It is not possible to work in intelligence and not imagine disclosing the many secrets you bear.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when the idea first crossed my mind. Maybe it was in 2008, when I was learning to be an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army and was exposed to sensitive information for the first time. Or maybe the germ of the idea was planted when I was stationed at Fort Drum, in upstate New York. I was tasked with transporting a cache of classified hard drives in a large box in the summer heat, and I began to imagine what might happen if I screwed it up and left the box unattended. If someone managed to get ahold of a stray hard drive, what ripple effects might it cause?
I knew the official version of why these secrets had to be kept secret. We were protecting sources. We were protecting troop movements. We were protecting national security. Those things made sense. But it also seemed, to me, that we were protecting ourselves.
While I felt that my job was important, and I took my obligations seriously, a part of me always wondered: If we were acting ethically, why were we keeping so many secrets?
The monthsI spent in Iraq in 2009 changed the way I understood the world. Every night, I woke up in the desert at 9 p.m. and walked from my tiny trailer to the Saddam Hussein-era basketball court that the military had converted into an intelligence operations center.
I sat at a computer screen for hours at a stretch, going through reports from our troops in the field. Monitoring reporting was like drinking from a fire hose: The military used at least a dozen different intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. Each gave us a different view of the conflict and of the people and places we were watching. My job was to analyze, with emotional detachment, what impact military decisions were having on this giant, bloody “war on terror.”
The daily reality of my job was like life in a trauma ward. I’d spent hours learning every aspect of the lives of the Iraqis who were dying all around us: what time they got up in the morning, their relationship status, their appetites for food and alcohol and sex, whether they were engaged in political activities, and all the people they interacted with electronically. In some cases, I probably knew more about them than they knew about themselves.
I couldn’t talk about my work with anyone outside my unit, nor about this conflict that looked nothing like the one I’d read about back home or watched on the TV news before I enlisted.
We were seven years into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and people in the United States had begun to pretend that all of the conflict — all the lost American lives and the still-uncounted lost lives of Iraqis and Afghans — had been worth it. Attention turned away. The establishment moved on. There was the recession to deal with. People at home were losing everything. The health care debate was on the news every night. Yet we were still there. Still dying.
I was constantly confronted with these two conflicting realities — the one I was looking at, and the one Americans at home believed. It was clear that so much of the information people received was distorted or incomplete. This dissonance became an all-consuming frustration for me.
The idea that the information I had access to held real power began to flash into my brain more often. I’d try to ignore it, and it would come back.
In the intelligence field, you are vigorously inculcated with the notion that you can’t tell anyone anything about what you do, ever. This secrecy comes to control how you think and how you operate in the world. But the power of prohibition is fragile, especially once the justifications start to seem arbitrary.
During my time in intelligence, I had noticed that there was inconsistent internal logic to classification decisions. And I came to see that the classification system exists wholly in the interest of the U.S. government — in other words, it seems to exist not to to keep secrets safe but to control the narrative.
In December 2009, I began the process of downloading reports of all our activities from Iraq and Afghanistan.
These were descriptions of enemy engagements with hostile forces or explosives that detonated. They contained body counts, coordinates and businesslike summaries of confusing, violent encounters. They contained, in their aggregate force, something much closer to the truth of what those two wars really looked like than what Americans were learning at home. They were a pointillist picture of wars that wouldn’t end.
I burned the files onto DVDs, labeled with titles like Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Manning’s Mix. I later transferred the files to a memory card, then shattered the discs with my boots on the gravel outside the trailers. On my next leave, I brought the documents back to America in my camera, as files on an SD memory card. This was every single incident report the U.S. Army had ever filed about Iraq or Afghanistan, every instance where a soldier thought there was something important enough to log and report. Navy customs personnel didn’t blink an eye. No one cared enough to notice.
