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Daniel Hale sentenced to 45 months in prison

Supporters for Daniel Hale, outside the courtroom in Alexandria, VA.

Whistleblower Daniel Hale was sentenced to 45 months in federal prison today, for disclosing government documents on the U.S. military’s drone program to a journalist. The sentence—three years and nine months—includes his time served during court proceedings and will be followed by three years of supervised release.

Before he was sentenced, Hale read a powerful and intensely emotional speech to the court, condemning the horrors of war, particularly the post-9/11 U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and drew attention to Iraqi and Afghan victims of the U.S. drone assassination program. He said he opposes war for the same reasons he opposes the death penalty, saying it’s wrong to kill and especially wrong to kill the defenseless. The U.S. often posthumously labels those it kills as “combatants,” and Hale said that sometimes up to 90% of victims in a given airstrike are unidentifiable.

Hale recounted the day he plead guilty to one count under the Espionage Act. He biked to the Capitol that day, to the Department of Justice, and to the war memorials on the National Mall. He noticed there was no monument to mark the end of the Iraq War, and he said the most powerful memorial is for the Vietnam War, consisting of a long black marble slab engraved with the names of dead American soldiers. “If the memorial included the names of the Vietnamese dead,” he said, “it would be four miles long.”

Hale said that he is a descendant of Nathan Hale, who spied on British troops for the United States in the Revolutionary War, and who was executed following his own espionage conviction more than two hundred years ago. Daniel Hale echoed the famous sentiment of his ancestor in his speech: “My only regret is that I have but one life to give to my country, whether here or in prison.”

Hale talked about the “moral injury” war inflicts on soldiers. He said a fellow member of the Air Force once said to him about drone strikes, “You ever step on an ant? That’s what we’re doing.” He talked about how this weighed on him, how it “tore [him] up inside” to the point of “nearly giving up.” Hale said,

“I am here because I stole something that was never mine to take — precious human life. For that I was compensated and given a medal. I couldn’t keep living in a world in which people pretended that things weren’t happening that were. Please, your honor, forgive me for taking papers instead of taking human lives.”

Judge Liam O’Grady took note of Hale’s widespread support, mentioning that several dozen people, including former members of the military, journalists, and others have written letters to the judge calling for leniency and considering Hale a hero. Judge O’Grady himself said that Hale deserves credit for the time he spent after his Air Force service in informing the public about U.S. warfare, but said that he could’ve done so without disclosing documents to the reporter. O’Grady noted this case raises the issue of the intersection of the First Amendment with national security interests, and said that he needed to deliver a substantial sentence to act as a deterrent against those whom Hale might inspire.

O’Grady sentenced Hale to 45 months in prison, to be served in northern Virginia.

Following the proceedings, a press conference was held outside the courtroom. CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou applauded Hale for acting on his morals, and said there could be “no sentence that will deter someone who knows in their soul that a crime is being committed. There will always be people with a conscience.”

Chip Gibbons, with Defending Rights and Dissent, condemned the double standard applied to media leaks: “If Daniel Hale had leaked documents that supported” U.S. military action “rather than exposed it, he wouldn’t be in prison today.”

Jesselyn Radack, herself a former whistleblower and a member of Hale’s legal team, said “Daniel rejects the notion that he is a hero or a victim.” What he wants the public to know and talk about, she said, are the victims of the wars he tried to expose. NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, who has been through an Espionage Act prosecution, lauded Hale’s personal sacrifice, knowing what he could face but doing the right thing anyway.

As the official remarks concluded, the crowd chanted a call for President Biden to pardon Daniel Hale.