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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Biden supports Congress scrapping post-9/11 laws that led to ‘forever wars’

Joe Biden
Then-Vice President Joe Biden meets with U.S. troops in Maidan Wardak province January 11, 2011.

  • Biden to work with Congress to repeal post-9/11 laws that gave presidents a blank check to wage war.
  • The White House said they aim to replace the laws with a “narrow” framework that protects the US.
  • There’s been growing bipartisan support in Congress to rein in presidential war powers.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

President Joe Biden intends to work with congressional lawmakers to repeal laws passed in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks that effectively gave every commander-in-chief since a blank check to wage war, the White House said on Friday, per Politico.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki in a statement said Biden wants to “ensure that the authorizations for the use of military force currently on the books are replaced with a narrow and specific framework that will ensure we can protect Americans from terrorist threats while ending the forever wars.”

The authorizations for use of military force (AUMF) on the table for repeal include the 2001 AUMF and 2002 AUMF. 

The 2001 AUMF was passed only days after 9/11 with overwhelming support in Congress – there was only one dissenting vote. It authorized the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.”

Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump interpreted this law broadly to conduct military actions across the globe. The 2001 AUMF – the linchpin of the global war on terror – has been used to justify at least 41 military operations in 19 countries. It opened the door for the invasion of Afghanistan, launching the longest war in US history – which has lasted for nearly two decades.

The 2002 AUMF, which was approved in October 2002, paved the way for the US invasion of Iraq. Trump cited the 2002 AUMF to justify a drone strike that killed Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, a strike that brought the countries to the brink of war. 

The law authorized the president “to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to – (1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and (2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.”

Biden voted in favor of both laws as a senator, later stating it was a mistake to support the Iraq invasion.

During the Trump era, there were growing bipartisan calls for presidential war powers to be reined in. Many in Congress felt they’d abdicated their constitutional role in declaring war via laws such as the military authorizations passed after 9/11.

These sentiments have carried on into the Biden era, with a bipartisan group of senators unveiling a bill earlier this week to repeal the 2002 AUMF as well as a 1991 authorization prior to the first Iraq war (Gulf War). The bill, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, was introduced less than a week after Biden ordered airstrikes in Syria targeting Iran-backed militias. 

Kaine and other lawmakers from both parties have expressed concern about Biden’s Syria strikes, questioning their legality. The Biden administration did not lean on the 2001 or 2002 AUMF in defense of the action. It justified the strikes based on Article II of the Constitution, which designates the president as commander-in-chief of the military, and principles of self-defense under international law. But lawmakers have still expressed anger that congressional approval was not sought prior to the strikes. 

The Biden administration would work closely with lawmakers like Kaine in terms of the effort to repeal the post-9/11 military authorizations. 

“Tim Kaine has been a leader on questions of war powers throughout his time in the Senate,” Psaki said in her statement, via Politico, “and has helped build a strong bipartisan coalition that understands the importance of Congress’s constitutional prerogatives.”

A spokesperson for Kaine told Politico the senator “believes that President Biden, who has a deep understanding of both congressional and executive responsibilities, is in a unique position to help America restore balance in how we make decisions about war and peace.” The spokesperson said Kaine is already “in bipartisan discussion with his colleagues and the administration.”

America’s global war on terror has killed over 800,000 people in direct war violence, according to Brown University’s Costs of War project, and the US government places the cost of the vast, convoluted conflict at over $6.4 trillion. The war, which will officially enter its 20th year in October, has also displaced at least 37 million people. Repealing laws like the 2001 AUMF and 2002 AUMF could help bring an end to the war on terror, or at least drastically limit the scope of US counterterrorism operations.

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