Uploading the files directly to the internet wasn’t my first choice. I tried to reach traditional publications, but it was a frustrating ordeal. I didn’t trust the telephone, nor did I want to email anything; I could be surveilled. Even pay phones weren’t safe.
I went into chain stores — Starbucks, mostly — and asked to borrow their landline because supposedly my cellphone was lost or my car had broken down. I called The Washington Post and The New York Times, but I didn’t get anywhere.
I recalled that in 2008, during intelligence training, our instructor — a Marine Corps veteran turned contractor — told us about WikiLeaks, a website devoted to radical transparency, while instructing us not to visit it. But while I shared WikiLeaks’ stated commitment to transparency, I thought that for my purposes, it was too limited a platform. Most people back then had never heard of it. I worried that information on the site wouldn’t be taken seriously.
The website was the publication of last resort, but as the weeks went by and I got no response from traditional newspapers, I grew increasingly desperate. So, on the very last day of my leave, I went to a Barnes … Noble with my laptop.
Sitting at a chair in the bookstore cafe, I drank a triple grande mocha and zoned out, listening to electronic music — Massive Attack, Prodigy — to wait out the uploads. There were seven chunks of data to get out, and each one took 30 minutes to an hour. The internet was slow, and the connection was bad. I began to worry that I wouldn’t be able to complete my work before the store closed. But the Wi-Fi finally did its job.
The falloutwas instant and intense. The documents proved, unambiguously and unimpeachably, just how disastrous the war still was. Once revealed, the truth could not be denied or unseen: This horror, this constellation of petty vendettas with an undertow of corruption — this was the truth of the war.
The disclosures became a flash point for a larger argument about how the United States should engage internationally, and how much the public deserved to know about how their government was acting in their name. I had changed the terms of the debate and pulled back the curtain. But while all that was happening, I knew nothing about it. I was in a cage.
Everyone now knows — because of what happened to me — that the government will attempt to destroy you fully, charge you with everything under the sun, for bringing to light the ugly truth about its own actions. What I was trying to do had never been done before, and therefore the consequences were, at the time, unknowable.
Daniel Ellsberg, who had disclosed the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War, avoided prison because of illegal evidence-gathering by the Nixon White House (which had ordered a break-in of his psychiatrist’s office, in search of information that might discredit Mr. Ellsberg).
Nobody had gone to prison for this sort of thing; I hadn’t heard of Mr. Ellsberg at the time, but I was very aware of Thomas Drake, a National Security Agency whistle-blower who had been prosecuted under the Espionage Act. He’d faced charges that carried a 35-year prison sentence, but shortly before trial he’d cut a deal that left him with only probation and community service.
I certainly weighed the potential consequences. If I was caught, I would be detained, but I figured at most I was going to be discharged or lose my security clearance. I cared about my work, and it was frightening to imagine losing my job — I had been homeless before enlisting — but I thought that if I was court-martialed, it would damage only the government’s own credibility. I never really reckoned with the notion of a life spent in prison, or worse.
The details of what happened to me are, by now, well known. I was held for several months in a cage in Kuwait. I was sentenced to 35 years in a maximum-security prison, where I spent seven years, much of it in solitary confinement. During that time, I came out as transgender and transitioned. Denied gender-affirming health care, I went on a hunger strike. I attempted suicide twice.
But even in prison I remained active. I began writing a column for The Guardian. I drafted a bill, “Bill to Re-establish the National Integrity and to Protect Freedom of Speech, and the Freedom of the Press,” which I proposed on Twitter and sent to members of Congress. It was meant to outlaw some of the most egregious ways that the Espionage Act and Computer Fraud and Abuse Act had been used against me, so that others wouldn’t be put in such a bind for wanting to do the right thing. It also included fixes to the Freedom of Information Act and would give stronger federal protections to journalists. It was a pipe dream and was treated as such.
