Drone Pilot SchoolWhy Were Daniel Hale’s Leaked Drone Wars Documents Ignored?

July 20, 2021by helo-10
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Photo: Courtesy of Bob Hayes

Daniel Everette Hale was the best dishwasher in Nashville. He was faster, more efficient, more knowledgeable about the machinery that makes a restaurant run. He could predict when the kitchen would need bowls and when small plates; he could take apart the dishwasher and deliver an impromptu lecture on the proper cleaning thereof. He was 31, slight, with a buzz cut and tattoos down his taut forearms, and while he thought himself the best, in the minds of the men for whom he worked he was a touch too invested. If something broke, such as a spray nozzle, he’d show up the next day with a new spray nozzle and tools to install it, having never checked with management at all, at which point management might say, “Daniel, we already had a backup spray nozzle.” Despite the excellence of his washing, he had been fired many times from many kitchens for generally being a pain in the ass. He was, for instance, persistently pressing the staff to demand higher wages and was repeatedly disappointed that the staff seemed uninterested.

There was only one restaurant that lived up to the standards of the best dishwasher in Nashville. This was Folk, which Daniel recalls as a “beautiful, just beautiful brand-new restaurant with, like, impeccable aesthetics and these big ceiling-high windows that let the light shine in during the midday and a beautiful marble bar and all these fresh, locally sourced ingredients.” The staff was disciplined and well trained and not given to the episodes of sexual harassment he had seen in other restaurants. In the open kitchen, he discovered “this really cool dish machine, a single-rack dish machine I hadn’t used before.” The staff was “like a family,” and the much-celebrated chef was “always, always there,” not at all like the “complete asshole dirtbag restaurant guys” he’d worked for before. But eventually, as he had in many other Nashville kitchens, Daniel became too difficult an employee to manage, too time-consuming in his ever-expanding list of ideas for improvement, and one evening in May 2019, the chef let him go.

Daniel got drunk, met a woman, went home with her, and immediately regretted it. In the night, he opened a condom but didn’t use it. He returned to his apartment early the next morning and called a close friend to whom he would lament the loss of his job. “I loved it there,” he was telling his friend, there on the porch on a wet May morning in Nashville. “I loved it. I loved every minute of it.”

Daniel heard a rustling in the leaves beside the porch and thought perhaps it was his roommates, though in retrospect they would not be up at 6 a.m. on a Thursday. He stopped speaking.

A man in black ran toward him with a drawn gun. Then two more men. Then six.

This is it, Daniel thought. Finally.

The FBI agents swarmed him, searched him. Last time this had happened, the agents had seemed to Daniel contemptuous, but these guys seemed slightly embarrassed, as if to acknowledge that it was all “a little excessive.” An FBI agent stuck his hand in Daniel’s pocket and pulled out the unwrapped condom.

“You couldn’t have warned me?” the agent said.

On the drive to work that morning, the chef turned on NPR, which is how he learned that the dishwasher he had just fired had been seized for stealing documents about the secret assassination program we have come to call the drone war.

Anyone can build a combat drone. If you build a drone for your little makeshift country, no one will be impressed. We may think of drones as indestructible, ironclad, and this is the impression defense companies attempt to impart with the hard names they give the machines they build — Predator drone, Reaper drone, Hunter drone — but in fact the original word, drone, is elegantly apt, and all of these are an attempt to mask the dumb delicacy it captures. Drones are flimsy, light little wisps of things, vulnerable to lost signals and sleepy pilots, vulnerable to gusts of wind and hard rain, lightning, ice. You will send a drone whirling into the sand should you turn too hard into a breeze or press the wrong button on your joystick; should you fly into an area of excessive electromagnetic noise or accidentally fly the drone upside down for a long while, oblivious. They slam into mountains, crash into other planes, fall into farms, sidewalks, and waterways. Sometimes they simply go silent and float away, never to be found again. Hundreds and hundreds of military drones we have lost this way, scattered across the globe. It’s okay. They’re cheap. We make new ones.

What is notable is not the drone but the network that keeps it aloft. This is where American power asserts itself: the satellites we rocket into the sky and the shallow-bowled receivers we nail to the ground. Concrete bases, trucks dragging satellites in their beds, the cables American soldiers lay in ditches they’ve dug into someone else’s desert. (“A fuck-ton of cables,” as one whistleblower explained it to me.)

Most of this hard and heavy infrastructure is maintained in a secrecy upheld by the CIA, which runs one drone program, the military, which runs another, the agencies that serve them, and the contractors that serve the agencies. In 2015, an insider leaked dozens of pages of documents about the inner workings of the American drone program, including information about the bureaucracy behind the “kill list” over which Barack Obama then presided. The Intercept published an eight-part series centered on these documents that became a book. “A ‘second Snowden’ Leaks to The Intercept,” announced CNN, an alliteration that would prove irresistible across media; “A Second Snowden Has Leaked a Mother Lode of Drone Docs,” read a headline in Wired. Amnesty International called for a congressional investigation. First Snowden called it “an astonishing act of civil courage.”

