Former Airman Who Leaked Details of Drone Program Sentenced, Will Serve Prison Time

Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone
A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper assigned to the 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron armed with an AIM-9X Block 2 missile sits on the ramp at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, Sept. 3, 2020. (Senior Airman Haley Stevens/U.S. Air Force)

A former Air Force intelligence analyst who said he was compelled to speak out against the military’s use of drones after witnessing firsthand their effect on civilian casualties has been sentenced to 45 months in prison for leaking classified information. 

U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady convicted Daniel Hale of Nashville, Tennessee, on Tuesday for leaking the top secret information to a reporter. Hale pleaded guilty to violating the 1917 Espionage Act in April.

Hale, who served in the Air Force between 2009 and 2013 deployed to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, in 2012. There he supported the National Security Agency and used his skills to track down cell-phone signals hunting enemy combatants in the field, according to the Associated Press. He was honorably discharged in 2013, the same year he reached out to an unidentified reporter, according to the original indictment.  

O’Grady confirmed during the sentencing hearing that the leaks were made to the Intercept.

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He then leaked more than a dozen documents while working as a contracted analyst at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in 2014 and 2015. The documents provided a counterpoint to U.S. claims that the drone program prioritized avoiding civilian casualties. 

In an impassioned 11-page letter to O’Grady, Hale spoke of his depression and post traumatic stress disorder he has suffered in the wake of his intelligence work. 

"Not a day goes by that I don't question the justification for my actions," Hale wrote. “What possibly could I have done to cope with the undeniable cruelties that I perpetrated?"

The prosecution argued that Hale’s leak, however, made its way into an internet manual used by Islamic State fighters, jeopardizing military tactics and operations.

“You are not being prosecuted for speaking out about the drone program killing innocent people,” O’Grady, the judge, said Tuesday in Alexandria, Virginia. “You could have been a whistleblower … without taking any of these documents.”  

Lisa Ling, a former Air Force technical sergeant who worked with the drone program, told that unless the U.S. government creates more adequate ways for whistleblowers to come forward, leaks will continue to come from the intelligence and military communities.

“We all believe the public has a right to know what’s done in our name,” said Ling, who was honorably discharged in 2012 and spoke out against drone warfare in the 2016 documentary, "National Bird." 

Ling believes the system meant to protect whistleblowers is broken, cheating the individuals who want to do public good. “And the Espionage Act should be repealed -- it shouldn't be used for whistleblowers,” she said. 

The World War I-era act was intended to punish those spying on behalf of any enemy or a foreign actor, but its scope has expanded over the years to include the prosecution of those who leak highly sensitive information that could harm national security.

Hale’s case has been compared to Reality Winner, who until recently was serving a 63-month sentence at a Fort Worth, Texas, federal prison after pleading guilty to leaking classified NSA information on Russia's alleged efforts to undermine the 2016 election -- a topic that has dominated national discourse and brought to light the challenges of safeguarding the voting process.

Prosecutors said at the time it was the longest sentence ever imposed for an unauthorized distribution of government information to a media outlet. Similar to Hale, Winner was a former Air Force language analyst aiding pilots targeting enemy combatants in the Middle East. She also was found guilty of violating the Espionage Act in 2018.

“I am so relieved that Daniel Hale did not receive as harsh of a sentence as my daughter,” Billie Winner-Davis, Reality’s mother, said Tuesday. 

Winner last month was freed from the detention center and entered a residential reentry process. She has not been pardoned. 

“It breaks me to know he was sentenced to prison though,” Winner-Davis said. “I don't believe he, nor any whistleblower, belongs in prison.”

More attention should be focused on the U.S. lethal actions abroad, argued Ling.

“It's always ‘a bad thing’ when somebody has a document that the public should have a right to know [about],” Ling said. 

“If you look at a lot of the whistleblowers who come in who have come out, a lot of them have been involved or touched the drone program to include Edward Snowden,” she added. “Why is that? And why are we not interrogating the drone program? Why are we interrogating the whistleblowers?”

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @oriana0214.

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