On Jan. 17, 2017, President Barack Obama commuted my sentence, and I was released. Everyone expected me to be in shock at being out, to kiss the ground or something. It did feel surreal to be free, but it also felt as if what I’d been dealing with for the previous seven years would never be over. It certainly isn’t over now. I can never leave it behind.
This was my first time as a free woman. I had spent several years transitioning, so I felt comfortable in the way my body moved and felt. Even in prison, with restrictions on hair length and clothing, people had begun to accept me as a woman. They treated me as a human being. But now I needed to navigate a larger world with this new identity.
I emerged from prison a celebrity. I had been made, without consultation, into a symbol and figurehead for all kinds of ideas. Some of that was fun — Annie Leibovitz photographed me for Vogue’s September issue. Some of it — the C.I.A. director pressuring Harvard to uninvite me from a visiting fellowship, Fox News seizing upon my very existence as a cheap way to rile up its viewers — was much less so.
The main upside to my notoriety has been that I can do important work. Activism quickly became almost a full-time job. I went to the Pride parade in New York City; I ran for Senate in Maryland; I protested the Trump administration’s policies on immigration and refugees, and President Donald Trump’s reinstatement of the ban on transgender personnel in the military. The political moment into which I emerged is one in which we are figuring out what got us here as a country.
What I did during my enlistment was part of a deep American tradition of rebellion, resistance and civil disobedience — a tradition we have long drawn upon to force progress and oppose tyranny. The documents I made public expose how little we knew about what was being done in our name for so many years.
Despite becoming notorious for my acts of divulgence, I am still, in many ways, bound to secrecy. There are things the media has made public about this story that I can’t comment on, confirm or deny. Certain details remain classified. I am limited to some degree in what I can put on the record.
Some people have characterized me as a traitor, which I continue to reject. I have faced serious consequences for sharing information that I believe to be in the public interest. But I believe that what I did was my democratic and ethical obligation.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) is asking President Biden to pardon a former Air Force intelligence analyst who exposed secrets about drone warfare in Afghanistan.
In court, Hale said he felt compelled to speak out about the immorality of the drone program after realizing he had helped kill Afghan civilians, including a small child.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t question the justification for my actions,” he wrote to the judge. “I am grief-stricken and ashamed of myself.”
One document he leaked showed that during a five-month operation in Afghanistan, nearly 90 percent of the people killed were not the intended targets.
“I take extremely seriously the prohibition on leaking classified information, but I believe there are several aspects of Mr. Hale’s case that merit a full pardon,” Omar wrote in the letter sent to Biden on Thursday morning. “The information, while politically embarrassing to some, has shone a vital light on the legal and moral problems of the drone program and informed the public debate on an issue that has for too many years remained in the shadows.”
Omar has also demanded more information from the Biden administration about a recent airstrike in Somalia, where she was born.
She called Hale’s letter to the court “profoundly moral” and urged Biden to consider either a full pardon or commutation of his sentence.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment Thursday morning. The U.S. attorney’s office in the Eastern District of Virginia, which handled Hale’s prosecution, declined to comment.
Prosecutors said Hale could have endangered Americans with his leaks, noting that some of the details were reproduced in Islamic State publications. Hale, they said, recklessly shared reams of sensitive information when he could have simply spoken out in opposition to drone warfare. But no U.S. agency reported any harm caused by the revelations.
This week, Hale was awarded the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence, given by a group of whistleblowers from the national security community. Edward Snowden received the same award in 2013.
Biden has pulled U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, calling the war “a conflict that is not in the national interest of the United States.” But his administration has planned to continue drone operations from nearby countries.
WHISTLEBLOWER DANIEL HALE HONORED WITH SAM ADAMS AWARD FOR INTEGRITY IN
The Sam Adams
Associates are pleased to announce drone warfare whistleblower Daniel Hale as
the recipient of the 2021 Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence. Hale — a former Air Force intelligence
analyst in the drone program — was a defense contractor in 2013 when conscience
compelled him to release classified documents to the press exposing the
criminality of the US targeted assassination program [“We kill people based on
metadata” — Michael Hayden, former Director of CIA & NSA].
