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Trump Steps Up War on Whistleblowers With Arrest of Veteran

Air Force vet Daniel Hale was charged under the Espionage Act for leaking drone war documents.

A former U.S. intelligence analyst was arrested Thursday and charged with violating the Espionage Act for allegedly leaking documents about the secretive U.S. drone program. Daniel Hale, 31, was arrested in Nashville. He faces up to 50 years in prison. Hale is accused of disclosing 11 top secret or secret documents to a reporter. The indictment does not name the reporter but unnamed government sources have told media outlets that the reporter is investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept. In 2015, The Intercept published a special report called the “Drone Papers” exposing the inner workings of the U.S. military’s assassination program in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. We air excerpts of the documentary “National Bird” that features Daniel Hale and speak to The Intercept’s James Risen, director of First Look Media’s Press Freedom Defense Fund.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, “”:, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

A former U.S. intelligence analyst was arrested Thursday and charged with violating the Espionage Act for allegedly leaking documents about the secretive U.S. drone program. 31-year-old Daniel Hale was arrested in Nashville, Tennessee. He faces up to 50 years in prison. Hale was enlisted in the Air Force from 2009 to 2013, during which he worked with the National Security Agency and the Joint Special Operations Task Force at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan where he helped identify targets to be assassinated. He later worked as a contractor for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Hale is accused of disclosing 11 top-secret or secret documents to a reporter. The indictment does not name the reporter, but unnamed government sources have told media outlets the reporter is investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept. In 2015, The Intercept published a special report called The Drone Papers exposing the inner workings of the U.S. military’s assassination program in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. The publication’s findings were later turned into a book called The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program.

In a statement, The Intercept’s editor-in-chief Betsy Reed said, “The Intercept does not comment on matters relating to the identity of anonymous sources. In an indictment unsealed on May 9, the government alleges that documents on the U.S. drone program were leaked to a news organization. These documents detailed a secret, unaccountable process for targeting and killing people around the world, including U.S. citizens, through drone strikes. They are of vital public importance, and activity related to their disclosure is protected by the First Amendment.” Reed went on to say, “The alleged whistleblower faces up to 50 years in prison. No one has ever been held accountable for killing civilians in drone strikes,” she said.

After leaving the Air Force in 2013, Daniel Hale began publicly speaking out against the drone program. In November 2013, he spoke at a drone summit in Washington, D.C., organized by CODEPINK.

DANIEL HALE: Before I begin, one last thing. I just would like to in a way say I am sorry. I am not up here for any good reasons. And to the people in the audience who are victims, or who are families of victims, or have families who live in countries where U.S. militarism and specifically unmanned systems are conducting kinetic strikes, I am sorry. Because I am up here because I was, for a time, a short period of time during my military career as an analyst, working with unmanned systems and deployed to Afghanistan. And at the very least, you all deserve an apology.

AMY GOODMAN: In January 2014, Daniel Hale spoke at a rally outside the White House calling for the closing of the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo.

DANIEL HALE: Good afternoon, everybody. My name is Daniel Hale. I was a veteran in the United States Air Force from 2009 until 2013. Through my experience and my deployment to Afghanistan, where I was primarily tasked with pursuing high-value targets through the utilization of unmanned systems or otherwise known as drones, I came to learn of the thousands of prisoners who remain at the prison in Bagram Air Force Base to this day who are in similar situations to those at Guantánamo, who are continually held indefinitely for benign or otherwise petty offenses or reasons not given to them whatsoever.

AMY GOODMAN: Daniel Hale was also featured in the documentary National Birdabout drone warfare whistleblowers. It was directed by Sonia Kennebeck.

DANIEL HALE: People would defend drones and defend the way that they’re used. They always say, you know, they protect American lives by not putting them in harm’s way. Well, what they really do is they just embolden commanders. They embolden decision-makers. Because there is no threat. There is no immediate consequence. They can do the strike and they can potentially kill this person that they’re so desperate to get and to eliminate because of how dangerous, potentially dangerous they could be to the U.S.

But if it just so happens that they don’t kill that person or some other people are involved in the strike and get killed as well, there’s no consequence for it. When it comes to high-value targeting, every mission is to go after one person at a time. But anybody else that’s killed in that strike is just blanketly assumed to be an associate of the targeted individual. So as long as they can reasonably identify that all of the people in the field of view of the camera are military-aged males, meaning anybody who is believed to be of age 16 or older, they are a legitimate target under the rules of engagement. If that strike occurs and kills all of them, they just say that they got ’em all.

