5 and 3 years old.
Had the strike gone as planned and the target been killed, his wife and children would be considered “collateral damage.” In this case, the “target” drove off while leaving two little girls behind. The ongoing 20-year-long “war on terror” made collateral damage feel so normal to so many back in the U.S. Hale is in prison for showing the world that these stories are not few and far between, but instead are a regular feature of U.S. drone warfare.
Over years of investigation and prosecution, the U.S. government was never able to prove Hale’s leaks ever harmed anyone: He is not truly in prison for espionage, but for embarrassing the U.S. government for its undemocratic and brutal practices.
On a few occasions since the sentencing, I have opened up my mailbox in Chicago to letters from the U.S. federal prison in Marion, Illinois, just a few hours south of me — letters from Daniel Hale. I also talk to his friends about what we’ve heard from him to try and piece together what his life may look like. Every conversation begins with: “How is Daniel doing and is he feeling okay? Who has gone to see him in visitation? Who has he written to?” In Marion, Hale is held in a Communications Management Unit that was first designed to deal with people suspected of terrorism in the wake of 9/11.
Communications are heavily monitored. It took Hale six months to get approval to write to me. While no prison sentence would be justifiable, the fact that he is incarcerated in a unit that effectively limits his interaction with the outside world can only be described as cruel and unusual. Hale is a highly sociable person who had plans to write about his experiences and continue deepening relationships with like-minded people. It is near impossible for him to do so in a unit known as “Little Guantánamo.”
The Drone Papers containing the information that Hale leaked were released during the Barack Obama presidency, and no one came for him. It wasn’t until the beginning of Donald Trump’s assault on whistleblowers that Hale started to face the consequences for his honesty, and what he felt was his duty to humanity. President Joe Biden has an opportunity to distinguish himself from Trump by granting Hale clemency. His revelations harmed no one, and instead helped scores of U.S. Muslims get removed from undemocratic and illegal terrorist watchlists by giving the Council on American Islamic Relations the information that they needed to sue the U.S. government. Any president who values democracy should see that Hale poses no threat to society and grant his release immediately.
Hale is a powerful writer, and there is a lot to take from his letter to Judge O’Grady and his sentencing statement. However, he hates when his story takes center stage. He blew the whistle on the drone program not because he wanted to go through years of an espionage investigation and spend years of his life behind bars. He did it because he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t tell the world the truth.
In October 2012, a young boy named Zubair was injured along with his sister in a drone attack in Pakistan. Zubair went in front of Congress and said, “I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.” That has been the reality of the U.S. drone program. That grief has our country’s name written all over it, and it’s up to us to dramatically change that legacy and free the people who dared to tell us the truth at great personal risk.