The leaked documents — published in The
Intercept on October 15, 2015 — revealed that from January 2012
to February 2013, US special operations airstrikes killed more than 200 people.
Of the dead, only 35 were the intended targets. For one five-month period of
the operation, according to the documents, nearly 90 percent of the people
killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets. The innocent civilians —
who were often bystanders — were routinely categorized as “enemies killed in
On March 31, 2021 Hale pled guilty to a single count under the
Espionage Act, carrying a maximum sentence of 10 years. In July 2021, he was sentenced to 45 months
in prison for revealing evidence of US war crimes. In a hand-written letter to Judge Liam
O’Grady Hale explained that the drone attacks and the war in Afghanistan had
“little to do with preventing terror from coming into the United States and a
lot more to do with protecting the profits of weapons manufacturers and
so-called defense contractors.”
also cited a 1995 statement byformer US Navy Admiral Gene LaRocque: “We
now kill people without ever seeing them. Now you push a button thousands of
miles away … since it’s all done by remote control, there’s no remorse … and
then we come home in triumph.”
During his military service from
2009 to 2013, Daniel Hale participated in the US drone program, working with
the NSA and JSOC (Joint Special Operations Task Force) at Bagram Air Base in
Afghanistan. After leaving the Air Force, Hale became an outspoken opponent of
the US targeted killing program, US foreign policy in general, and a supporter
of whistleblowers. He spoke out at conferences, forums, and public panels. He
was featured prominently in the award-winning documentary National
Bird, a film about whistleblowers in the US drone program who suffer
from moral injury and PTSD.
Adams Associates wish to salute the courage of Daniel Hale in performing a
vital public service at great personal cost — imprisonment for
truth-telling. We urge an end to the War
on Whistleblowers and remind government leaders that secrecy classification
systems were never intended to cover up government crimes. To that end, the
public’s right to know about their government’s wrongful actions — including
the adverse consequences of policies carried out in their name — must be
respected and preserved.
Mr. Hale is the 20th awardee of the
Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence. His distinguished colleagues
include Julian Assange and Craig Murray, both of whom are also unjustly
incarcerated for truth-telling. Other
fellow Sam Adams Award alumnae include NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake; FBI 9-11
whistleblower Coleen Rowley; and GCHQ whistleblower Katharine Gun, whose story
was recounted in the film “Official Secrets.”
The full roster of Sam Adams awardees is available at samadamsaward.ch.
Details about the upcoming Sam Adams
Award ceremony will be announced soon.
Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence is a movement of former CIA colleagues of former intelligence analyst Sam Adams, together with others who hold up his example as a model for those in intelligence who would aspire to the courage to speak truth to power. SAAII confers an award each year to a member of the intelligence community or related professions who exemplifies Sam Adam’s courage, persistence, and devotion to truth – no matter the consequences. Read more about the history here.
The annual Sam Adams Award has been given in previous years to truth tellers Coleen Rowley of the FBI; Katharine Gun of British Intelligence; Sibel Edmonds of the FBI; Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan; Sam Provance, former US Army Sgt; Maj. Frank Grevil of Danish Army Intelligence; Larry Wilkerson, Col., US Army (ret.), former chief of staff to Colin Powell at State; Julian Assange, of WikiLeaks: Thomas Drake, of NSA; Jesselyn Radack, formerly of Dept. of Justice and now National Security Director of Government Accountability Project; Thomas Fingar, former Deputy Director of National Intelligence and Director, National Intelligence Council, and Edward Snowden, former contractor for the National Security Agency; Chelsea Manning, US Army Private who exposed (via WikiLeaks) key information on Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as State Department activities; and to retired National Security Agency official William Binney, who challenged decisions to ignore the Fourth Amendment in the government’s massive — and wasteful — collection of electronic data.