Nearly no one knew who Second Snowden was then or for years afterward. After he was seized in the early-morning raid and released on bail and prosecuted through a pandemic, he stopped shaving and grew what a friend called “a ZZ Top beard.” He lost weight and began to wear clothes donated by concerned acquaintances; someone else’s large khakis hung off him, the waistband folded over, a belt yanked to the last loop. Friends pressed him to go public with the story of how and why, but Daniel maintained that in talking about himself, he would be taking the spotlight from victims of the drone war. He rarely left his room.

In November 2020, his housemate coaxed him out for a beer at a place called Moreland’s Tavern in Northwest D.C. When Daniel arrived, eight people he knew were seated at tables outside in the cold. The intervention had been arranged by the housemate and by one of Daniel’s closest friends, an activist named Noor Mir, who knew that Daniel was hesitant to impose on people and that he needed help. “I think it’s hard for men to understand that it’s okay to feel really, really scared,” Mir told me.

They went around the table, one by one, and told Daniel that he had to get his shit together. He needed to participate in his defense. He needed to prepare for the possibility of prison. He needed to consider the future care of his cat. He needed to tell his story, because if he failed to do that, the prosecution’s story would stand unchallenged. Daniel had his feet on a chair, his arms around his knees, supremely uncomfortable. Two hours in, the last person said what he had come to say. They waited for Daniel to respond.

“All right, everybody,” he said, half-smiling for the first time that evening. “Can we shut the fuck up now?”

Daniel told none of his friends he was ready to talk, but on April 4, he called me. He said he didn’t want to be called a whistleblower. He preferred the word traitor.

No one owns a secret state, and no one answers for it. There was a moment in 2012, 2013, when various people outside Yemen and Pakistan and Afghanistan began to notice that inside Yemen and Pakistan and Afghanistan, the U.S. was waging constant, secret war under a set of rules known to few. It was May 2013 when Obama finally felt it necessary to give his big drone speech, in which he acknowledged that drones were morally complicated, promised to “review proposals to extend oversight,” deemed them an unfortunate necessity for the safety of Americans, and generally gave the impression that he would make the program accountable. But everything of note that happens in this story happened after such gestures were forced, and made, and forgotten.

Daniel Hale at home with his cat, Leila, in 2020.
Photo: Courtesy of Bob Hayes

Daniel did not come to the Air Force so much as he surrendered. He had grown up the son of a disapproving, Bible-quoting truck-driver father in Bristol, Virginia, which is just across the state line from Bristol, Tennessee. He is a descendant of Nathan Hale, hanged by the Brits in 1776 for attempting to pose as a Dutch schoolmaster and steal information on troop movements (according to Daniel, “not a very good spy”). Daniel’s parents were under constant stress: food pantries, endless dinners of rice and beans. The services he attended as a child were “fire and brimstone” — country music, his sister said, was sufficiently sinful to send you to hell. Among the various Appalachian churches was one, Emmanuel Baptist Church, where the pastor was revealed to be raping and torturing a young girl he and his wife had kidnapped. It was 1998, and Daniel was 11.

By the time he finished high school, Daniel trusted a single source of information, which was Democracy Now! Daniel’s father had, from a very young age, suggested the military as a way out of poverty, but Daniel was already on an intellectual journey in which he would come to see Edward Snowden as insufficiently extreme; he wanted nothing to do with it. He tried enrolling in a regional UVA campus and dropped out. He tried community college and dropped out. He met a friend on the internet playing World of Warcraft, moved to Vegas to look for work at a casino, could find no such work (“I was kind of a dipshit at the time,” he says), and moved back home. He answered a job ad that said it did not require experience and was given a bus ticket to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he joined a bunch of kids he describes as “mostly runaways.” The company put them up, two to a room, in hotels, and had them selling magazines door-to-door. You could get rich, the managers said, if you kept at it. You could be like them. It would be hard to imagine a worse salesman than Daniel Hale, who once told me he has frequent nightmares because “any person of conscience in America builds up a sense of dread.” Humiliated, he asked his dad for a ride home. Now he was in Bristol again, 21, with no real prospects and a sense of how brutal the world could be to a man with no skills for which the world had asked. He and his father got into a fight that became physical. Daniel walked into a military-recruitment office in a strip mall near a Walmart. He took a test, aced it, and was told he could do anything he wanted.

It wasn’t so bad, the life he had accepted when no others made themselves known, under a new president who made promises in which it was tempting to believe: the closing of Guantánamo, an end to forever war. Daniel assumed it was impossible to be a president without becoming a war criminal, but he had attended an Obama rally in his hometown. At the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, he studied Mandarin for the greater glory of the state. He adored his classmate Michael, with whom he had long conversations about politics and indie rap. He thought a lot about ways to get dishonorably discharged, but he woke up in the morning and went to class.

