A couple of days later, Hale’s commanding officer told him the woman was the suspect’s wife, and in the back of the car were their two daughters, ages 5 and 3. Afghan soldiers had discovered the girls in a nearby dumpster. The 5-year-old was dead from shrapnel in her body, and the younger girl was alive but severely dehydrated.
Calling it the “most harrowing day of my life,” Hale described the episode in a handwritten 11-page letter to a judge who is expected to decide Tuesday how long Hale will spend in prison for leaking classified documents on the U.S. drone program to a journalist. Hale pleaded guilty in March to leaking documents under the Espionage Act that revealed secrets about U.S. drone operations in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.
Prosecutors have recommended that Hale spend up to 11 years in prison, arguing that “vanity overrode the commitments he made to his country.” In court papers, the government argued Hale wanted to “ingratiate” himself with journalists and took a job with the Defense Department’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency so he could access top-secret information and share it with reporters.
Hale argues that he should be sentenced to just 12 to 18 months in prison. It was not vanity but “irreconcilable moral conflict,” his lawyers argue, that drove him to print out documents and share them with a journalist from the Intercept. “He felt extraordinary guilt for having been complicit in what he viewed as unjustifiable killings,” his lawyers wrote in sentencing documents filed last week.
Hale and his lawyers argue that the former airman suffered from “moral injury” during his short stint as a signals intelligence analyst and that his only coping mechanism for the post-traumatic stress was to attempt to “make a difference” and leak documents.
According to a New York Magazine profile, Hale grew up in Bristol, Va. In his early 20s, after an argument with this father, he enlisted in the military, took an exam, aced it and was funneled into intelligence work. For three years he had various roles, training at a military language program in Monterey, Calif., and then working at an Air Force dental office in Maryland. In March 2012, he was transferred to Bagram air base in Afghanistan.
There, Hale’s job was to identify targets for drone strikes. He struggled with the risk that those he identified as enemies — a teenager or a farmer, for example — could be innocent civilians, he argued in recent court documents.
“To Mr. Hale, a young man standing in a field with a Kalashnikov might be an enemy fighter, or he might be a farmer armed to protect his property and family in a hostile country,” explains Hale’s sentencing position filed last week.
In his July 18 letter, Hale said the first time he witnessed a drone strike was days after he arrived at Bagram in March 2012. Before dawn, he wrote, he watched a group of men gather around a large campfire in the mountain ranges of the Paktika province. They carried weapons and were brewing tea — not an unusual sight in the “virtually lawless tribal territories outside the control of the Afghan authorities,” Hale wrote.
But there was a suspected Taliban member among them, identified by a cellphone in his pocket. That, Hale wrote, was enough to make all the men suspects.
“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 wrote.
“Since that time and to this day, I continue to recall several such scenes of graphic violence carried out from the cold comfort of a computer chair,” he continued. “Not a day goes by that I don’t question the justification for my actions.”
Hale was honorably discharged from the Air Force in July 2013, according to court documents. Defense officials did not respond to a request for comment early on Monday about Hale’s description of drone operations.
In December 2013, he got a job as a political geography analyst at a defense contractor called Leidos. Hale was assigned to work at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in Springfield, Va., where he dealt regularly with “top secret” information.
One day after work, Hale stuck around the office to hang out with some co-workers, who had turned on footage of past drone strikes. As his co-workers “gaped and sneered” at the images of “of faceless men in the final moments of their lives,” Hale said he felt nothing but dismay. He stayed silent, he wrote, but felt his “heart breaking into pieces.”
Not long after, Hale contacted a reporter with whom he had previously communicated and printed out documents. That reporter, while not named in court documents, is widely believed to be Jeremy Scahill of the Intercept. He eventually used the leaked documents to build the Intercept series “The Drone Papers,” according to New York Magazine, which detailed the “inner workings” of the U.S. unmanned operations program, such as how the Obama administration approved airstrikes.
Federal agents raided Hale’s Northern Virginia home on the same day he left the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in August 2014, according to court documents, but they did not arrest him. It wasn’t until nearly five years later, in May 2019, that Hale was indicted and arrested in Nashville, where he had been working as a dishwasher.
In his letter, Hale wrote that post-traumatic stress disorder uniquely affects those working on drone operations. Hale estimated that he participated in more than 1,540 hours of “real time kill/capture operations,” according to court documents.
“The victorious rifleman, unquestioningly remorseful, at least keeps his honor intact by having faced off against his enemy on the battlefield. The determined fighter pilot has the luxury of not having to witness the gruesome aftermath,” Hale wrote. “But what possibly could I have done to cope with the undeniable cruelties that I perpetuated?”