ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A former Air Force intelligence analyst who once helped find targets for deadly U.S. drone strikes was sentenced to 45 months in prison for leaking top-secret details about the program.
Daniel Hale, 33, told a federal judge he felt compelled to leak information to a journalist out of guilt over his own participation in a program that he believed was indiscriminately killing civilians in Afghanistan far from the battlefield.
“It is wrong to kill,” Hale said in a defiant statement in which he accepted responsibility for his actions, but also pleaded for mercy. “It is especially wrong to kill the defenseless.”
But U.S. District Judge Liam O'Grady told Hale he had other avenues for airing his concerns besides leaking to a journalist. Citing the need to deter others from illegal disclosures, he imposed a punishment that was harsher than the 12- to 18-month term sought by Hale’s attorneys but significantly more lenient than the longer sentence sought by prosecutors.
“You could have resigned from the military,” or told “your commanders you weren't going to do this anymore,” O'Grady told Hale.
The prosecution is one in a series of cases the Justice Department has brought in recent years against current and former government officials who have disclosed classified secrets to journalists. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced new guidelines this month to bar prosecutors from subpoenaing journalists' records in leak probes, but the department has shown no signs of scaling back efforts to charge officials whom they identify as having leaked national security information.
Prosecutors have argued that Hale, who deployed to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in 2012 and was honorably discharged the following year, abused the government’s trust and knew the documents he was sharing “risked causing serious, and in some cases exceptionally grave, damage to the national security” but leaked them anyway. They say that documents leaked by Hale were found in an internet compilation of material designed to help Islamic State fighters avoid detection.
Hale's stated rationale that he was attempting to expose injustices surrounding the military's drone program has earned him support among whistleblower advocates and among critics of the government's war efforts, some of whom held supportive signs outside the courthouse and attended Tuesday's sentencing hearing.
But prosecutors painted a different portrait. Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg said the impact of Hale's actions was not to contribute to a public debate over war but rather to “endanger the people doing the fighting.” He said that even if it was not Hale's intent to aid a terror organization, that was what he did.
The Justice Department said Hale began communicating with a journalist in April 2013 while still in the Air Force. The following February, while working as a defense contractor at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Hale printed six classified documents that were each later published. He provided additional documents to the reporter that were published in whole or in part, including 11 that were marked as top secret or secret, prosecutors said.
He pleaded guilty earlier this year.
While court papers never specified the recipient of the leak, details about the case make it clear that the documents were given to Jeremy Scahill, a reporter at The Intercept, who used the documents as part of a series of critical reports on how the military conducted drone strikes on foreign targets.
The arguments Tuesday were less about whether Hale leaked the records — he openly acknowledges doing so — and more about his rationale for his actions and what role that should play in the sentence calculation.
Defense lawyers argued that he was motivated by his own conscience and that his leaks didn't jeopardize national security.
“He committed the offense to bring attention to what he believed to be immoral government conduct committed under the cloak of secrecy and contrary to public statements of then-President Obama regarding the alleged precision of the United States military’s drone program,” defense lawyers wrote in a filing last week.
Prosecutors painted Hale as eager to ingratiate himself with journalists, but Hale described himself as racked with angst over the role his actions may have played in the taking of innocent lives. He had served as a signals intelligence analyst, helping locate targets for drone strikes by tracking down cellphone signals.
He said in court Tuesday that he had wanted to dispel the idea that “drone warfare keeps us safe," and the documents he leaked showed among other things that the drone program was not as precise as the government claimed in terms of avoiding civilian deaths.
Reading aloud from a prepared statement, his voice occasionally cracking with emotion, Hale repeatedly took responsibility for his actions but expressed more regret over wartime actions than the “taking of papers.”
He said he was pained by the possibility that his actions in the drone program could have emboldened terrorists in the United States, referring to the case of Omar Mateen, the gunman who massacred nightclub patrons in Orlando, Florida, in 2016 and had explicitly demanded during the shooting that air strikes needed to stop.