Obama did not in fact close Guantánamo in his first 100 days. He did not end the drone program or usher in a new age of transparency. Not a week into office, he authorized two drone strikes that killed 14 people, many of whom were not the targets. Obama increased the tempo of attacks and would, two years later, introduce the novel element of killing American citizens. At first the strikes had been limited to “Al Qaeda and associated forces,” but gradually they were found useful for forces it was extremely hard to argue were associated with Al Qaeda. It was useful, Obama found, to employ drone strikes against the tribal enemies of various governments the U.S. was supporting. It was useful to target not just high-ranking members of various organizations but low-level members; useful to evolve the whole thing from an assassination program to a holistic counterinsurgency machine. In parts of Pakistan, locals had stopped drinking Lipton tea, out of fear that the tea bags were homing devices used by the CIA to attract drones.

In early 2001, the U.S. did not know how to launch a missile from a Predator drone without damaging the drone. In early 2001, one could not have run an assassination program based on geolocation, simply because terrorism was not yet run on cell phones. Fourteen years later, the Pentagon was planning to spend nearly $3 billion on unmanned aerial vehicles in a single year. The president had access to technologies available to no president before him, and he opted to use them.

Obama, Daniel concluded, was “a clown,” “just a complete fraud,” who would uphold the worst policies of his secretive predecessor. But now it was 2010, and the national security state’s ability to keep its secrets was beginning to break down. While at the Defense Language Institute, Daniel says, an officer came into his classroom and forbade them from searching for a term relatively new to the world: WikiLeaks. If they did so, they’d lose their security clearance. Julian Assange had packaged, edited, and dramatically unveiled leaked footage of American soldiers shooting a man holding a camera because they had thought the camera was a gun. On YouTube, one could watch the photographer die and one could watch a van pull up and a man jump out to help the photographer the Americans had shot. One could watch, on YouTube, as the Americans shot up the van, though if one were watching closely, one would already have seen that in the front of the van were two small children. One could hear a deep silence as the American soldiers watched the limp children being carried from the van.

“Well, it’s their fault,” one hears a soldier say, “for bringing their kids into battle.”

Daniel was sent to Fort Meade, which he describes as full of “just total dorks. Just the most extreme dorks you’ve ever met in your life.” He found peace away from the dorks on long motorcycle rides. He liked to go very fast. He missed Michael and Michael’s wife, Diane. He was bored, so bored that he began to toy with the idea of deploying. Perhaps if he were at the center of the war, he could make a small part of that war slightly less unjust. Someone from among them would be sent. Why not him? Wasn’t it better to know than not to know? He was rationalizing his way out of Maryland.

Daniel was 25 years old. Over the course of his life, he and everyone he knew had come to carry beacons in their pockets, continuously beaming their location to towers owned by someone else. These were years in which Americans slowly became accustomed to being tracked in exchange for small conveniences or simply as the price of engaging in contemporary life. It was hard to turn off the location data on your phone, and even if you made the effort, many apps would continue tracking, so most of us did not bother. It was disturbing to know that the totality of our email and private messages was being scanned by Google and Facebook, but then we’d already agreed to be tracked by our phones. That a “virtual assistant” you’ve voluntarily placed in your bedroom had the capacity to record private conversations was not ideal, but then even terrorists found that the convenience of communication outweighed the risks. That was how Daniel found them.

Daniel didn’t know what JSOC was when he was given his deployment papers, though by the time he arrived at Fort Bragg, he knew it was exclusive. Others with this assignment were given access to a privileged part of the base, one of the few places where you didn’t wear a hat and where the soldiers had beards. A captain had told him not to tell others he was involved in JSOC. “Everybody around you is jerking each other off about how cool this is or whatever,” he says. He believed it; he thought it was cool. He still didn’t know what was going on, really. “The first thing they do,” he says, “is sit you down and you take a basic course in cell-phone technology. How do cell phones work, how do they interact with a network, how do those networks operate, the towers, what’s a SIM card, what’s a handset.” Daniel was shown a box that would be placed on a drone and would pretend to be a cell tower, such that the cell phones of targets would communicate with it. He was beginning to understand.

When he arrived in Afghanistan in 2012, it became Daniel Hale’s job to stare at a screen and direct a drone from wherever it was to the location of a cell-phone number in which the military had interest. He and the other analysts spent their days in a wooden shed, surrounded by dusty old computers still running Windows XP. There were phones and televisions and knots of thick black cable. From the computer, he turned on the box in the drone that searched for the cell-phone data. He loaded the box with the information for people the military was thinking about tracking. He tweaked settings to try to lock on. When he was done, he told someone by chat, and that person focused the camera. It was out of his hands at that point, but he could, if he wished, watch the missile, in a fraction of a second and with a force that shatters concrete, incinerate a group of men.

