Daniel Hale’s Heartfelt Letter Against Drone Warfare

Serving in the U.S. Air Force, Daniel Hale witnessed America’s drone assassination program and decided to speak out against it. As he awaits sentencing under the Espionage Act for sharing secrets about that program so that the American people could gain insight into the murderous realities of this war from a distance, he penned this letter to the judge hearing his case.

It is a heartfelt and harrowing letter that should be read by all Americans. The Biden administration is seeking a 9-year prison sentence and would prefer an even tougher punishment. This is exactly what is wrong about the United States today: the innocent are punished severely while the guilty are celebrated and promoted.

What follows are the words of Daniel Hale.

Daniel Hale (Photo by Bob Hayes via AP)

Dear Judge O’Grady,

It is not a secret that I struggle to live with depression and post traumatic stress disorder. Both stem from my childhood experience growing up in a rural mountain community and were compounded by exposure to combat during military service. Depression is a constant. Though stress, particularly stress caused by war, can manifest itself at different times and in different ways. The tell-tale signs of a person afflicted by PTSD and depression can often be outwardly observed and are practically universally recognizable. Hard lines about the face and jaw. Eyes, once bright and wide, now deepset and fearful. And an inexplicably sudden loss of interest in things that used to spark joy. These are the noticeable changes in my demeanor marked by those who knew me before and after military service. To say that the period of my life spent serving in the United States Air Force had an impression on me would be an understatement. It is more accurate to say that it irreversibly transformed my identity as an American. Having forever altered the thread of my life’s story, weaved into the fabric of our nation’s history. To better appreciate the significance of how this came to pass, I would like to explain my experience deployed to Afghanistan as it was in 2012 and how it is I came to violate the Espionage Act, as a result. 

In my capacity as a signals intelligence analyst stationed at Bagram Airbase, I was made to track down the geographic location of handset cellphone devices believed to be in the possession of so-called enemy combatants. To accomplish this mission required access to a complex chain of globe-spanning satellites capable of maintaining an unbroken connection with remotely piloted aircraft, commonly referred to as drones. Once a steady connection is made and a targeted cell phone device is acquired, an imagery analyst in the U.S., in coordination with a drone pilot and camera operator, would take over using information I provided to surveil everything that occurred within the drone’s field of vision. This was done, most often, to document the day-to-day lives of suspected militants. Sometimes, under the right conditions, an attempt at capture would be made. Other times, a decision to strike and kill them where they stood would be weighed.
 

The first time that I witnessed a drone strike came within days of my arrival to Afghanistan. Early that morning, before dawn, a group of men had gathered together in the mountain ranges of Patika provence around a campfire carrying weapons and brewing tea. That they carried weapons with them would not have been considered out of the ordinary in the place I grew up, muchless within the virtually lawless tribal territories outside the control of the Afghan authorities. Except that among them was a suspected member of the Taliban, given away by the targeted cell phone device in his pocket. As for the remaining individuals, to be armed, of military age, and sitting in the presence of an alleged enemy combatant was enough evidence to place them under suspicion as well. Despite having peacefully assembled, posing no threat, the fate of the now tea drinking men had all but been fulfilled. 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. 

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. Not a day goes by that I don’t question the justification for my actions. By the rules of engagement, it may have been permissible for me to have helped to kill those men—whose language I did not speak, customs I did not understand, and crimes I could not identify—in the gruesome manner that I did. Watch them die. But how could it be considered honorable of me to continuously have laid in wait for the next opportunity to kill unsuspecting persons, who, more often than not, are posing no danger to me or any other person at the time. Nevermind honorable, how could it be that any thinking person continued to believe that it was necessary for the protection of the United States of America to be in Afghanistan and killing people, not one of whom present was responsible for the September 11th attacks on our nation. Notwithstanding, in 2012, a full year after the demise of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, I was a part of killing misguided young men who were but mere children on the day of 9/11.

Nevertheless, in spite of my better instincts, I continued to follow orders and obey my command for fear of repercussion. Yet, all the while, becoming increasingly aware that the war had very 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. The evidence of this fact was laid bare all around me. In the longest or most technologically advanced war in American history, contract mercenaries outnumbered uniform wearing soldiers 2 to 1 and earned as much as 10 times their salary. Meanwhile, it did not matter whether it was, as I had seen, an Afghan farmer blown in half, yet miraculously conscious and pointlessly trying to scoop his insides off the ground, or whether it was an American flag-draped coffin lowered into Arlington National Cemetery to the sound of a 21-gun salute. Bang, bang, bang. Both served to justify the easy flow of capital at the cost of blood—theirs and ours. When I think about this I am grief-stricken and ashamed of myself for the things I’ve done to support it.

