Ex-intel analyst says seeing a US drone kill a child pushed him to leak military documents that he faces 11 years behind bars over

yemen drone
Men look at wall graffiti depicting a U.S. drone along a street in Sanaa, Yemen, November 9, 2013.

  • Daniel Hale, a former intel analyst, faces 11 years in prison for leaking docs on US drone strikes.
  • Hale wrote an 11-page letter to the court explaining why he leaked the docs, offering gruesome details.
  • “I came to believe that the policy of drone assassination was being used to mislead the public,” Hale wrote.
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“War is trauma.”

Those are the words of Daniel Hale, a former US Air Force intelligence analyst who is facing up to 11 years in prison for leaking a trove of documents about the US drone program to a journalist from the Intercept.

Ahead of his sentencing, which is set for Tuesday, Hale wrote an emotionally raw letter with gruesome details about US drone strikes to explain to Judge Liam O’Grady why he leaked the documents and violated the Espionage Act.

In the 11-page, handwritten letter that was filed in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Hale offered details on what he described as “the most harrowing day of my life” that took place months into his deployment in Afghanistan.

Hale said it was “a routine surveillance mission turned into disaster.”

It was back in 2012, and Hale found himself watching a car being driven by a suspected bomb-maker from Jalalabad head toward Pakistan. Hale’s superiors were “alarmed” and feared that the suspect was trying to escape across the border, prompting the car to be targeted with a drone strike.

“It was a windy and clouded afternoon when one of the suspects had been discovered heading east at a high rate of speed,” Hale wrote. “A drone strike was our only chance and already it began lining up to take the shot.”

But the payload missed the target, and the car “continued on ahead after narrowly avoiding destruction” before stopping. A man emerged and looked shocked he was still alive. To Hale’s surprise, a woman also stepped out and rushed to the trunk.

Hale would later learn the woman was the man’s wife and she was checking on their two young children who had been in the back. Afghan soldiers found the children – ages three and five – in a nearby dumpster the next day.

“The eldest was found dead due to unspecified wounds caused by shrapnel that pierced her body. Her younger sister was alive but severely dehydrated,” Hale said, going on to describe his distress over his commanding officer being more disgusted with the children being left in the dumpster than with the fact they had “errantly fired on a man and his family, having killed one of his daughters.”

“Whenever I encounter an individual who thinks that drone warfare is justified and reliably keeps America safe, I remember that time and ask myself how I could possibly continue to believe that I am a good person, deserving of my life and the right to pursue happiness,” Hale went on to say.

The letter provides details on other drone strikes Hale witnessed, including one that occurred within days of his arrival to Afghanistan. In this instance, a group of men carrying weapons gathered to drink tea. Among them was a suspected member of the Taliban, which Hale said 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,” Hale wrote. “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.”

Hale went on to write about how his experiences were at odds with President Barack Obama’s public assurances that drone strikes helped protect the US and that all steps were being taken to prevent civilian casualties.

“I came to believe that the policy of drone assassination was being used to mislead the public that it keep[s] us safe, and when I finally left the military, still processing … I began to speak out, believing my participation in the drone program to have been deeply wrong,” Hale said.

Prosecutors have called for Hale to spend 11 years behind bars for leaking documents on the US drone program, contending that “vanity overrode the commitments he made to his country,” per the Washington Post. Hale pleaded guilty in March. But Hale and his lawyers have called for no more than 12 to 18 months, stating that he leaked the documents due to “irreconcilable moral conflict.”

Mugshot of Daniel Hale
Daniel Hale

The US drone war has been going on for almost 20 years

The use of drones and drone strikes by the US in counterterrorism operations began in 2002 under the Bush administration, but escalated dramatically under Obama.

By the time Obama came into office, the US public was war-weary and the prospect of sending troops into dangerous places had become increasingly unpopular. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, offered an ostensible solution. They allowed the US to surveil and target suspected terrorists without putting US troops in harm’s way.

Critics of the drone program have contended that it kills too many civilians, excoriating the US government’s dubious legal and ethical justifications for drone strikes. Similar to strikes described by Hale, the US has conducted what are known as “signature strikes” – strikes that target military-aged men on battlefields without full confirmation they were plotting against the US or posed a significant threat.

