The missiles that killed Salim bin Ahmed Ali Jaber and Walid bin Ali Jaber came in the night. Salim was a respected imam in the village of Khashamir, in southeastern Yemen, who had made a name for himself denouncing the rising power of Al Qaeda’s franchise in the Arabian Peninsula. His cousin Walid was a local police officer. It was August 21, 2012, and the pair were standing in a palm grove, confronting a trio of suspected militants, when the Hellfires made impact.
The deaths of the two men sparked protests in the days that followed, symbolizing for many Yemenis the human cost of U.S. counterterrorism operations in their country. Thousands of miles away, at the U.S. military’s base in Bagram, Afghanistan, Daniel Hale, a young intelligence specialist in the U.S. Air Force, watched the missiles land. One year later, Hale found himself sitting on a Washington, D.C., panel, listening as Salim’s brother, Faisal bin Ali Jaber, recalled the day Salim was killed.
As Fazil recounted what happened next, I felt myself transported back in time to where I had been on that day, 2012. Unbeknownst to Fazil and those of his village at the time was that they had not been the only ones watching Salem approach the jihadist in the car. From Afghanistan, I and everyone on duty paused their work to witness the carnage that was about to unfold. At the press of a button, from thousands of miles away, two Hellfire missiles screeched out of the sky, followed by two more. Showing no signs of remorse, I, and those around me, clapped and cheered triumphantly. In front of a speechless auditorium, Fazil wept.
Hale recalled the emotional moment and others stemming from his work on the U.S. government’s top-secret drone program in an 11-page, handwritten letter filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia this week.
Hale was indicted by a grand jury and arrested in 2019 on a series of counts related to the unauthorized disclosure of national defense and intelligence information and the theft of government property. In March, the 33-year-old pleaded guilty to leaking a trove of unclassified, secret, and top-secret documents to a news organization, which government filings strongly implied was The Intercept. His sentencing is scheduled for next week.
The Intercept “does not comment on matters relating to the identity of anonymous sources,” Intercept Editor-in-Chief Betsy Reed said at the time of Hale’s indictment. “These documents detailed a secret, unaccountable process for targeting and killing people around the world, including U.S. citizens, through drone strikes,” Reed noted. “They are of vital public importance, and activity related to their disclosure is protected by the First Amendment.”
Federal prosecutors are urging Judge Liam O’Grady to issue a maximum sentence, up to 11 years in prison, arguing that Hale has shown insufficient remorse for his actions, that his disclosures were motivated by vanity and not in the public interest, and that they aided the United States’ enemies abroad — namely the Islamic State.
“These documents contained specific details that adversaries could use to hamper and defeat actions of the U.S. military and the U.S. intelligence community,” the government claimed. “Indeed, they were of sufficient interest to ISIS for that terrorist organization to further distribute two of those documents in a guidebook for its followers.”
Prosecutors have acknowledged, however, that Hale’s sentencing was “in an unusual posture” because the probation officer in the case, who makes recommendations to the court, “has not seen some of the key facts of the case,” namely those that the government says support its claim that Hale’s disclosures had the potential to cause “serious” or “exceptionally grave” harm to U.S. national security. The Intercept has not reviewed the documents in question, which remain under seal, shielded from public scrutiny.
Harry P. Cooper, a former senior official in the CIA and noted agency expert on classified materials who did review the documents, provided a declaration in Hale’s case on the potential national security threat posed by the release of the documents.
Cooper, who maintains a top-secret clearance and has trained top-level officials at the agency, including the director of the CIA, said that while some of the documents did constitute so-called national defense information, “the disclosure of these documents, at the time they were disclosed and made public, did not present any substantial risk of harm to the United States or to national security.”
Commenting on the government’s claim that Hale’s disclosures were circulated by ISIS, Cooper said, “such publication further supports my conclusions, because it suggests that the adversaries treated the documents as trophies rather than as something that would give a tactical advantage, given that publication would reduce to zero any tactical advantage that the documents might otherwise have given.”
“In short,” Cooper said, “an adversary who has gained a tactical advantage by receiving secret information would never publicize their possession of it.”
