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Trump Administration Charges Drone Whistleblower With Allegedly Violating Espionage Act

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A former language analyst for the United States Air Force, who worked for the National Security Agency, was arrested and charged with violating the Espionage Act and other offenses.

According to the indictment filed in the Eastern District of Virginia, Daniel Hale allegedly disclosed eleven classified documents to a reporter who worked for an online news website. The documents relate to the U.S. government’s targeted assassination program involving armed drones that was expanded under President Barack Obama’s administration.

If the allegations are true, the U.S. government is prosecuting another whistleblower in its zeal to crackdown on leaks and control the flow of information, particularly on national security matters. They are also criminalizing another source, who provided information to The Intercept.

The timeline in the indictment aligns with the release of Intercept founding editor Jeremy Scahill’s Oscar-nominated “Dirty Wars” film, as well as his comprehensive book on U.S. drone operations with the same title.

In October 2015, The Intercept published a “cache of secret documents detailing the inner workings of the U.S. military’s assassination program in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia.” The media organization said the documents were provided by a whistleblower and offered “unprecedented glimpse into Obama’s drone wars.” They were called “The Drone Papers.”

The Intercept granted “the source’s request for anonymity because the materials [were] classified and because the U.S. government has engaged in aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers.”

Hale also appeared in the 2016 documentary, “National Bird.” He wore a pin supporting U.S. Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning and was following CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling’s prosecution. The FBI raided his home on August 8, 2014, while the film was in production. He reached out to attorney Jesselyn Radack for legal assistance.

The Justice Department filed an indictment on March 7, 2019, and charged Hale with three counts of violating the Espionage Act, one count of violating a code that criminalizes the disclosure of “classified communications intelligence information,” and one count of stealing government property.

It is unclear why the Justice Department took so long to charge Hale with committing any offenses.

Hale was part of Joint Special Operations Task Force in 2012 and identified “targets” for kill/capture. From December 2013 to August 2014, he was a contractor at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

The indictment alleges Hale searched the internet for information on Scahill in April 2013. He attended an event with Scahill at Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C., on April 29. The following day Hale signed on to his computer to look for information related to subjects Scahill covered.

On June 8, Hale “sat next to” Scahill at another public event at Busboys and Poets,” which is the government’s awkward way of stating Hale appeared on stage with Scahill during the event. Hale allegedly had dinner with Scahill afterward.

The indictment alleges Scahill sent Hale an email on June 9 with a link to an article on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. “That same day, Hale texted a friend that the previous night he had been hanging out with journalists who were focused on this story.” He believed what was unfolding might provide him with “lifelong connections with people who publish work like this.”

On July 23 and 24, Hale was allegedly in New York to meet with Scahill. He shared his resume on July 25 and highlighted his experience with “payloads” on drones that were used to “support real-time kill/capture operations.” He mentioned he had experience working with original classification authorities to declassify information too.

By September, Scahill allegedly urged Hale to set up a Jabber account so they could chat through encrypted messaging.

There was a drone summit held in Washington, D.C. on November 16-17 by the peace group, CODEPINK. Scahill was invited to speak and allegedly Hale wanted to know if he would be attending the summit.

At the end of February 2014, Hale allegedly printed six documents. Hale asked if Scahill could be there Monday, but Scahill was in Los Angeles for the Oscars. His documentary, “Dirty Wars,” was nominated for Best Documentary Feature.

The indictment alleges Hale provided at least 17 documents to Scahill. Only 11 documents were charged because they were marked “secret” or “top secret.”

A list in the indictment offers a minimal description of each of the documents the government believes Hale provided, but the details are enough to figure out what stories Hale allegedly made possible.

For example, prior to the “Drone Papers,” a report, “Watch Commander: Barack Obama’s Secret Terrorist System, by the Numbers” was published by Scahill and Ryan Devereaux. It exposed how “nearly half of the people on the U.S. government’s widely shared database of terrorist suspects are not connected to any known terrorist group.”

“More than 40 percent are described by the government as having ‘no recognized terrorist group affiliation,’” the journalists reported.

It brought critical attention to an out-of-control watchlisting system.

In October 2015, “The Drone Papers” were published and revealed criteria for how the White House approved individuals for targeted assassinations and exposed “small footprint counterterrorism operations” that were launched in Somalia and Yemen.

TF 48-4, a special operations task force, was deployed to escalate wars in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. They were commanded from a center at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. They utilized a maritime drone platform and were supposed to hunt down members of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Shabaab. The task force relied heavily on drone warfare.

New details about British citizen Bilal el-Berjawi, “who was stripped of his citizenship before being killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2012,” were revealed.

Scahill wrote, “British and American intelligence had Berjawi under surveillance for several years as he traveled back and forth between the U.K. and East Africa, yet did not capture him. Instead, the U.S. hunted him down and killed him in Somalia.”

The Intercept also published a report on “Operation Haymaker” in Afghanistan that revealed the U.S. military designated unidentified men as “enemies killed in action,” or EKIAs, without bothering to confirm whether they were the operation’s specific targets or not.

If Hale is the source, he allegedly told Scahill, “This outrageous explosion of watchlisting — of monitoring people and racking and stacking them on lists, assigning them numbers, assigning them ‘baseball cards,’ assigning them death sentences without notice, on a worldwide battlefield — it was, from the very first instance, wrong.”

“We’re allowing this to happen. And by ‘we,’ I mean every American citizen who has access to this information now, but continues to do nothing about it,” Hale added.

Hale allegedly was one of the few conscientious objectors during the Obama administration willing to take the risk to inform the public what the government was doing as it expanded drone warfare in total secrecy.

Additionally, the indictment mentions The Intercept advocated sources use Tor software and the Tails operating system to help them cover their tracks. Hale allegedly had a thumb drive with Tor and Tails.

Hale is the fourth individual to be charged under the Trump administration with violating the Espionage Act. Former CIA agent Joshua Schulte was charged with allegedly sending “Vault 7” materials to WikiLeaks.

FBI whistleblower Terry Albury is serving a four-year prison sentence for revealing information to The Intercept on the FBI’s racial profiling, surveillance, and informant recruitment practices.

NSA whistleblower Reality Winner was sentenced to more than five years in prison for releasing a document to The Intercept that she believed revealed information related to alleged Russian hacking of voter registration systems.

Other individuals, like former Senate Intelligence Committee staffer James Wolfe and former Treasury Department employee Natalie Edwards, were prosecuted for leaking but not with violating the Espionage Act.

In the words of The Intercept, Hale enabled a series that offered the public a long-overdue examination of the methods and outcomes used by the United States’ assassination program under Obama and President George W. Bush.

“The public has a right to see these documents not only to engage in an informed debate about the future of U.S. wars, both overt and covert, but also to understand the circumstances under which the U.S. government arrogates to itself the right to sentence individuals to death without the established checks and balances of arrest, trial, and appeal,” The Intercept declared.

Hale blew the whistle on these powers the U.S. government arrogated to itself to act as judge, jury, and executioner and designate any part of the world a battlefield. And for that, he will likely endure a cruel and traumatic prosecution that will likely end in a plea agreement, where he serves a four-to-five year sentence in prison, or worse.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."