There are also critics and scholars who’ve made the case that US drone strikes serve as a recruiting poster for terrorism by increasing enmity toward America. In 2010, a man named Faisal Shahzad was arrested for attempting to bomb Times Square – and he cited US drone strikes as his motivation.

The US government has consistently faced criticism over a lack of transparency surrounding drone strikes – particularly in relation to civilian casualties. Many strikes have occurred in remote, dangerous areas, making it difficult for journalists or independent organizations to verify details. Official reports on civilian casualties from the US government tend to run far lower than those from independent observers.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a UK-based organization that has tracked US drone strikes for years, estimates that between 8,858 and 16,901 people have been killed by US drone strikes and other covert operations since 2004 in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan – including up to 2,200 civilians.

Obama responded to criticism of US drone strikes by pledging greater transparency and putting safeguards in place to protect civilians, signing an executive order in July 2016 along those lines. The Trump administration abandoned many of those changes, showing less concern for civilian casualties.

Under President Joe Biden, who pledged to end “forever wars,” the US has cut back on drone strikes in a massive way compared to past administrations. This has occurred as the administration reviews standards for military and covert operations.

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Smaller drones don’t let the US off the hook for war crimes

The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrates the separation of the ALTIUS-600 small UAS in a test at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground test range, Arizona on March 26, 2021
The XQ-58A Valkyrie releases a ALTIUS-600 small UAS during a test in Arizona, March 26, 2021

  • The US has relied heavily on drones for many missions – including lethal strikes – for decades.
  • Drones are only a platform, and what matters for international law is how those platforms are used.
  • In the US, focus on the drones themselves has overshadowed debate with the wider ethics of armed violence.
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When it comes to armed drones, is smaller and more precise necessarily better?

The question came to my mind upon seeing the news that the US Air Force just successfully test-launched a new weaponizable drone, the ALTIUS-600, making it the smallest drone in operation. Even more remarkably, this tiny aircraft was launched from the second-smallest-drone, the Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie, while the Valkyrie was in flight.

There is nothing objectionable about the development of mini-drones. One could even argue they would be improvements, in humanitarian terms, over the use of the much larger Reaper to deliver 500-pound bombs in allegedly “precise” strikes that instead often sweep up scores of civilians and destroy the property their surviving family members rely on for their livelihoods.

But the US military’s obsession with minimalism – from fewer boots on the ground to lower-payload munitions – also minimalizes public engagement with the wider ethics of armed violence.

The emphasis on size, mobility and precision is the product of a highly limited and limiting view rife in American political discourse: that the key ethical and legal problem presented by armed drones is collateral damage. This narrative – reflected in public opinion surveys, Hollywood films and political discourse – circumscribes debate.

As Sarah Kreps, a Cornell professor and WPR contributor, notes in her book with John Kaag, the question of collateral damage is but a subset of a subset of a subset of the wider international law on the killing of human beings by governments.

Drone Strikes
Demonstrators burn the US flag during a protest against US drone strikes in the Pakistani tribal region, in Karachi, November 8, 2013.

At the overarching level, that law applies to governments in peacetime, not in war. The basic legal rule, enshrined in Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is clear: “No arbitrary deprivation of the right to life.”

Due process is required for state-sanctioned executions; guilt must be proven, not assumed. And even the death penalty for criminals convicted of the worst genuine offenses is increasingly frowned upon and must be carried out using humane means. The only exceptions to this prohibition on the use of deadly force are in cases of imminent harm to others where no other options for preventing that harm are available.

Of course, in times of war, things shift, and the law of war applies. The default proscription against killing is lifted, but only under strict conditions, reflecting the fact that war is considered an aberration, a small subset of the variety of circumstances in which states might direct lethal force against individuals. Among the conditions that must be met, a state of war must apply.

Those doing the violence must be members of the state’s armed forces; civilian CIA pilots would be unlawful combatants. The targets must be military objectives, not civilians. And the harm and suffering caused even to legitimate military targets must be minimized to what is necessary to weaken the enemy and not involve inhumane methods or disproportionate or indiscriminate collateral harm.

Here and only here do the rules of collateral damage apply, with the central question being, How much harm to bystanders and infrastructure is acceptable given the necessity of hitting a particular legitimate military target with a particular military means deployed by a particular military actor in a particular military context?

In short, the collateral damage question is embedded within the rules governing who may be targeted, which are in turn embedded within the rules governing who may do the targeting, which are subordinate to the bigger question of whether a situation falls within the scope of war law at all, rather than peacetime human rights rules.