The most harrowing day of my life came months into my deployment to Afghanistan when a routine surveillance mission turned into disaster. For weeks we had been tracking the movements of a ring of car bomb manufacturers living around Jalalabad. Car bombs directed at US bases had become an increasingly frequent and deadly problem that summer, so much effort was put into stopping them. It was a windy and clouded afternoon when one of the suspects had been discovered headed eastbound, driving at a high rate of speed. This alarmed my superiors who believe he might be attempting to escape across the border into Pakistan. 

A drone strike was our only chance and already it began lining up to take the shot. But the less advanced predator drone found it difficult to see through clouds and compete against strong headwinds. The single payload MQ-1 failed to connect with its target, instead missing by a few meters. The vehicle, damaged, but still driveable, continued on ahead after narrowly avoiding destruction. Eventually, once the concern of another incoming missile subsided, the driver stopped, got out of the car, and checked himself as though he could not believe he was still alive. Out of the passenger side came a woman wearing an unmistakable burka. As astounding as it was to have just learned there had been a woman, possibly his wife, there with the man we intended to kill moments ago, I did not have the chance to see what happened next before the drone diverted its camera when she began frantically to pull out something from the back of the car.   

A couple of days passed before I finally learned from a briefing by my commanding officer about what took place. There indeed had been the suspect’s wife with him in the car. And in the back were their two young daughters, ages 5 and 3 years old. A cadre of Afghan soldiers were sent to investigate where the car had stopped the following day. It was there they found them placed in the dumpster nearby. The eldest was found dead due to unspecified wounds caused by shrapnel that pierced her body. Her younger sister was alive but severely dehydrated. As my commanding officer relayed this information to us she seemed to express disgust, not for the fact that we had errantly fired on a man and his family, having killed one of his daughters; but for the suspected bomb maker having ordered his wife to dump the bodies of their daughters in the trash, so that the two of them could more quickly escape across the border. Now, whenever I encounter an individual who thinks that drone warfare is justified and reliably keeps America safe, I remember that time and ask myself how could I possibly continue to believe that I am a good person, deserving of my life and the right to pursue happiness.

One year later, at a farewell gathering for those of us who would soon be leaving military service, I sat alone, transfixed by the television, while others reminisced together. On television was breaking news of the president giving his first public remarks about the policy surrounding the use of drone technology in warfare. His remarks were made to reassure the public of reports scrutinizing the death of civilians in drone strikes and the targeting of American citizens. The president said that a high standard of “near certainty” needed to be met in order to ensure that no civilians were present. But from what I knew, of the instances where civilians plausibly could have been present, those killed were nearly always designated enemies killed in action unless proven otherwise. Nonetheless, I continued to heed his words as the president went on to explain how a drone could be used to eliminate someone who posed an “imminent threat” to the United States. Using the analogy of taking out a sniper, with his sights set on an unassuming crowd of people, the president likened the use of drones to prevent a would-be terrorist from carrying out his evil plot. But, as I understood it to be, the unassuming crowd had been those who lived in fear and the terror of drones in their skies and the sniper in this scenario had been me. I came to believe that the policy of drone assasiniation was being used to mislead the public that it keeps us safe, and when I finally left the military, still processing what I’d been a part of, I began to speak out, believing my participation in the drone program to have been deeply wrong. 

I dedicated myself to anti-war activism, and was asked to partake in a peace conference in Washington, DC late November, 2013. People had come together from around the world to share experiences about what it is like living in the age of drones. Fazil bin Ali Jaber had journeyed from Yemen to tell us of what happened to his brother Salem bin Ali Jaber and their cousin Waleed. Waleed had been a policeman and Salem was a well-respected firebrand Imam, known for giving sermons to young men about the path towards destruction should they choose to take up violent jihad.

One day in August 2012, local members of Al Qaeda traveling through Fazil’s village in a car spotted Salem in the shade, pulled up towards him, and beckoned him to come over and speak to them. Not one to miss an opportunity to evangelize to the youth, Salem proceeded cautiously with Waleed by his side. Fazil and other villagers began looking on from afar. Farther still was an ever present reaper drone looking too. 