The whole thing had the air, as such work often does, of having been grandly conceived and then slapped together. Officially, everyone was supposed to sign out every time their shifts ended, but to log off and log in required so much time, so many links broken and reestablished, that according to Daniel it rarely happened. Once, he says, he tried to explain this on the phone to someone back at the NSA and was told to stop talking; the analyst did not want to know about that.

The intuitive argument against drones is that they introduce space between target and assassin, that they remove the element of danger from the act of killing. This is an argument that has followed every advance in military technology beyond the perfect reciprocity of the swordfight: There was safety too behind a cannon. Guns were considered cowardly. Snipers were cowards and so were men who fired from submarines. But remove is not necessarily the experience of drone warfare, which is really surveillance warfare. Day after day, the drone will send video feed of the same man leaving the same house and returning again. One becomes familiar with the patterns of his life, and what one cannot know, imagination builds out. At night, when the infrared camera is operative, people appear as red blobs. It is hot, and they go on the roof to sleep. “I saw them having sex with their wives,” said one drone pilot. “It’s two infrared spots becoming one.” A lit cigarette is a sun bobbing before a mouth. This is not the straight path of increasing distance between assassin and target. This is deep, half-imagined, crazy-making intimacy. This is something new.

Over the course of the War on Terror, as we used to call it before it simply became American foreign policy, swathes of Pakistan and Yemen came to be under 24-hour surveillance by drone, which is to say that people living in these areas today cannot cross the street without knowing that they are being recorded and that the recording will be sent to a satellite and sucked into a receiver, where the footage will be stored in the service of someone’s idea of American security. It will very likely never be watched, because there are not enough analysts to analyze all of the footage that the U.S. produces; where privacy is afforded, it is afforded by the grace of inefficiency. Drones, writes Michael Boyle, a senior fellow in national security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, have “led the United States to displace its original goal — to fight al Qaeda more effectively — in favor of a larger one of knowing, and possibly even controlling, greater portions of the earth than it had previously imagined possible.”

Shortly before Daniel Hale arrived in Afghanistan, the Air Force deployed what it called “Gorgon Stare”: a drone video system that involves 368 cameras covering 40 square miles at a time. It used to be that, in watching, we suffered a “soda straw” problem; one could watch, as if through a tube, a single figure cut his way across a landscape to the exclusion of the surrounding land. Wide-area aerial surveillance, familiar from films shot from above, is in fact new to the world; only in the past decade has it become possible to watch a whole landscape, to track a whole network of men who meet at a location and watch them each walk home. This view is enabled by something called a high-altitude long-endurance drone, the acronym for which is HALE.

In the months when he worked in the drone program, Daniel Hale never touched a drone, never flew one, never even worked on a base from which they lifted into the air. The idea that his own moral righteousness could affect the war in any way now struck him as absurd. Sometimes the machine for which he worked was called “one warhead one forehead,” because each mission targeted only one man. But the men were very often surrounded by other men as the missile found them. This is what ate at him. He knew nothing about these people; none of them would have been the target of the attack. But they would die too. And though the Obama administration would deny this, many men would reportedly not be counted as civilians but as “enemies killed in action.” Daniel knew cell phones could have been passed from presumed terrorists to other people entirely, and innocent people and those around innocent people would then be killed instead. He knew no one back home was thinking about this. “There were two worlds,” Chelsea Manning once said. “The world in America, and the world I was seeing.” The gap between what America did and what Americans knew was part of the horror, and it was the part that appeared ameliorable.

Hale at a peace protest in front of the White House.
Photo: National Bird/Torsten Lapp

Daniel had once wanted to be a journalist, and he was still considering this possibility when he landed back in D.C. There were many journalists of whom he did not approve, but there was one he trusted because this journalist had worked for Democracy Now! His name was Jeremy Scahill, and he had just written a book called Dirty Wars, which would be adapted for a documentary, the adaptation nominated for an Oscar. In April 2013, Daniel saw him speak at the bookstore Politics and Prose. He approached Scahill afterward and texted a friend to say that a reporter wanted him to “tell my story about drones at the opening screening of his documentary.” Back at work, Daniel’s superiors told him to “read everything you can get your hands on because it will make you a better analyst.” It is likely that they did not intend that he should search “Jeremy Scahill” and “Dirty Wars” on his NSA computer, though this is how he chose to interpret their advice.

In June, when Scahill had a book event at D.C.’s Busboys and Poets, Daniel Hale was right there beside him on a makeshift dais at the front of the room. A year after the joint appearance, The Intercept published a 166-page internal document that laid out the rules under which the Obama administration put people on terrorist watch lists. A year after that, The Intercept published the Drone Papers, an eight-part report that became a book with an introduction written by the anonymous leaker.