AMY GOODMAN: Drone whistleblower Daniel Hale speaking in the documentary National Bird. In August 2014, the FBI raided Hale’s house, but the Obama Justice Department never filed charges. In the film, Hale spoke about the possibility of being indicted.

DANIEL HALE: Personally, I just live every day trying to become more and more comfortable with the idea that it’s probably going to happen. That I’m probably going to get indicted, and I’m probably going to get charged with a crime and that there’s probably a real chance that I’ll have to fight to stay out of prison.

AMY GOODMAN: Those are the words of drone whistleblower Daniel Hale, who was arrested in Nashville on Thursday. After appearing in court, he was released under pretrial supervision. His next court hearing is May 17th. According to the Freedom of the Press Foundation, Hale is at least the sixth alleged journalistic source charged by the Trump administration over the past two years.

We are now joined by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James Risen. He is a former New York Times reporter who is now The Intercept’s senior national security correspondent. He is also director of First Look Media’s Press Freedom Defense Fund. First Look is the parent company of The Intercept. Risen himself was involved in a high-profile press freedom case involving former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, who was jailed after being convicted under the Espionage Act for speaking with Risen. James Risen, welcome back to Democracy Now! It is great to have you with us. First, can you respond to the arrest of Daniel Hale?

JAMES RISEN: Well, I think I can’t comment specially on this case, but what I can say is that this is yet another escalation of the war on the press by the Trump administration. Donald Trump has taken the war on the press that George Bush and Barack Obama started and has now escalated it beyond anything we have ever seen. The Justice Department under Trump has been so thoroughly politicized that they are going after every possible whistleblower and reporter and any kind of leak that they can find in order to silence the press and silence whistleblowers who are trying to reveal the truth about both the national security state and other aspects of the Trump Administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, can you explain why it is you think he was arrested now? What they are alleging happened something like five years ago under the Obama Justice Department, which decided not to charge Daniel Hale.

JAMES RISEN: That’s why I’m saying I think this is part of Trump’s escalation of the war on the press beyond anything we have seen before. They’re going back over every possible leak they can find, over every old open case and trying to escalate things beyond what Obama did. I think you saw that with the Julian Assange case, where the Obama administration had investigated him for years and never taken the final step of indicting him, and then the Trump Administration did so.

So I think you are seeing that the Justice Department, which has been under such enormous pressure from Trump on a wide range of issues, particularly the Russia investigation where he has constantly been pressuring one attorney general after another. I think that the Justice Department finds it much easier to give in to him on leak investigations than on other things. They are happy to go after journalists and their sources. And so they are satisfying Trump’s demand to punish the press for what he—he does not like bad press. He gets a lot of bad press. And so he is going after—he’s trying to punish the press in the ways that he knows he can.

AMY GOODMAN: You note that Daniel Hale faces up to 50 years in prison, while no one has been held accountable for the killing of civilians in drone strikes. Let’s specifically talk about what Daniel Hale is accused of revealing, what his time in Afghanistan was all about, the significance of his revelations.

JAMES RISEN: I think one of the things we have to understand is that there has been virtually no debate in the United States over the drone program, over the assassination programs that the United States has engaged in, both in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere, since the War on Terror began. And one of the only ways we understand what has happened is through the press and through disclosures from people in the government who have told us what the secret programs are like. If it wasn’t for people like Daniel Hale, whistleblowers who came forward, you would have virtually no understanding of the entire War on Terror, and in particular the drone strike program. It is only through the disclosures in the press that we have understood what is happening. And that is the only reason we’ve had any debate at all.

People in Congress have been very reluctant to engage in any kind of discussion of classified information until it’s in the press. And so most of the oversight that you see on these programs only comes because there have been disclosures in the press, that people have stepped forward with some courage to explain what has happened. If you look back, at the beginning, the entire War on Terror was classified, and it’s only through a lot of different disclosures in the press that we understand what the War on Terror has really been about.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Intercept cofounder, your colleague, Jeremy Scahill, speaking about The Drone Papers—not now; the investigation that The Intercept did. And again, Jeremy Scahill was not named in the indictment. But this is Jeremy speaking about The Drone Papers on Democracy Now! in 2015.