Yet, popular attention so often focuses on this tiny subset of the rules governing collateral damage, eliding these higher-level issues.

drone strike yemen
People gather at the site of a drone strike on a road in the southern Yemeni province of Lahj, August 11, 2013.

Suppose a drone were not only perfectly precise and relatively humane, but also carried a firearm rather than explosives or sword blades. Suppose it killed quickly, rather than burning its victims alive or hacking them death, as a new Hellfire missile is designed to do in the name of limiting collateral damage. And suppose the identity of the target could be determined without fail, using biometrics before a bullet was fired.

The accuracy of such an attack does not resolve the question of whether a kill decision is correct in the first place. These targeting decisions often rely on human intelligence – reports from locals – to determine who is allegedly a mortal danger to US interests.

But in insurgencies and civil wars, reports from local sources are just as often used to settle old scores as to provide accurate intelligence, as the research of Stathis Kalyvas, a professor at Yale, has long showed.

At times, in fact, the US has often relied not on specific kill orders of specific individuals, but rather on “signature strikes” – a best estimate of who is likely to match the profile of a suspected militant in a particular context – to determine whether to launch a strike that often targets whole groups.

As the NGOs Article 36 and Reaching Critical Will have documented, signature strikes have been carried out based on criteria as arbitrary as the sex and age of the victims, with nearly any military-age male in a frontier region vulnerable to lethal strike. These combinations of false stereotypes, faulty intelligence, mnemonic shortcuts and sheer hubris have killed scores of civilian teenage boys, not by accident, not by precision weapons failure, but by design.

These civilian men and boys directly targeted by the US include 16-year-old Tariq Aziz, a soccer player, amateur photographer and anti-drone activist. Aziz died in late October 2011 in Waziristan, Pakistan, when a CIA-fired Hellfire missile burned him and his 12-year-old cousin Waheed Khan beyond recognition as he drove to give his aunt a ride home from a wedding.

Even in a precise strike carried out far from other villages, with no collateral damage, the killings of these boys would have been not only tragic, but criminal. In a real war, we would have called this a case of civilian targeting – a war crime. In peacetime – a more accurate view of the state of relations between the US and Pakistan – we would simply call this murder.

That the Pakistani government approved or perhaps even requested the strike doesn’t make it legitimate. It merely makes both governments complicit in political murder.

US drone strikes
Pakistani protesters shout slogans against US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal region, October 2014.

All these important legal concerns are lost in a view of weaponized drones and targeted killings that sees the main issues as those of precision, human intelligence, accuracy and the reduction of collateral damage to “bystander” civilians, as if the civilians we are directly targeting merit no outrage on their own.

Reducing collateral damage is important in real wars, but that is not the only or even the primary concern with the use of ever-smaller lethal technology to wage ever-more subtle forms of peacetime political violence.

Terrorism is a crime. States are obligated to capture criminal suspects, put them on trial, allow them to defend themselves and free them if they are found innocent. Drones enable the opposite, as do special operations teams with kill orders.

But drones do something else as well: They provide a veneer of precision and bloodlessness that directs our attention to efforts at collateral damage control, obfuscating the reality of what is and has always been a campaign of extrajudicial execution sweeping up civilians whether by accident or by design.

Arguably, that has been the point. In November, the Center for Civilians in Conflict published a report entitled “Exceptions to the Rules,” tracking 20 years of US drone policy.

It concludes, “A policy that allows the use of covert, lethal force under the laws of armed conflict outside of the context of an armed conflict undermines the protection of internationally recognized human rights and international law.”

It added that any reform agenda must not make the mistake of focusing too narrowly on any single abuse, which “risks missing the emergence of a more problematic phenomenon, the gradual accumulation of legal loopholes.”

US drones
Graffiti protesting against US drone strikes in Sana’a, Yemen, September 2018.

As a result of this ethical devolution, not limited to but certainly epitomized by drone politics, our understanding not only of political-legal reality, but also of political-legal possibility, becomes smaller and more insignificant.

Leaders of the free world would be wise to reverse course and return to fundamental principles. One reason to be heartened is the fact that President Joe Biden’s review of the use of US drones outside of active battlefields is really a review of America’s targeted killing program.

Another is the fact that the US military might prefer to be kept in reserve for conventional wars, rather than thrust into counterterror and counterinsurgency missions for which it is ill-suited.

