Former intel analyst pleads guilty to leaking about drone program


A former intelligence analyst and Afghanistan war veteran pleaded guilty on Wednesday to one count of violating the Espionage Act by leaking about classified information on the U.S. drone strike program to the media.

Daniel Everette Hale, 33, was arrested in May 2019 for leaking extensively to an unnamed reporter, but the charging document identified him as Jeremy Scahill of the Intercept, an outspoken critic of U.S. military activities overseas. Hale’s guilty plea came just ahead of a trial slated to start next week.

The Justice Department said Wednesday that Hale, while employed as a defense contractor for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, printed off 36 documents from his “Top Secret” computer, including 23 documents unrelated to his work at agency, and that of the 23 records unrelated to his work at the NGA. The DOJ said Hale provided at least 17 to the reporter or his outlet, and 11 of the records that ended up being published marked as “Secret” or “Top Secret.” Hale pleaded guilty to “retention and transmission of national defense information,” the DOJ said. He faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison when he is sentenced on July 13.

The day that Hale is alleged to have met with the reporter at the reporter’s bookstore event, April 29, 2013, is the same day Scahill held a discussion and signing for his book Dirty Wars at Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C. The indictment states that in May 2013, Hale said the reporter “wants me to tell my story about working with drones at the opening screening of his documentary about the war and the use of drones.”

Scahill’s book accompanied a 2013 documentary of the same name that was critical of secretive U.S. military operations, including drone warfare. The indictment states that Hale again met the reporter at another book event on June 8, 2013 — the same day Scahill was hosted at Busboys and Poets for another discussion about Dirty Wars. Hale admitted Wednesday that he had anonymously written a chapter in Scahill’s book.

“Hale has now admitted what the evidence at trial would have conclusively shown: that he took classified documents from his work at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, documents he had no right to retain, and that he sent them to a reporter, knowing all along that what he was doing was against the law,” Assistant Attorney General John Demers said Wednesday. “This conduct undermined the efforts of our Intelligence Community to keep us safe. Hale’s plea is another step in the Department’s ongoing efforts to prosecute and deter leaks of classified information.”

The indictment against Hale stated that many of the classified documents were disclosed in an October 2015 news article. On Oct.15, 2015, Scahill published an article on the Intercept titled “The Assassination Complex” and cited “a cache of secret slides that provides a window into the inner workings of the U.S. military’s kill/capture operations at a key time in the evolution of the drone wars.”

Hale had been charged with crimes, including “obtaining national defense information, retention and transmission of national defense information, causing the communication of national defense information, disclosure of classified communications intelligence information, and theft of government property.” Each of those charges carried a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, but he pleaded guilty to just one.

“No court has ever decided whether or to what extent First Amendment protections exist under the Espionage Act,” Hale’s lawyers told the court in September 2019, adding, “It is abundantly clear from the history of the act that it was written with confidence that it would never be used to criminalize actions undertaken to inform the American public. They all thought it incomprehensible that the act could or would ever be applied to anyone but spies and saboteurs.”

The Intercept, which said it “does not comment” on the identity of its anonymous sources, released a statement in May 2019 after Hale was arrested, calling the documents he had leaked “of vital public importance, and activity related to their disclosure is protected by the First Amendment.” The statement said, “Following in the dangerous path of the Obama administration, the Trump administration is continuing to use the Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers who enable journalists to uncover disgraceful, immoral, and unconstitutional acts committed in secret by the U.S. government.”

This is not the first time that the Intercept has been involved in a criminal leaks case. Reality Winner, a military contractor, was arrested in June 2017 for leaking classified information. The NSA document, which she leaked to the Intercept, was related to alleged Russian efforts to hack into U.S. election systems. The Intercept published a story based on the document and was criticized for failing to protect Winner as a source. Betsy Reed, the Intercept’s editor-in-chief, eventually admitted that “at several points in the editorial process, our practices fell short of the standards to which we hold ourselves for minimizing the risks of source exposure when handling anonymously provided materials.” In August 2018, Winner was sentenced to over five years in prison.

Hale was in the Air Force from July 2009 to July 2013, during which time he deployed to Afghanistan as an intelligence analyst with the National Security Agency. Hale then worked as a political geography analyst with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency between December 2013 and August 2014.

The Justice Department said the “beginning in April 2013, while enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and assigned to the NSA, Hale began communicating with a reporter. Hale met with the reporter in person on multiple occasions, and communicated with the reporter via phone, text message, email, and, at times, an encrypted messaging platform,” and “in February 2014, while working as a cleared defense contractor at NGA, Hale printed six classified documents unrelated to his work at NGA and soon after exchanged a series of messages with the reporter.”

“Those who are entrusted with classified information have a duty to safeguard that information in order to protect our Nation’s security,” acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Raj Parekh said Wednesday. “As an analyst for the Intelligence Community, Daniel Hale knowingly took highly classified documents and disclosed them without authorization, thereby violating his solemn obligations to our country.”

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