Former Air Force analyst Daniel Everette Hale was sentenced to nearly four years in prison Tuesday for admittedly leaking classified information to the press about the Pentagon’s drone program.
Senior U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, sentenced Hale to 45 months in prison, or about half the nine years behind bars sought by the Biden administration.
Hale, 33, faced charges of theft and four violations of the U.S. Espionage Act before pleading guilty in March to a single count of breaking the law by retaining and sharing national defense information.
In a letter filed in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, Hale said he leaked the material after becoming traumatized by witnessing and participating in U.S. drone strikes that killed innocent civilians.
“I came to believe that the policy of drone assassination was being used to mislead the public that it keeps us safe,” wrote Hale, who served in the Air Force during the Obama presidency from 2009 to 2013.
“I only could do that which I ought to do before God and my own conscience,” Hale added in the 11-page letter he wrote from jail ahead of his sentencing hearing.
Federal prosecutors first charged Hale during the Trump administration in March 2019, accusing him of leaking more than a dozen classified documents he obtained while employed by a U.S. defense contractor.
Court documents filed in the case describe the leaked material as documents classified at the “secret” and “top secret” levels about sensitive counterterrorism operations and military campaigns.
While not identified by name in charging documents, the recipients of the material are understood to be The Intercept online news site and, more specifically, its co-founder, reporter Jeremy Scahill.
Several of the documents were published online by The Intercept and in a book attributed to its staff and Mr. Scahill, who did not respond to a message seeking his reaction to the sentence.
“These documents revealed the truth about the U.S. government’s secretive, murderous drone war, including that the killing of civilians was far more widespread than previously acknowledged,” said Betsy Reed, The Intercept’s editor in chief. “The Intercept will not comment on our sources. But whoever brought the documents in question to light undoubtedly served a noble public purpose.”
Hale accessed the documents while employed for a contractor serving the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), a component of the Department of Defense, where he worked from December 2013 to August 2014.
In a statement of facts entered in court with his guilty plea, Hale said he first met the reporter several months before starting the contracting job and that he later shared with him the secrets.
“I contacted an investigative reporter, with whom I had had an established prior relationship, and told him that I had something the American people needed to know,” Hale explained in his letter from jail.
Among those agreeing with Hale on the importance of the material are the American Civil Liberties Union and Edward J. Snowden, one of the most well-known intelligence leakers in modern history.
“Leaks to press in the public interest shouldn’t be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. Period,” the ACLU said on Twitter. “Daniel Hale helped the public learn about a lethal program that never should have been kept secret. He should be thanked, not sentenced as a spy.”
“His crime was telling this truth: 90% of those killed by U.S. drones are bystanders, not the intended targets. He should have been given a medal,” added Mr. Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor who leaked highly classified documents to the press in 2013.
The sentencing judge said Hale could have spoken up without breaking the law.
“You’re not facing prison for speaking out about the drone program injuring and killing innocent persons,” he said, Politico reported. “You could have been a whistleblower and garnered all this attention without leaking any of these documents, frankly.”
The Intercept launched in early 2014, several months after Mr. Snowden provided its founding editors, including Mr. Scahill, with access to classified material he obtained while contracting for the NSA.
Mr. Snowden, 38, has been charged with theft and violating the U.S. Espionage Act. He fled to Russia two days after the Justice Department unsealed the charges and now lives there.
Hale is not the only leaker sentenced for violating the Espionage Act for giving classified information to The Intercept. Reality Winner, another former NSA contractor, was recently freed from prison after serving roughly four years for leaking a classified report to the website about Russian hackers targeting U.S. voting infrastructure leading up to 2016 presidential election.