To be clear: Weaponized drones themselves are also not the problem. Drones are only a platform, and what matters in international law terms is how platforms are used. But if there is a reason to focus on drones, it is because of the way in which, as Gregoire Chamayou shows us, our conceptual understanding of drones as a particular technology has also impacted our ability to even notice what is wrong with their use in international law terms.

Focusing on technology relaxes our legal and ethical horizon and narrows our parameters of debate, and this needs to change. Smaller and simpler is not always better. Less is not always more.

Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science and legal studies at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, specializing in human security and international law. She tweets @charlicarpenter. Her WPR guest column will appear every other Friday.

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Biden’s restrictions on drone strikes are about much more than drones

drone strikes
A US Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan.

  • On his first day in office, President Joe Biden quietly implemented new restrictions on US drone strikes.
  • The temporary measures make such strikes subject to review by the National Security Council, and they have potentially far-reaching implications.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The Pentagon confirmed this week that President Joe Biden has imposed new, temporary restrictions on counterterrorism drone strikes outside of active battlefields, making them subject to review by the National Security Council.

According to The New York Times, which first broke the news, the rules were quietly put in place on Biden’s first day in office, as a stopgap measure while his national security team conducts a broader review of US counterterrorism operations.

According to Charli Carpenter, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst specializing in the laws of war, the Biden administration’s review is a long-overdue opportunity to rein in the practice of targeted extrajudicial killings, like the drone strike that killed Iran’s top military commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, in January 2020. She joined WPR’s Elliot Waldman on the Trend Lines podcast this week to discuss the potentially far-reaching implications of Biden’s move.

The following is a partial transcript of the interview. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted drone aircraft performs aerial maneuvers over Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, U.S., June 25, 2015. U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Cory D. Payne/Handout via REUTERS
An MQ-9 Reaper over Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, June 25, 2015.

World Politics Review: What impact do you expect the Biden administration’s new rules will have on the frequency of US drone strikes around the world?

Charli Carpenter: I think it will immediately result in fewer drone strikes. Essentially what Biden is doing is he’s moving the barometer back to where it was before Trump devolved authority for drone strikes away from the executive branch and into the hands of commanders.

What that means is that anytime a drone strike is envisioned, it needs to be approved by the White House. There’s going to be a much higher level of oversight and much more concern over the legal nuances of each strike. It will just make drones harder to use, and you can imagine the weaponized drones will only be used in the most extreme cases.

WPR: What was the basis on which the Trump administration devolved the authority to commanders in the field? What impact did that have on the dynamics of the war on terror and also on the actual relationships with countries where these strikes were taking place?

Carpenter: One of the interesting things about Trump’s drone policy is we know much less about it than we knew about Obama’s policy, because he didn’t really explain his thinking or justify it publicly. A lot of those documents are classified. So, there’s a limited extent to which I can speak to it. My understanding of the rationale was that it was partly just to empower those in the field – lower-level commanders – to be much quicker on their feet.

Trump, of course, was not as concerned as the Obama administration was with the legal nuances of whether these strikes were really lawful under human rights law and under the laws of war. He also had a different perspective on grand strategy and the war on terror. I will say that I think that there was – to a great extent on the right during the Obama years – a sense that a commander’s hands were really being tied by all of the legal requirements and legal oversight for these strikes.

drone strike yemen
People gather at the site of a drone strike in the southern Yemeni province of Lahj, August 11, 2013.

WPR: How else did the rules that the Trump administration put in place differ from what the Obama administration was doing?

Carpenter: Essentially what he did is he removed oversight on strikes. He also removed the requirements to count and publicize civilian casualties.

In some respects, this really signaled to the military and to the CIA – which is not part of the military, it’s a civilian agency, but it does also have a drone program – that the gloves were coming off a bit. They wouldn’t be dealing with JAG lawyers [Judge Advocate General, the US military’s legal arm] at the highest levels, going over every strike. There was much less scrutiny on these pilots and on their commanders to account for collateral damage.

One thing that we do know from global civil society groups that track civilian casualties from drone strikes, or from airstrikes in general – groups like Airwars – is that civilian casualty counts went way up during the Trump administration. So that’s one of the concrete impacts and one of the regretful things that we would hope would be rolled back a bit by Biden’s new policy. We would hope to see civilian casualties go down.