Together, Scahill and the leaker created a moment in which the media acknowledged the existence of wars waged in secret with a clumsy ineptitude counter to promises of “precision.” “Our source was someone who is directly involved with the assassination program. And this person got to a point where they felt like they couldn’t not speak out,” Scahill told NPR. What few people knew, at the time, was that the government almost certainly knew who the Second Snowden was and, for mysterious reasons, did nearly nothing about it either before or for years after the Drone Papers were published.

Daniel doesn’t think his father’s religiosity is “relevant” to this story, but he also says he was “called upon” to leak these documents, that he, like the biblical Daniel, has “premonitions,” and that a “righteous justice” will soon fall upon this country. When he returned from Afghanistan, he wanted to go to school, and for this he needed money, and as an analyst with security clearance, money was easily made. Six months after meeting Scahill, Daniel had left the Air Force and started working for Leidos, a company that makes more than $10 billion a year in revenue by convincing the federal government of its utility. He said he would only do it for six months, a promise he kept. He was assigned to a little-known government agency called the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which had recently built a $1.7 billion building, the third-largest federal office building in the D.C. area.

The diction employed by the NGA has that quality, beloved by military prose stylists, of pointlessly combative abstraction. “Dependency on technology is not our goal — we must leverage and master it,” wrote the agency’s director in 2020. “We’re soon moving to a point,” said another executive at the agency later that year, “where we think, essentially, every part of the planet will be imaged on a daily basis.” From the top, the building is two half-circles set around a dome so as to resemble, with the literalism typical of so much public art and architecture, a giant eye.

Daniel moved into a room in a million-dollar, 4,700-square-foot McMansion in Lorton, Virginia, owned by the divorced mother of a friend. The streets were wide and quiet, and all the trees looked like they’d been planted yesterday. At the NGA, Daniel sat at a desk among many other desks in a forgotten corner of a long cubicle farm on the sixth floor of a giant eye and entered location data for geographic points in China on U.S.-government maps. He was finally using his Chinese. It was dull make-work, a lot of “boring days and stupid meetings.” He could plot 1,000 points a day, and he did so for days on end, though, he says, all the same information was available on Google Maps. Behind him was “a big kind of jolly guy” who had the right taste in music but was “very outspoken about things like his opposition to abortion.” The most interesting people were not government lifers but outsiders brought in for some technical wizardry, and this was the case with the design analyst Daniel was wasting time with one day. He was someone Daniel wanted to learn from, “a very fascinating dude, a fringe kind of guy,” and at one point in the conversation the fascinating dude asked Daniel to pull up some footage of drone strikes. “He had this sick fascination with it,” says Daniel. “He wanted to watch people die. I had this, like, really deep sinking feeling, you know, and I basically expressed to him that this was repulsive.” He talked about having operated the drones, his part in it, and the design analyst was taken aback.

“Something was speaking to me,” says Daniel, “very deeply, something I hadn’t felt since I left Afghanistan, and it was telling me again, You can’t let this go. This is your last opportunity. If you don’t do this, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.” Given his role in the war machine, he had begun to think of himself as a war criminal who ought to be in jail anyway. (“Should I be in jail for paying taxes?” I asked him. “Probably,” he said.)

Daniel began searching on his work computer, using terms he’d picked up in Afghanistan. For the most part, the documents he found were as new to him as they would be to the public; he was learning about what he had been involved in as he both read his screen and tried to monitor the room so he could switch back to his work if someone passed by his computer. There was a graphic of the “kill chain,” the bureaucratic process through which Obama approved a strike: little yellow arrows pointing on a diagonal all the way up the page, landing at POTUS. There was further evidence that when military-age males were murdered in a strike, they were classified as militants, an accounting trick that lowers civilian-death counts, and there was an account of a five-month period in Afghanistan in which U.S. forces hit 19 people who were targets of strikes and 136 who were not the targets. There were admissions that the intelligence on which strikes were based was often bad and that strikes made it difficult to get good information because the people who might have provided that information had just been killed by the strike. There was the report detailing the secret rules the government uses to place people on the terrorist watch list. “Each thing that I would discover would lead to something else,” Daniel said, “something more.” Together, these documents form a picture of a country vacuuming up massive amounts of information and struggling to transform that information into knowledge. One gets the sense that the Obaman air of “certainty” and “precision” around drones is possible only if one has considerable distance from the process.

It was in February, only three months after he had begun to work for Leidos, that he began printing. He printed six separate documents on February 28, 2014, according to the indictment, and later that day texted Scahill.