As Fazil recounted what happened next, I felt myself transported back in time to where I had been on that day, 2012. Unbeknownst to Fazil and those of his village at the time was that they had not been the only watching Salem approach the jihadist in the car. From Afghanistan, I and everyone on duty paused their work to witness the carnage that was about to unfold. At the press of a button from thousands of miles away, two hellfire missiles screeched out of the sky, followed by two more. Showing no signs of remorse, I, and those around me, clapped and cheered triumphantly. In front of a speechless auditorium, Fazil wept.

About a week after the peace conference I received a lucrative job offer if I were to come back to work as a government contractor. I felt uneasy about the idea. Up to that point, my only plan post military separation had been to enroll in college to complete my degree. But the money I could make was by far more than I had ever made before; in fact, it was more than any of my college-educated friends were making. So, after giving it careful consideration, I delayed going to school for a semester and took the job. 

For a long time I was uncomfortable with myself over the thought of taking advantage of my military background to land a cushy desk job. During that time I was still processing what I had been through and I was starting to wonder if I was contributing again to the problem of money and war by accepting to return as a defense contractor. Worse was my growing apprehension that everyone around me was also taking part in a collective delusion and denial that was used to justify our exorbitant salaries, for comparatively easy labor. The thing I feared most at the time was the temptation not to question it. 

Then it came to be that one day after work I stuck around to socialize with a pair of co-workers whose talented work I had come to greatly admire. They made me feel welcomed, and I was happy to have earned their approval. But then, to my dismay, our brand-new friendship took an unexpectedly dark turn. They elected that we should take a moment and view together some archived footage of past drone strikes. Such bonding ceremonies around a computer to watch so-called “war porn” had not been new to me. I partook in them all the time while deployed to Afghanistan. But on that day, years after the fact, my new friends gaped and sneered, just as my old one’s had, at the sight of faceless men in the final moments of their lives. I sat by watching too; said nothing and felt my heart breaking into pieces. 

Your Honor, the truest truism that I’ve come to understand about the nature of war is that war is trauma. I believe that any person either called-upon or coerced to participate in war against their fellow man is promised to be exposed to some form of trauma. In that way, no soldier blessed to have returned home from war does so uninjured. The crux of PTSD is that it is a moral conundrum that afflicts invisible wounds on the psyche of a person made to burden the weight of experience after surviving a traumatic event. How PTSD manifests depends on the circumstances of the event. So how is the drone operator to process this? 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. But what possibly could I have done to cope with the undeniable cruelties that I perpetuated? 

My conscience, once held at bay, came roaring back to life. At first, I tried to ignore it. Wishing instead that someone, better placed than I, should come along to take this cup from me. But this too was folly. Left to decide whether to act, I only could do that which I ought to do before God and my own conscience. The answer came to me, that to stop the cycle of violence, I ought to sacrifice my own life and not that of another person.

So, I contacted an investigative reporter, with whom I had had an established prior relationship, and told him that I had something the American people needed to know.

Respectfully, 

Daniel Hale

22 thoughts on “Daniel Hale’s Heartfelt Letter Against Drone Warfare

    1. It was a courageous act to be sure, because Mr. Hale had to know what the consequences of his actions would be. But I don’t see his case serving as a source of inspiration, if only because there hasn’t been a steady stream of whistleblowers in the wake of what Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden did. It’s clear there are no protections for whistleblowers, and the verdicts are preordained. The old adage “You can’t fight City Hall” was never more true.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. 76 years ago on soon to be August 6, the bombardier of Enola Gay pushed a button to release a small and primitive bomb onto the people, men, women, and children of Japan’s Hiroshima, killing about 70,000 of them in the next 24 hours; another 70,000 would die before the end of the year. Three days later this was repeated at Nagasaki; another 70,000 dead. 210,000 total by Dec. 31. The dying did not stop then. It included the American and Allied military prisoners in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. . .The mere passage of time does not alter the morality of crimes against humanity. The definition of “atrocity” does not depend upon who commits it or the reasons for so doing. . . Who among the leadership of any nation is qualified to order the use of nuclear weapons against another nation? What qualifications identify such a person or group? Would you trust a high ranking politician with such a decision? A politician?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hey Daniel Hale,
    Thank you for your bravery and service to making peace the cornerstone of humanities future relationships. Nothing truly erases our memories permanent record. It’s what we allow from that record to inform our present moment that can become a tonic for it’s presence in our archives. A wise teacher once told me that “everything is appropriate”! What you have lived through, has provided you with verifiable truth that is now being used by you; to inform the present and the whole of humanity about the horrors of our current policies and behavior. You went through the door where evil dwells and brought back documented truth for all of us to “safely” partake of; your sacrifices will always be appreciated. Probably more than you will ever come to know. But, you compromised your life for all of us to know such horrible truths. You are a rare individual expression of life’s majestic possibilities that the creator had in mindful potential when designing life as we know it. I honor your commitment to making this world a better place. ✌🏼❤️🙏