Hale was charged under the Espionage Act, a highly controversial 1917 law that has become a favored tool of federal prosecutors pursuing cases of national security leaks. The law bars the accused from using motivations such as informing the public as a defense against incarceration, and yet, Hale’s alleged personal motivations and character came up repeatedly in a sentencing memo filed this week, with prosecutors arguing that he was “enamored of journalists” and that as a result, “the most vicious terrorists in the world” obtained top-secret U.S. documents.
In their own motion filed this week, Hale’s lawyers argued that the former intelligence analyst’s motivations were self-evident — even if the government refused to recognize them. “The facts regarding Mr. Hale’s motive are clear,” they wrote. “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.”
Legal experts focused on the drone program strongly dispute the prosecution’s claim that Hale’s disclosures did not provide a significant public service. Indeed, for many experts, shedding light on a lethal program that the government had tried to keep from public scrutiny for years is vital.
“The disclosures provided important information to the American public about a killing program that has virtually no transparency or accountability, and has taken a devastating toll on civilian lives abroad in the name of national security,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, director of the Counterterrorism, Armed Conflict and Human Rights Project at Columbia Law School. “They helped reveal how some of the most harmful impacts of this program, in particular the civilian toll, were obscured and hidden.”
Thanks in large part to the government’s efforts to keep the drone program under tight secrecy, the task of calculating the human impact of the program has been left to investigative journalists and independent monitoring groups. The numbers that these groups have compiled over the years show a staggering human cost of these operations. The U.K.-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, or TBIJ, estimates the total number of deaths from drones and other covert killing operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia to run between 8,858 and 16,901 since strikes began to be carried out in 2004.
Of those killed, as many as 2,200 are believed to have been civilians, including several hundred children and multiple U.S. citizens, including a 16-year-old boy. The tallies of civilian casualties are undoubtedly an undercount of the true cost of the drone war — as Hale’s letter to the court this week and the documents he allegedly made public show, the people who are killed in American drone strikes are routinely classified as “enemies killed in action” unless proven otherwise.
Following years of pressure — and in the wake of the publication of the materials Hale is accused of leaking — the Obama administration introduced new requirements for reporting civilian casualties from covert counterterrorism operations to the public in 2016, disclosing that year that between 64 and 116 civilians were believed to have been killed in drone strikes and other lethal operations. However, the Trump administration revoked that meager disclosure requirement, leaving the public once again in the dark about who exactly is being killed and why.
In the government’s view, Hale’s principal interest was reckless self-aggrandizement. “Hale’s vanity overrode the commitments he made to his country,” the prosecution said in its sentencing memo. The letter Hale wrote to the court paints a starkly different picture, however, one of a young man scarred by his role in the nation’s longest war.
Hale describes, in vivid terms, his struggles with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and how his decision to share classified information with a journalist was motivated by an irrepressible sense of obligation.
“To say that the period of my life spent serving in the United States Air Force had an impression on me would be an understatement,” Hale wrote in his letter to O’Grady, dated July 18. “It’s more accurate to say that it irreversibly transformed my identity as an American.”
Hale told the judge about the first drone strike he witnessed, days after he first deployed to Afghanistan. The operation was conducted before sunrise, targeting a group of armed men brewing tea around a campfire in the mountains of Paktika province.
That they carried weapons with them would not have been considered out of the ordinary in the place I grew up, much less within the virtually lawless tribal territories outside the control of the Afghan authorities. Except that among them was a suspected member of the Taliban, given away by the targeted cellphone device in his pocket. As for the remaining individuals, to be armed, of military age, and sitting in the presence of an alleged enemy combatant was enough evidence to place them under suspicion as well. Despite having peacefully assembled, posing no threat, the fate of the now tea drinking men had all but been fulfilled. I could only look on as I sat by and watched through a computer monitor when a sudden, terrifying flurry of Hellfire missiles came crashing down, splattering purple-colored crystal guts on the side of the morning mountain.
Since that time and to this day, I continue to recall several such scenes of graphic violence carried out from the cold comfort of a computer chair. Not a day goes by that I don’t question the justification of my actions. By the rules of engagement, it may have been permissible for me to have helped 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 to continuously have laid in wait for the next opportunity to kill unsuspecting persons, who, more often than not, are posing no danger to me or any other person at the time. Never mind honorable, how could it be that any thinking person continued to believe that it was necessary for the protection of the United States to be in Afghanistan and killing people, not one of whom present was responsible for the September 11th attacks on our nation. Notwithstanding in 2012, a full year after the demise of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. I was part of killing misguided young men who were but mere children on the day of 9/11.