It’s extremely challenging to smuggle electronic data out of a place set up to prevent you from doing so. Paper is harder to catch on its way out the door. Daniel printed the reports — 17 of which he would allegedly give to The Intercept, totaling dozens of pages — on a nearby printer. He brought the reports back to his desk. He stuffed them under his shirt, against his back. It wasn’t unusual for the guards to search you on the way out; sometimes they found papers related to someone’s work, accidentally taken, and sometimes they wrote you up for it, but papers stuffed under one’s shirt would be challenging to explain. He walked out of the eye with them tucked under his waistband, terrified he would be searched. He drove back to the lonely mansion surrounded by lonely mansions.

This was in and of itself an extraordinarily brave and reckless act. Every search by an employee with security clearance on a government computer is tracked, every page printed logged. He seems to have provided them to a reporter with whom he had publicly appeared, who had recently co-founded The Intercept, a publication premised on the act of disclosing classified documents. He was also participating in a documentary on drone whistleblowers, which meant that a camera crew periodically showed up at the mansion and set up equipment and invited him to expound, at length, on the record, about crimes of the state.

Daniel was not done. Through April, May, July, and August, according to the indictment, he printed out more and more documents. In July, The Intercept published the government’s secret rules for putting people on the terrorist watch list; the documents informed not only the Drone Papers, for which Daniel later became known, but a slew of other Intercept pieces published between 2014 and 2016. Daniel smuggled them out, and sometimes, because he didn’t “want to leave a trail of evidence,” he, incredibly, smuggled them back in, where he placed them in the bag where all classified printed material is meant to go.

Daniel’s last day at Leidos was August 8, 2014. Looking back, he said there was something off in everyone’s manner that day, “a weird niceness” in the affect: shaking his hand, wishing him well, lamenting that he couldn’t stay longer.

He got home, took off his clothes, and poured himself a Scotch. He was in his underwear, playing video games in his room, when he heard a “cop knock,” loud and insistent. When he opened the door he was pushed inside, shown badges. Twenty agents with guns, he said, let themselves in.

That you’ve invited something into your home does not mean you’re prepared to face it. Daniel was terrified. An agent led him to a small room sometimes used as an office in a corner of the house to which he had never been and left him there to hear the sounds of his friend’s mom’s house being torn apart. For seven hours, they left him there to worry. They searched his phone, where he had Scahill in his contact list. If they were this interested, they would already know which documents he had viewed and which printed on what days. If they knew enough to come here, there was little else to know. Daniel waited for the moment they would finish and take him to jail. He thought about all the things he would want to take care of before going to prison and how now he would not be able to take care of them, because although he had known they would come, he had not prepared. Eventually he got so bored he started talking to the FBI agents. Some of them had also been to Afghanistan, doing interrogations.

Toward the end of the raid, the woman who owned the house came home to find black cars in the driveway, neighbors watching. To Daniel’s horror, she was also interrogated. And then, carrying with them books and computers and paper, on that Friday evening in August, the FBI agents drove away.

Daniel was mystified, paralyzed in his confusion. Would they come back for him tomorrow? He apologized to the woman who owned the house, who was distraught and confused. He said he could not tell her what any of this was about, and he tried to reassure her that she wasn’t in any trouble. He felt he couldn’t stay there, impose on her, a minute longer.

Daniel packed up his few belongings, got on his motorcycle, and left. He says an SUV with three agents inside appeared behind him, and he skipped a curb and tried to lose them. He went 80 miles an hour on the highway, which was “kind of fun actually,” and headed straight for D.C., toward the home of a friend. The next day, he would meet with Jesselyn Radack, a lawyer associated with Snowden, Thomas Drake, and many other people who have disclosed information unflattering to American bureaucracy.

What was there for him to do? The Department of Justice surely had everything it needed to send him to prison on Espionage Act charges, plausibly for a decade, but in August 2014, there was not a whisper of an indictment. Daniel moved to New York City and went to school, as he had said he would. He enrolled in classes like Rhetorical Grammar, and he went to them, but it was extremely hard to care about anything not related to the FBI watching him. He took a class about war and tried not to get angry when people in his classes, kids who had never done anything, said ridiculous things. Someone in his class said it was a feminist achievement for women to go to war, and the gulf between them seemed immeasurable.

It was hard, if not impossible, to do assignments, because assignments required writing, and writing required his computer, of which he had become very frightened. He felt, through it, watched. Once, his roommate remembers, a pop-up ad appeared and Daniel slammed the screen shut. The brick walls of his apartment were porous; his roommate noticed that Daniel wadded up gum and stuck it in the holes. The documentarian came to the apartment. There had been a plan to film Daniel walking in the park, but he wouldn’t leave. He didn’t want to be part of the film anymore at all.

There was another film, too. Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour was released that fall. For ideological fellow travelers, the film ends on an inspirational high point: Glenn Greenwald tells Snowden that a new source has come forward and scrawls something on a piece of paper visible to Snowden but hidden from the camera. Snowden gives him a look.

