Leaker of drone secrets gets 45 months in prison

A former Air Force intelligence analyst was sentenced to nearly four years in prison Tuesday for leaking top-secret information about American drone operations abroad, including those aimed at locating and killing terror suspects.

Daniel Hale, 33, was sentenced by Judge Liam O’Grady to three years and nine months in prison during a Tuesday morning hearing in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va.

Prosecutors had urged stiff punishment for Hale. They did not make a numerical recommendation, but urged that he receive “significantly” more than the longest sentence ever handed down for a leak to the media: the five-year, three-month prison sentence imposed on another Air Force veteran, Reality Winner, in 2018.

In a court filing Monday, prosecutors went even further, suggesting a sentence of more than nine years might be appropriate. Hale’s attorneys had proposed a sentence of 12 to 18 months for their client.

The hefty sentence the Biden Justice Department sought for Hale signals that, while the new administration’s appointees are eager to make peace with journalists and news outlets, prosecutors will continue to throw the book at the men and women who leak information to the media.

Indeed, the department seems eager to send a message that the unprecedented accommodations President Joe Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland have ordered for journalists do not herald a new era of leniency for leakers.

“For those like Hale, who unilaterally decide to disclose classified information, the existence of criminal penalties that are theoretically harsh but practically lenient is not sufficient. Hale and other persons similarly situated seem to believe either that they will not be caught, or that the punishment will be de minimis,” prosecutors wrote. “A substantial sentence is needed also to account for Hale’s blatant disregard for the consequences of his conduct.”

As a trial in the case loomed in March, Hale took the unusual step of pleading guilty without any plea deal with the government. He admitted to violating the Espionage Act by giving more than 150 pages of records classified at the top-secret or secret level to a journalist. The recipient is referred to solely as “the reporter” in public court filings, but details about Hale’s activities and the records he leaked make clear that the reporter was Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept.

Some of the documents Hale provided were featured in Intercept stories in 2015, including an investigative series called “The Drone Papers.”

In an 11-page letter Hale penned while in jail last week, he said he was traumatized by his experiences analyzing drone video feeds while in the Air Force in Afghanistan and by the cavalier attitude many involved took to numerous casualties the ensuing strikes caused among civilians and others not directly targeted.

“I came to believe that the policy of drone assassination was being used to mislead the public that it keep [sic] us safe,” Hale wrote. “By the rules of engagement, it may have been permissable [sic] for me to have helped to kill those men — whose language I did not speak, customs I did not understand, and crimes I could not identify — in the gruesome manner that I did watch them die. But how could it be considered honorable of me…?”

While Hale and his lawyers portrayed him as driven by conscience and profound moral outrage, prosecutors argued that more base motives were at work.

“I’d totally get off on being a serious journalist who covers important issues in a critical way,” Hale wrote in chat messages, according to the government. “Most journalist [sic] are super out of shape and have no social life because they are so devoted…but I look up to them like rock stars…That’s what I’d like I guess, to be a journalist and speak truth to power, and have great sex all the time and make just enough to live but not too much that I become a part of the upper crust.”

Prosecutors said Hale was ill-suited to assess many of the documents he leaked because they related to programs he never worked on. That makes it less plausible he was acting out of principle, they argued.

“Hale was motivated not by transparency but by self-aggrandizement. A significant sentence therefore is necessary and appropriate,” prosecutors wrote.

The breadth of Hale’s disclosures has also won him praise in other quarters. In a friend-of-the-court brief, the Council on American-Islamic Relations said an unclassified document Hale leaked about no-fly-list procedures helped advance the group’s legal challenges and get at least eight U.S. citizens removed from no-fly or watchlists.

“The availability of this information enabled CAIR to present focused claims on behalf of its clients, whose lives had been disrupted by being placed on the lists,” CAIR’s attorneys wrote. “Mr. Hale’s disclosure catalyzed legal challenges to various watchlists across the country.”

The government’s pursuit of Hale included an unusual delay on the part of prosecutors. In 2014, Hale did a six-month stint working for defense contractor Leidos as a Chinese linguist for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. In August of that year, the FBI raided his home in Lorton, Va. and hauled off his computers.

However, Hale was not charged and arrested until 2019.

Hale’s attorneys suggested that the case was discarded by the Obama administration and revived under President Donald Trump, but prosecutors insisted in a filing Monday that was untrue.

Prosecutors said the number of U.S. intelligence agencies affected by Hale’s leaks “required extensive coordination within the government to proceed with charges.”


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