Nevertheless, Hale wrote, he kept his head down and continued his work identifying targets for American drones. Along the way, the profit motives embedded in the war on terror became increasingly apparent.
The evidence of this fact was laid bare all around me. In the longest and most technologically advanced war in American history, contract mercenaries outnumbered uniform wearing soldiers 2 to 1 and earned as much as 10 times their salary. Meanwhile, it did not matter whether it was, as I had seen, an Afghan farmer blown in half, yet miraculously conscious and pointlessly trying to scoop his insides off the ground, or whether it was an American flag-draped coffin lowered into Arlington National Cemetery to the sound of a 21-gun salute. Bang. Bang. Bang. Both served to justify the easy flow of capital at the cost of blood — theirs and ours. When I think about this I am grief-stricken and ashamed of myself for the things that I’ve done to support it.
Hale described for the court the “most harrowing day” of his deployment, “when a routine surveillance mission turned into disaster.” For weeks the Americans had been tracking a group of car bomb manufacturers based in the Jalalabad area. “It was a windy and clouded afternoon when one of the suspects had been discovered heading east at a high rate of speed,” Hale recalled. His supervisors believed that the driver may have been making a run for the Pakistan border. “A drone strike was our only chance and already it began lining up to take the shot,” Hale wrote. The clouds and wind derailed the strike, with the missile missing its target by a matter of a few meters.
The vehicle continued on for a while before coming to stop. Hale described watching as a man stepped out and “checked himself as though he could not believe he was still alive.” Then, to Hale’s astonishment, a woman got out of the car as well and walked to the trunk. Hale later learned that there were two young children huddled inside. They were ages three and five. A unit of Afghan soldiers found them in a dumpster the following day. The younger of the two “was alive but severely dehydrated,” Hale recalled. “The eldest was found dead due to unspecified wounds caused by shrapnel that pierced her body.”
“Whenever I encounter an individual who thinks that drone warfare is justified and reliably keeps America safe,” Hale wrote, “I remember that time and ask myself how could I possibly continue to believe that I am a good person, deserving of my life and the right to pursue happiness.”
Amid waves of criticism from human rights groups and mounting evidence of extensive civilian casualties in multiple countries around the world, President Barack Obama made his first public comments on the issue of American drone strikes in 2013. Hale recalled watching the address on television. “The president said that a high standard of ‘near certainty’ needed to be met in order to ensure that no civilians were present,” he wrote. “But from what I knew, of the instances where civilians plausibly could have been present, those killed were nearly always designated enemies killed in action unless proven otherwise.” In describing what would become a central component of his counterterrorism legacy, Obama spoke of the category of “imminent threats,” drawing a comparison between the target of a drone strike and a sniper with his sights set on an unsuspecting crowd.
In time, Hale wrote, he came to question this analogy.
As I understood it to be, the unassuming crowd had been those who lived in fear and terror of drones in their skies and the sniper in this scenario had been me. I came to believe that the policy of drone assassination was being used to mislead the public that it kept us safe, and when I finally left the military, still processing what I had been a part of, I began to speak out, believing my participation in the drone program to have been deeply wrong.
In Hale’s account, his turning point came after he left the Air Force. After much deliberation, he had taken a job at a defense contractor where he would retain his security clearance and access to top-secret information. One day, after work, a colleague suggested pulling up some archived drone strike footage. The “bonding ceremonies” around “war porn” were not uncommon, Hale wrote. “I partook in them all the time while I was deployed to Afghanistan,” he said. “But on that day, years after the fact, my new friends gaped and sneered, just as my old ones had, at the sight of faceless men in the final moments of their lives. I sat by watching too; said nothing and felt my heart breaking into pieces.”
My conscience, once held at bay, came roaring back to life. At first, I tried to ignore it. Wishing instead that someone, better placed than I, should come along and take this cup from me. But this too was folly. Left to decide whether to act, I could only do that which I ought to before God and my own conscience. The answer came to me, that to stop the cycle of violence, I ought to sacrifice my own life and not that of another person.
So 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.