JEREMY SCAHILL: What we have published is an extensive look into how this program has operated historically, but specifically under President Obama. One of the most significant findings of this, and my colleague Cora Currier really dug deep into this, is we published for the first time the kill chain. What the bureaucracy of assassination looks like. And what you see is that all of these officials, including people like the treasury secretary, are part of signing off on this, where they have these secret meetings and they discuss who is going to live and die around the world.

And at the end of that process, it is the president of the United States who signs what amounts to a death warrant for whoever they’ve decided should die based on what amounts to a parallel secret judicial system in the United States that is not really subjected to any kind of judicial review, where the president acts sort of as emperor, issues an edict that you die.

And what we show, and this is the first time that there’s documentary evidence of this, is that the president gives the military a 60-day window to hunt down and kill these individuals. Ken Roth from Human Rights Watch pointed out today if the standard is that the people who are being targeted for assassination is that they represent an imminent threat, which is what the president says the U.S. policy is, then why do they have 60 days to do it? Why don’t they need to do it now, if it’s imminent? Well, that’s because they have redefined the term “imminent” to be so vague as to not even resemble its actual commonly understood definition.

AMY GOODMAN: During his 2015 interview on Democracy Now!, I asked Jeremy Scahill about his sources for the Drone Papers exposé.

JEREMY SCAHILL: This is a very brave whistleblower. And this administration has been relentless in its war against whistleblowers. Chelsea Manning is rotting right now in a prison cell for exposing U.S. war crimes. Edward Snowden is in exile. Thomas Drake and Bill Binney were smeared in public and had their reputations ruined. Jeffrey Sterling is in prison right now.

Our source is an incredibly principled, brave individual. And I worry, because this government has been relentless in its pursuit of people of conscience who blow the whistle and has characterized them as traitors and spies and in the process has criminalized the ability to do independent journalism that is meant to hold them accountable, the government accountable, without fear that your sources, or in some cases the journalists themselves, are going to be put in the crosshairs of the so-called justice system.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Jeremy Scahill speaking in 2015 when the whole drone exposé, drone war exposé, was printed in The intercept. Now again, the Justice Department does not name The Intercept or Jeremy Scahill in the 17-page indictment, but media outlets have quoted senior Trump administration officials saying it’s Jeremy Scahill and The Intercept.

It is also interesting that Jeremy references Chelsea Manning being in jail. That was then in 2015. She was sent back to jail; she just came out yesterday after 62 days, after a grand jury disbanded and she couldn’t be held any longer. But James Risen, if you can talk about the emphasis that media outlets around this country are putting on who was Daniel Hale, who did he leak the documents to, as opposed to the content of what he was leaking? And what you’re saying at The Intercept?

JAMES RISEN: Right. I think one of the things that for many years has really bothered me is the way the mainstream media covers leak investigation stories. They cover it as if there is a hunt for a criminal, rather than a story about whistleblowers coming forward to perform a public service. And that has always bothered me in the way the press covers these things. It is as if they are joining in with the Justice Department and the prosecutor in hunting down a bank robber or something.

And so I think that’s a fundamental flaw in the way the press covers these things, is that they look at it as a crime rather than as an attack by the Justice Department on the press in the United States, which is what this is. This is yet another attempt by Trump, following up on the Obama and the Bush administrations, to do similar things, to silence the press and to silence whistleblowers on a very important issue, which is how does the United States go about deciding who lives and dies around the world?

I mean, it’s a frightening power that we in the United States have somehow by default given to the president and to the CIA and the Air Force, and it’s very scary to me that so few people, both in the media and in the general public, have been willing to engage in a real significant debate about this fundamental issue of who lives and dies. And I think part of it is that the drone program allows the United States to do this with very low casualty rates and to engage in wars around the world by remote control. And we have allowed that to continue because it is very convenient and easy for Americans to forget that it’s happening. And I think the Drone Papers project by The Intercept was a major public service to expose the way in which this occurs.