But at the same time, I think that it’s important to note that part of the impetus for Trump’s shift comes from a sense that you heard from many commanders and troops in the field during the Obama years that their hands were really being tied in the war on terror by all of these legal nuances and legal strictures. There was a sense that much more discretion was needed in order to fight the war on terror effectively.

Now, that is disputed by many analysts who study counterterror dynamics. We know that if there’s a very large level of civilian casualties, there’s actually a blowback effect in terms of your effectiveness in counterterror operations. But there was very much a sense that this was going to assist troops. So you can imagine that there’s going to be some sense on the right that this is, again, going to hobble the troops in the field.

drone operators
Two drone operators fly an MQ-1 Predator on October 22, 2013.

WPR: One of the interesting things about this new rule that the Biden administration put in place was its distinction between active battle zones and the fact that the rules only apply to areas outside of those active battle zones. What does that distinction mean in reality? Is there a formal definition for that?

Carpenter: The Biden administration is attempting to create a formal definition, and governments do this – they creatively interpret norms and laws to suit their moral proclivities and their strategic interests at the time. This is not a term in international humanitarian law, but it does map onto an important distinction. It’s a salient distinction, the kinds of theaters where we are using weaponized drones. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is sort of the guardian of international humanitarian law, would use language about “situations of armed conflict, in which the US is a party to the conflict.”

A situation like that would be Afghanistan or Iraq, and to some extent, Syria. But Pakistan is not such a situation. There is to some extent an armed conflict going on there, a low-level armed conflict, but the US is not a party to that conflict. It is not a party to the war in Yemen, or a party to what’s going on in Somalia.

These are three areas in which the US has used drones, to a greater or lesser extent, to essentially decapitate individuals suspected of being terrorists or al-Qaida affiliates or militants. That is a different beast than using air power in an active battle zone where the US is engaged in hostilities against either another state or nonstate armed forces.

The reason why this matters is that in war, there’s one set of legal rules that applies, and within certain constraints, you’re actually allowed to kill people. But outside of situations of armed conflict, those rules don’t apply. The rules that apply are human rights law, which says you actually can’t just carry out extrajudicial executions of individuals you suspect of criminal activity. You’ve got to capture them and try them and punish them for their crimes if they’ve committed crimes, and offer them due process and release them if they’re found innocent.

So, the idea that we would be using military air power – which also risks civilian lives in the vicinity, regardless of how precise we try to be – in areas that are not hot battlefields, is extremely problematic in terms of international law, as many human rights lawyers and human rights groups have argued. So the fact that Biden is actually pointing to this distinction can be very impactful in shifting US rhetoric and international rhetoric on when drones might be acceptable, and when they may not be.

US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone pilot Creech
An MQ-9 Reaper pilot controls an aircraft from Creech Air Force Base, Nevada.

WPR: We’ve seen a lot of other countries use drones in battlefields, for example, in Libya, and also recently in Nagorno-Karabakh in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But is the US the only one right now using drones for these kinds of extrajudicial executions that you’re talking about?

Carpenter: That’s a good question. I would want to really research that before answering, but it’s certainly the country that is most known for using drones in this way. I will say that there are nonstate actors that have also tried to use drones to assassinate their enemies. It’s rather simple to actually use a weaponized drone to go after anybody you want. It’s one of the ironies that we’ve popularized and proliferated this technology, which could so easily be used against us.

But it’s the United States that has really become known for this tactic, and really criticized for this tactic by many actors, including local groups in Pakistan, a wide grassroots movement in the US and in Europe, and to some extent, the big international human rights and humanitarian law organizations.

These organizations are not so much concerned with drones per se, because drones are really not so different from their perspective from any other aerial platform for delivering weapons in an armed conflict. The concern is that they’re being used essentially for a campaign of extrajudicial execution in areas in which we’re not at war.

This is really a precedent that the US has set that thankfully not so many countries have followed. But it would not surprise me if some were beginning to, and I would expect more and more to do so in the future if this isn’t reigned in a bit. That may be what Biden is trying to do.

It may be that his advisers have decided that the risks of proliferating and justifying a type of act that could easily be used against us by our adversaries, or in areas where our civilians are at risk, isn’t worth the potential hypothetical gains in counterterror operations. They may have determined that we may in fact benefit from – in terms of our counterterror work – using means that are much more likely to protect civilians.

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