“That’s actually — that’s really dangerous — um — on the source’s side. Do they know how to take care of themselves?”

“There’s a chart that goes like this,” says Greenwald. “It’s shaped like this.” Greenwald draws little squares pointing diagonally up the page, and on the top square he writes POTUS.

On another piece of paper, Greenwald writes, “There are 1.2 million people on various stages of their watch list.”

“That’s fucking ridiculous,” says Snowden, who begins to pace.

“It’s so shocking,” says Greenwald.

“That person is incredibly bold,” says Snowden.

Second Snowden was at that time a first-semester freshman terrified to use his computer. Once, a Comcast guy showed up at the apartment, installed a router, and left. Then a second Comcast guy showed up, ready to install the router, unaware of the first guy. The first Comcast guy, Daniel concluded, had been bugging the apartment. In February, Citizenfour won an Oscar. Daniel failed all of his classes.

He got a cat called Amber, which he decided was a “stripper name,” so he changed her name to Leila, after Leila Khaled, the first woman to hijack an airplane. He adored Leila. He loved her so much he took her with him when he gave up on New York for Nashville, which meant giving away almost all of his stuff and strapping everything else, including a carrier containing the cat, to his motorcycle.

In October, The Intercept finally published the Drone Papers. Still, no one came for him. No one came for any of it, really. America has not lately been a country that tends to change its ways when revelations reveal it to be unbecoming of empire. It is the lives of leakers that change. In 2015, Manning was in prison, having not yet attempted suicide therein, Assange was holed up in an embassy, having not yet been imprisoned in the U.K., which would refuse to release him to the U.S. because of the risk that he would commit suicide in U.S. custody, and Snowden remained ever in exile, declaiming with the slightly mad certainty of someone too tethered to reality.

To hear Daniel describe his years in Nashville is to go on a culinary tour of all the high-end kitchens from which he quit or was fired: Le Sel, Sinema, Folk; let go, he says, for an outburst of anger, or for advocating on behalf of others, or for being insubordinate. But in the spring of 2019, Daniel was happy. In all of his years of working with and thinking about and having nightmares about drones, Daniel had never touched one. Dishes were different. Hot from the washer, they burned his hands. He worked for a caterer and loved being around happy-drunk wedding-goers. He could lose himself in the motion, the immediacy, the sweaty necessity of the work. The kitchen smelled of soap and heat, and he was either absorbed in the motion or fixing a problem. Sonia Kennebeck’s National Bird, the documentary in which Daniel had participated, premiered at Tribeca and in Berlin, and no one came for him. The Council on American-Islamic Relations sued the federal government over the terrorist watch list, the thick rule book Daniel had allegedly leaked, and no one came. Reality Winner was arrested and imprisoned even before the single document she had mailed appeared in The Intercept. Daniel tried to get a Spanish-speaking immigrant dishwasher to agitate for higher pay; the dishwasher simply left and never came back.

The drone wars were now under the auspices of Donald Trump, who wiped away rules about reporting dead civilians and made it easier for strikes to be approved. “The killers need to know they have nowhere to hide, that no place is beyond the reach of American might and American arms,” Trump said. The military was exploring the use of artificial intelligence to sort through all the drone footage. One day when Daniel was expediting food, a big party came into the restaurant wanting ten hamburgers at ten different temperatures, and the chef, “notorious for being a bully and an asshole,” pretended not to hear Daniel as he tried to check the order. It had been five hours like this, the chef provoking Daniel. He was out of patience. He just wanted everything to work. “Goddamn it, Tim, stop fucking me!” he shouted and slammed his hand on the counter without looking, sending his finger straight through a ticket stabber. Afghanistan was once again in chaos; Trump’s successor would give up on it altogether and close down the base at which Daniel had worked. “PTSD,” writes Hugh Gusterson in Drone, “often seemed to correlate not so much with the absolute scale of raw violence but with its degree of senselessness.”

Over the course of Daniel’s life, he and everyone he knew had come to carry beacons in their pockets, and they had become expert at not thinking about this. Daniel began to feel like he wasn’t being watched. As if the men who had searched his house had forgotten, or ceased to care, and he and Leila could continue life unmolested. It began to seem possible that they would never come for him, until one day in May 2019, they finally did.

Daniel pleaded guilty in March, after the court ruled that it would not consider what the prosecution called his “supposed ‘good motives’ ” before sentencing, and in the Hale-family tradition was convicted of espionage. At his sentencing hearing in late July, Daniel will be expected to give a statement about remorse. He is in fact overwhelmed by remorse, though none of it is for the crime of exposing the American public to documents about the conduct of their leaders. Of that, he is very proud.