AMY GOODMAN: Daniel Hale becomes the third person charged with allegedly leaking information to The Intercept. The others are former Air Force linguist Reality Winner and former FBI agent Terry Albury, who leaked classified information about how the FBI aggressively targets potential informants. Now interestingly, the indictment does not name The Intercept or Jeremy Scahill, which suggests they don’t actually have the evidence there. But of course the Trump administration is leaking their names. Do you think they are trying to target, to take down The Intercept by making it an unsafe place for whistleblowers to turn to?

JAMES RISEN: I don’t know about that, and I can’t comment specifically, as I said, on this case. But what I can say is that The Intercept has continued to do very aggressive national security reporting throughout the last few years and is continuing to do so now.
We’re still working on major, very aggressive, very sensitive national security projects that hopefully will appear in the future. And I think if anybody thinks that it’s possible to silence us, then they don’t know anything about us.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the significance of Hale being charged under the Espionage Act specifically?

JAMES RISEN: The Espionage Act has been used both by this administration and by the Obama administrations. It’s a very crude weapon from the World War I era in which the government is able to take this very vague law that was designed for red-baiting after World War I and then for the McCarthy era of conducting communist era investigations. And they have turned it—instead of using it against spies, they now use it against people who talk to the press. And so basically the message that they’re sending is that talking to a reporter is the same as being a spy, which is a ridiculous abuse of the legal system, and it’s something that I feel very strongly about that has to change in this country, if we’re going to maintain an independent press. Because the way in which the Espionage Act is used—it’s a very crude weapon to try to silence people.

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times, The Washington Post have been hailed as heroes, for example, when it comes to the Pentagon Papers. Daniel Ellsberg. It wasn’t, “How dare these papers do this?” It’s that these papers dared to defy those they hold accountable and those in power. At the time, it was Richard Nixon. Can you talk about the difference then and also briefly tell us what happened to you? This wasn’t during the Trump years; this was what happened to you during the Obama years. And this wasn’t when you were at _The Intercept, but at The New York Times.

JAMES RISEN: Right. I was subpoenaed by the Justice Department for a grand jury subpoena several times, and I refused to testify in a leak investigation involving stories I did on Iran and the CIA. Finally, I was subpoenaed to go to both a grand jury and then a trial and I fought those for seven years and appealed it to the Supreme Court. And I lost, ultimately, but I decided to continue to fight it even though we had lost in the courts. And in 2015, the government finally backed down and decided not to put me in jail for not testifying.

That experience, which lasted seven or eight years, led me to feel very strongly that we have to have some organizations in this country that protect journalists and their sources and we have to have more aggressive news organizations that continue to investigate the national security state in ways that some news organizations are no longer willing to or are reluctant to do. And that is one reason I’m very proud of The Intercept. I think we have continued very aggressive investigative reporting in the face of a lot of obstacles and at a time when a lot of other news organizations are not doing so.

AMY GOODMAN: Jim Risen, do you think that the other news organizations are hanging The Intercept out to dry? Do you feel you’re getting enough support from other news organizations?

JAMES RISEN: To me, that doesn’t matter. Frankly, I don’t care what other people say about me or about The Intercept. I think we’re just going to keep trying to do our jobs, and I think we should let our work speak for itself. And I think that is what I’m going to try to do. And in the future, people can try to match our stories.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s end with the words of drone whistleblower and former Air Force intelligence analyst Daniel Hale himself, speaking in the 2016 documentary National Bird, directed by Sonia Kennebeck.

DANIEL HALE: When the president gets up in front of the nation and says that they’re doing everything they can to ensure that there is near certainty that there will be no civilians killed, he is saying that because he can’t say otherwise. Because any time an action is taken to finish a target, there is a certain amount of guesswork in that action. Because it’s only in the aftermath of any kind of ordinance being dropped that you know just how much actual damage was done. And oftentimes, the intelligence community is reliant—the Joint Special Operations Command, the CIA included—is reliant on intelligence coming afterwards that confirms that who they were targeting was killed in that strike, or that they weren’t killed in that strike.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, that was Daniel Hale. This was from 2016, before what happened yesterday. The former U.S. intelligence analyst arrested Thursday and charged with violating the Espionage Act for allegedly leaking documents about the secretive U.S. drone program. He was arrested in Nashville and faces up to 50 years in prison. The film came out in 2016. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, this weekend it’s National Black Mama’s Bail Out Day. We’ll go to Atlanta to find the latest. Stay with us.