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Daniel is right: we are the sniper lying in wait to kill people who may be innocent. Shame on us, not on him for trying to open our eyes to the horror and criminality of drone assassination.

    I remember reading the Drone Papers and seeing Daniel in some of the GWOT documentaries I’ve watched. Coincidentally, just yesterday I read a long piece about his trauma in New York Magazine: https://nymag.com/intelligencer/article/daniel-hale-drone-wars.html My heart goes out to him for the suffering he has endured first in military service to this nation and second in conscientious service to the American (and Afghan) people in revealing what he was ordered to do in Americans’ names.

    Unlike, e.g., the person who leaked the CIA’s cyber tools, Daniel did not jeopardize our security; his “crime” is that he embarrassed our nation’s leaders. My opinion of Obama fell greatly when I understood what he was doing “for” us. What are the chances that anyone in the Obama administration would have welcomed Daniel’s revelations and helped him achieve whistleblower status? Rhetorical question to which the answer is zero percent. Killing innocent civilians is a war crime; revealing that we are doing so is a laudable act of conscience.

    How fitting it would be if 3,000 or so of Daniel’s fellow citizens could each serve one day in prison in his place. I don’t doubt that we could find many times that number to volunteer to do so. But, of course, our government would never allow it because it would draw too much attention to Daniel’s plight, possibly upending our domestic tranquility – aka our oblivious lack of concern regarding our nation committing war crimes. It’s highly likely that the American public can – and will – ignore one man spending 9 years in jail. The sin is ours, not his.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Regarding Obama, and the subsequent administrations, I believe prosecution choices reveal a lot. The people who deliberately lied to foment aggressive war (described accurately as the supreme war crime), who made abducting and torturing – often to death – official policy, who did so on scant evidence and sometimes to innocent people, who regularly murdered innocent people by remote control in pursuit of the current designated bad guy and who essentially shredded the Bill of Rights and much of the Constitution? They not only get off free because we need to “look forward, not backward” but don’t even have their career trajectories slowed down temporarily. On the other hand the people who made it their mission to bring these crimes and their perpetrators to the attention of the world apparently were and are to be pursued and prosecuted as harshly as possible, forever.

      Liked by 4 people

  4. Thank you for sharing this painful, yet wonderful, letter from Daniel Hale. May we follow in his truthful footsteps. Our hope.

    nancy

    >

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The whole process of killing “bad guys” in Afghanistan reminds me of an expression applied to the Vietnam War: Using a sledgehammer to kill a gnat.

    In Vietnam, the U.S. military used B-52s (“Arc Light” raids) and artillery (H&I), expending enormous amounts of explosive (the sledgehammer) to kill a few “guerrillas.”

    Now we use a bit less explosive power, but consider the resources here and the expense: satellites, command centers, drones, missiles, networks, hundreds of personnel, and in the end the target is a few “guerrillas” sitting around drinking tea. Of course, one might be a “bad guy,” but who knows about the others, who are just assumed to be enemy combatants as long as they are of a certain age.

    Perhaps, in this high-tech world, the new expression might be: Using a supercomputer to balance a checkbook.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. In America, “military age” for “males” (and possibly other genders) officially extends from 17 to 62.

      In Muslim countries occupied and/or bombed by the U.S. Military, “military age” extends from “old enough to throw a rock at your oppressors” to “not dead yet.”

      In America, “military age” males can own a gun and not serve in the military and yet not find themselves indefinitely imprisoned without charge or trial or summarily murdered by the President of the United States acting arbitrarily and in secret.

      In Muslim countries occupied and/or bombed by the U.S. Military, simply “being” of “military age” constitutes a crime against the United States of America, which “crime of being” then forces the President of the United States — despite his “deep moral reserve” and frequent contemplation of Thomas Aquinas and “Just War Theory” — to summarily murder or indefinitely incarcerate without charge or trial any such male of any such age — even American citizens — or anyone else within a blast radius of them on the grounds that they might someday harbor unkind thoughts about the United States and how it behaves towards Muslim countries.

