“My Conscience…Came Roaring Back to Life”: Daniel Hale and US Targeted Killing

by John Whitehead



Daniel Hale, a former US airman and military contractor, received an almost four-year prison sentence in federal court on July 27th. Hale’s crime was sharing with the media classified government documents related to targeted killing and other US counter-terrorism policies. Prosecuted for violating the Espionage Act, Hale pled guilty earlier this year to one of the charges against him. Hale’s case raises disturbing questions both about how the US government treats those who leak classified information and the use of lethal force in counter-terrorism.


While in the Air Force, Hale learned how to track people by tracking their cell phones. During a 2012 tour in Afghanistan, he helped drones home in on cell phones of interest to the US military. The target could then be killed in a missile strike. However, Hale had serious doubts about this approach to targeting terrorists: a phone could be passed from a terrorist or enemy fighter to an ordinary civilian, and people targeted by a missile fired by a drone might be surrounded by civilians at the time.


An incident that shook Hale deeply was when he directed a drone after the cell phone of a suspected bomb maker who appeared to be driving to Pakistan. The drone fired a missile that narrowly missed the car. According to Hale, when Afghan forces investigated the missile strike site the following day, they found the targeted man’s two daughters, ages five and three. The older girl had been killed by shrapnel, presumably from the missile; the younger girl was still alive.


Back in the United States, Hale became involved in anti-war circles. He even met the brother of a Yemeni man killed in a drone strike Hale had witnessed at a US base in Afghanistan. At the time, Hale recalls, “I, and those around me, clapped and cheered triumphantly.” The man killed in the strike had not been a terrorist, however. He had been an opponent of al Qaeda who, along with his cousin, was confronting some militants when the strike killed them both.


Despite his skepticism about US foreign policy, Hale went to work as a contractor at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. There, he met a co-worker whose idea of fun was to watch footage of drone strikes: an indulgence in “war porn” that Hale recognized from his time in Afghanistan. As he recalls, “My conscience, once held at bay, came roaring back to life.”

In 2014, Hale, whose job gave him access to classified information, found and printed documents related to counter-terrorism policy. Circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that Hale relayed the information to the media outlet The Intercept. The Intercept subsequently ran stories on targeted killings and other US counter-terrorism policies apparently based on Hale’s information.


Hale’s disclosures revealed that targeted killing can undermine counter-terrorism by killing people who could otherwise provide useful intelligence; and that during one five-month period, US forces in Afghanistan killed 155 people — of whom only 19 were the intended targets. He also revealed the rules guiding who is placed on the government’s terrorist watch list. The disclosures led to Hale’s arrest in 2019.


Government prosecutors argued that Hale unintentionally helped the terrorist group ISIS, saying that two disclosed documents were incorporated into an ISIS guide for fighters on how to avoid detection. Hale’s attorneys and supporters claim his disclosures were an important public service. A group of free speech scholars comment that Hale “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.”


Hale is the latest person prosecuted under the Espionage Act for leaking classified information: a questionable practice that accelerated under Presidents Obama and Trump. As Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of the Knight First Amendment Center at Columbia University, comments, the Espionage Act “draws no distinction between insiders who share information with foreign intelligence services and those who share it with the media, or between those who intend to harm the United States and those who intend to inform the public about the abuse of government power.”


The questionable practice highlighted by Hale’s case is the long-running US policy of killing people without trial, by drones or other means. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that almost 9,000 people (and perhaps far more) have been killed in this way since 2002. Targeted killing has been practiced by Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump, and President Biden seems likely to continue the practice.


The American people deserve to know about the often-unjust and devastating actions taken in their name. Targeting killing must end. In Daniel Hale’s specific case, those who wish to do so can contact President Biden or sign an online petition from the anti-war group Code Pink to urge Hale’s pardon.

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