Analyst pleads to leaking secrets about drone program

Analyst pleads to leaking secrets about drone program

Hale confessed leaking about a dozen covert and top-secret documents to a reporter in 2014 and 2015

A former Air Force intelligence analyst pleaded guilty Wednesday to leaking classified documents to a reporter regarding army drone strikes against al-Qaida along with other terrorist targets.

Hale admitted leaking roughly a dozen secret and top-secret files into a reporter in 2014 and 2015, when he had been working for a builder as an analyst in the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). While court papers never specified the receiver of the leak, details about the case make it very clear that the records were awarded to Jeremy Scahill, a reporter at The Intercept, that used the records as part of a set of critical reports on how the army ran drone strikes on foreign targets.

The original indictment against Hale says that he reached out to the reporter in April 2013 while still enlisted in the Air Force and assigned to the National Security Agency. The leaks lasted after Hale became a private contractor and has been assigned to NGA.

Hale's attorneys searched last year to have the case tossed on First Amendment grounds. They also argued that the case was a selective and vindictive prosecution.

Defense attorneys said that although Hale was being punished for leaking information about negative aspects of the drone program, the government seemed unconcerned about anonymous flows by government officials about successful strikes.

More broadly, they said use of the Espionage Act against whistleblowers has a chilling effect on free speech and a free press. The law has been used by multiple presidential administrations in the last couple of years against multiple whistleblowers. It also allows for prosecution of journalists who receive and publish the info.

The Eastern District of Virginia, where Hale pleaded guilty, has been a frequent location over the years for cases involving flows and whistleblowers.

Prosecutors there have filed criminal charges from Wikileaks creator Julian Assange and against former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Both remain overseas despite U.S. attempts to obtain their extradition.

In 2015, a judge imposed a 3 1/2-year sentence on former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, who was convicted of exposing government secrets to a New York Times reporter.

Kiriakou's indictment at 2012 motivated then-CIA Director David Petraeus to issue a statement approving his agency's workers of the need for secrecy in their work. He had been sentenced to probation.

Hale pleaded guilty to a single count of illegally retaining and distributing national defense information, portion of the Espionage Act. Another four counts against him were not dropped as part of their plea bargain, as would be typical, but were placed in abeyance, giving the authorities at the theoretical opportunity to bring another points to trial.

Press and whistleblower advocates have urged President Joe Biden's administration to reverse course in prosecuting escape instances, especially under the Espionage Act.

Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said the Espionage Act makes no distinction between someone who discloses secrets to benefit a foreign adversary or to get compensated, as opposed to somebody who feels a moral obligation to disclose issues inside of authorities.

Jaffer is a former American Civil Liberties Union attorney who spent decades filing lawsuits under the Freedom of Information Act seeking information about the drone program. He said the lawsuits finally yielded little information and credited whistleblowers such as Hale for many of the disclosures that showed the drone program was much less exact in its strikes as the authorities portrayed.

He said there's bipartisan consciousness that the legislation poses issues and he's optimistic it's going to become revised.

"There is a recognition that the government's interest in safeguarding national security secrets is important, but it is not the only significant matter," Jaffer said.

But Raj Parekh, acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said in a statement that those entrusted with government keys don't get to decide for themselves whether to maintain them.

"Those that are entrusted with classified data have a responsibility to safeguard this information in order to secure our country's safety," he explained. "As an analyst for the Intelligence Community, Daniel Hale knowingly took highly classified files and disclosed them without authorization, thus violating his solemn duties to our country."

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