      Which leads to thoughts in verse concerning:

      “Felonious Military Age Muslims”

      You’ve reached the age of fifteen years
      Or maybe eighty-five
      This makes of you a “militant”
      So why are you alive?

      Our president can kill you now
      His list contains your name.
      Intended, or if by mistake,
      He’ll kill you just the same

      The bomb will kill the one it hits,
      As well as those nearby
      Who had no business being born
      Unless it was to die.

      A free-fire-zone we called this dodge,
      All over Vietnam,
      Which meant to shoot just anywhere.
      Who gives a bloody damn?

      Obama’s body counts reveal
      Upon his magic map
      Some “progress” after decades spent
      Repeating this same crap.

      But Democrats now think him “tough”
      And cheer at each new kill.
      Republicans, of course, do not,
      And never ever will.

      And so the country lurches right
      As scapegoat Muslims fall,
      And fascist brownshirts thrill to see
      Obama “standing tall.”

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2012

      Liked by 3 people

    2. I read a book by a former Viet Cong. He told of those B-52 raids as terrifying. People would bleed from their ears if they were a mile away from the point of impact of a bomb. Craters made by the bombs would soon fill with water in that watery land of often flooded fields and people would drown from stepping in not knowing that what appeared to be just another shallow pool was actually deep enough for drowning.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I wonder if Judge O’Grady
    will match Daniel’s bravery
    Or …..
    lock truth up
    For speaking so honorably to power

    Bob Dylan painted these words on the canvass of his Oh Mercy! offering in the late 80’s….

    “Political World”

    We live in a political world
    Love don’t have any place
    We’re living in times
    Where men commit crimes
    And crime don’t have any face.

    We live in a political world
    Icicles hanging down
    Wedding bells ring
    And angels sing
    Clouds cover up the ground.

    We live in a political world
    Wisdom is thrown in jail
    It rots in a cell
    Is misguided as hell
    Leaving no one to pick up a trail.

    We live in a political world
    Where mercy walks the plank
    Life is in mirrors
    Death disappears
    Up the steps into the nearest bank.

    We live in a political world
    Where courage is a thing of the past
    Houses are haunted
    Children unwanted
    The next day could be your last.

    We live in a political world
    The one we can see and feel
    But there’s no one to check
    It’s all a stacked deck
    We all know for sure that it’s real.

    We live in a political world
    In the cities of lonesome fear
    Little by little
    You turn in the middle
    But you’re never sure why you’re here.
    We live in a political world
    Under the microscope
    You can travel anywhere
    And hang yourself there
    You always got more than enough rope.

    We live in a political world
    Turning and trashing about
    As soon as you’re awake
    You’re trained to take
    What looks like the easy way out.

    We live in a political world
    Where peace is not welcome at all
    It’s turned away from the door
    To wonder some more
    Or put up against the wall.

    We live in a political world
    Everything is hers and his
    Climb into the frame
    And shout God’s name
    But you’re never sure what it is.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Sadly, Daniel Hale got 45 months in prison for his act of patriotism and conscience.
    https://www.politico.com/news/2021/07/27/air-force-leaker-drone-secrets-45-months-prison-500814

    As usual, the U.S. punishes the patriot in the name of keeping secrets that, when disclosed, embarrass only the powerful.

    Speaking truth to power is a nice concept — but the truth-tellers almost invariably end up being punished.

    Of course, the Pentagon, CIA, etc. leak classified info all the time for self-serving reasons. They are never punished.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m sure he was white knucklin & sweating that out, but the Verdict could’ve been a lot worse. Made an example out of him. Why I could never stand the UCMJ!!!

    Like

  9. According to an article in The Guardian: the prosecution argued Hale knew the documents he was sharing “risked causing serious, and in some cases exceptionally grave, damage to the national security.'”
    I’m pretty sure it’s common knowledge (as in “universal”) the US doesn’t hesitate to use drones for killing people it doesn’t like.
    I’m also pretty sure it’s common knowledge (again, as in “universal”) that the US does so without remorse for what it calls “collateral damage.”
    Exactly who are these people who define and speak of “national security”?
    How threatened does anyone who participates in this forum feel by ISIS/Islamic State/the Taliban/Iran or anyone else shuffling around what used to be known as “the Near East”?
    The greatest threats to the US continue to reside and act within The Beltway.

    Liked by 2 people

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