This story originally appeared in Common Dreams on July 27, 2021, and is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Human rights and press freedom advocates expressed dismay on Tuesday when whistleblower Daniel Hale, who pled guilty earlier this year to violating the Espionage Act, was sentenced to 45 months in prison for sharing with a journalist classified information about the US military’s drone assassination program.
“Whistleblower Daniel Hale has just been sentenced to 45 months in prison for exposing US war crimes,” said anti-war group CodePink. “While his sentencing isn’t the 10 years we feared, it is 45 months too long.”
Hale’s lawyers argued in court papers that his humanitarian motives, and the lack of harm resulting from his actions, warranted a lenient sentence.
“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 [Barack] Obama regarding the alleged precision of the United States military’s drone program,” wrote defense attorneys Todd Richman and Cadence Mertz.
Prosecutors, however, claimed Hale’s leaks posed a greater risk to “national security” than those of Reality Winner, the former National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower released last month after serving four years of a 63-month sentence—the longest ever imposed for disclosing classified government information to the media. They sought a sentence “significantly longer” than Winner’s.
US District Judge Liam O’Grady said the 45-month prison sentence he gave Hale was necessary to “deter others from disclosing government secrets,” the Associated Press reported.
Edward Snowden, the American whistleblower who has lived in Russia with asylum protections since leaking classified materials on US government mass surveillance in 2013, was among those who denounced the judge’s decision.
“His crime was telling this truth: 90% of those killed by US drones are bystanders, not the intended targets,” said Snowden. “He should have been given a medal.”
“These documents detailed a secret, unaccountable process for targeting and killing people around the world, including US citizens, through drone strikes,” Betsy Reed, editor-in-chief of The Intercept, said after Hale’s indictment. “They are of vital public importance, and activity related to their disclosure is protected by the First Amendment.”
According to journalist Kevin Gosztola, Hale’s whistleblowing enabled The Intercept to reveal that “nearly half of the people on the US government’s widely shared database of terrorist suspects are not connected to any known terrorist group,” detail how assassination targets ended up on Obama’s “kill list,” and expose new information about Bilal el-Berjawi, a Briton “who was stripped of his citizenship before being killed in a US drone strike in 2012.”
Hale, 33, of Nashville, Tennessee, was an Air Force intelligence analyst between 2009 and 2013. In 2012, he deployed to Afghanistan to support the US Defense Department’s Joint Special Operations Task Force and was responsible for identifying, tracking, and targeting “high-value” terror suspects.
The following year, when he was assigned to the NSA, Hale began communicating with a journalist. In 2014, after Hale had been honorably discharged from the Air Force and started working at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, he shared documents that contradicted the US military’s claims that the drone assassination program could kill “enemy combatants” with precision and minimize civilian casualties.
In a handwritten letter released last week, Hale explained that his decision to disclose top-secret information about the inner workings of US drone warfare was motivated by guilt over his role in carrying out “gruesome” killings of defenseless people “from the cold comfort of a computer chair.”
Meanwhile, CodePink pointed out Tuesday, “no US official who authorized the murder of civilians with drones has ever been held accountable.”
CodePink is spearheading a petition asking President Joe Biden—Obama’s vice president—to pardon Hale. The letter states that:
Daniel Hale is not a spy, a threat to society, or a bad faith actor. His revelations were not a threat to national security. If they were, the prosecution would be able to identify the harm caused directly from the information Hale made public.
While the courts have ruled that a defendant’s motive in a case related to the Espionage Act is irrelevant, we recognize that Hale’s motive was only to provide the American people with information about government misconduct. We believe that rather than harm our country, Hale’s revelations actually enhanced our democracy by providing critical information about what our government has been doing in our name. We also believe that Hale’s revelations help push our government to reassess its drone program in light of its violations of US and international law.
First Amendment advocates have long argued that cracking down on journalists and their sources dissuades people from sharing information that can help expose the truth, hold the powerful accountable, and improve the common good.
The Obama and Trump administrations both went to great lengths to prevent leaks and punish government officials for divulging information to reporters. Before former President Donald Trump launched a “war on whistleblowers,” the Department of Justice under Obama prosecuted nine leak cases, more than all previous administrations combined.
Last month, the Washington Post‘s publisher accused Biden’s Justice Department of exacerbating the Trump-era assault on press freedom, prompting the DOJ last week to prohibit prosecutors from using secret orders and subpoenas to obtain journalists’ phone and email records.
The Espionage Act, a World War I-era law that criminalizes the disclosure of classified government information to unauthorized viewers, has been used on several occasions to punish whistleblowers, including Hale, Assange, Snowden, Winner, John Kiriakou, Chelsea Manning, Jeffrey Sterling, and others.
Nevertheless, Biden’s DOJ continued to prosecute Hale and is also still pursuing an espionage case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that began under Trump.
“A group of First Amendment and media law scholars wrote the court in support of Hale, calling him ‘a classic whistleblower, who acted in good faith to alert the public of secret government policies that deserved to be debated by the citizens in a truly functioning democracy,'” the Post reported. “They argue that the Espionage Act was intended to punish foreign spies, not those who seek to enlighten the American people.”
The ACLU echoed that message on Tuesday, stating that “leaks to [the] press in the public interest shouldn’t be prosecuted under the Espionage Act.”
“Daniel Hale helped the public learn about a lethal program that never should have been kept secret,” the organization added. “He should be thanked, not sentenced as a spy.”