Hale, 31, of Nashville, was arrested May 9, 2019.
Photo: Nashville Police Department via AP

For five years, Daniel waited for the day the FBI would come collect him. For two years after that, Daniel waited for the day he would go to prison. It is challenging to find employment while on “pretrial release,” and it is challenging to conduct a love life. Should he tell people on the first date that he has been indicted? The second? He eventually decided, as is his way, to lead with the hard truth. “Soo, full disclosure,” read his Tinder bio, “I was charged last year with espionage for allegedly giving information about the war in Afghanistan to a group of journalists. My trial is in December and if you know anything about these types of cases you know that my chances of winning are next to none ;P. In the meantime, I’m hoping to meet someone genuine to hang out with and maybe go on a motorcycle ride while the weather is still nice.” He listed his anthem as “Vicious,” by Lou Reed.

These were years in which many people came to believe in a conspiracy theory in which a high-level whistleblower declared the “deep state” to be run by baby-eating criminals. Part of this theory involved the idea that the NSA had video of everything, such that when the bad guys were defeated, the good guys would be able run the footage of their crimes. Later, some people thought the vaccine that could end the pandemic contained a tracking device to be shot in the arm of every American. Not everyone thought this, of course. Many of us thought these ideas were absurd. We read about them from phones on which we had failed to turn off the location data.

A federal judge ruled the terrorist watch list, challenged by 23 people represented by CAIR, unconstitutional. “Daniel Hale’s disclosure of the unclassified 2013 Watchlisting Guidance revealed that the criteria for inclusion are circular and illogical,” lawyers for CAIR later wrote.

The probation office assigned Daniel a therapist, Michael, and the two spoke almost every week for a year. There were weeks when Michael was the only person with whom Daniel talked, but after the intervention, and the protests, Daniel’s close friends noticed a change. “He had to decide who he was going to be in prison,” Mir said, and he was edging toward this. It would not be a surprise, like the raid. He had time to plan. He was going to quit smoking, get healthy. There was a list of things to do: see people back home, Mortal Kombat with Mir, make dinner for his friends. He was talking more about his fears for the future and dark things in his past. He cried, for the first time in a long time, on his call with Michael.

In April, he received an email from his assigned “pretrial services officer” asking him to come to the office. Daniel assumed the meeting was for a urinalysis to ensure he was meeting the terms of his release. He was happy to be called in, because it would give him an opportunity to ask for leave to visit a friend back in Bristol. When he arrived at the office inside the courthouse, no one was at the desk. He rang the little bell on the counter. He rang it again. He sat down. He rang it a third time. He had to pee terribly; he had held it in for the urinalysis. Ten minutes passed. Three U.S. Marshals came through the door and put him in handcuffs.

He had violated his release, he remembers the Marshals saying, and the reason they gave was “mental health.” Michael feared he was a danger to himself. The violation was in being perceived as unstable when it was in the state’s interest to make sure he lived to serve his time.

Daniel called a friend that night from jail. “They didn’t let me say good-bye to Leila,” he told her, bereft. He had not been able to see Mortal Kombat, visit friends, or make dinner for them. He wanted to get his thoughts on paper, but no one could tell him where to find any.

He was thinking about the thing he always thought about, the story that ran on loop, one of a few moments that rendered his illegal disclosure of documents not, he says, an act of civil disobedience but a “desperate attempt at self-preservation.” Two months into his time in Afghanistan, Daniel recalls connecting a phone number to a predator drone. The phone number belonged to someone they’d been surveilling for a long while in Jalalabad, and now the phone was inside a sedan, and the sedan was speeding toward the border. It was an attempt to escape. The drone struggled against the wind, but the shot was the best shot the commander was going to get. Daniel watched “an explosion onscreen, bright white light, dust.” When the dust settled, Daniel could see that the car was still intact, though it had taken damage in the back. The car kept going, and he kept watching. They stopped at a village, and a woman got out. Daniel hadn’t realized anyone but the man with the cell phone was inside the car. She opened the trunk and riffled around. She pulled something out. Then she pulled out something smaller. And they drove away.

This is what Daniel saw through the soda straw, images that haunt him and a story for which he is the only source. It was his captain, he says, who added the context a week later. The family had been trying to leave together, and after shrapnel from the missile hit two little girls, around ages 3 and 5, the target “ordered his wife to get rid of their bodies so they could escape.”

The story, Daniel says, was related to him as a tale about the inhumanity of the Taliban, but that was not the lesson Daniel took. He can’t really argue with Michael’s assessment. He thinks about the girls every day, and when he does, he thinks about killing himself.

And so in the summer of 2021 Daniel spends his days in a concrete cage eight feet long and ten feet wide, a fragile man in a hard room among many other men in many other rooms. It is out of concern for his well-being that the court wants him always in view. Their interests are his interests. They’re trying to keep him safe.





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There is more to being a drone pilot than just buying a machine and flying in your backyard. It can be that simple, but most of us will need to understand some drone laws before we try to take to the sky.

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