A former air force intelligence analyst was sentenced to 45 months in prison on Tuesday for leaking top secret information about the US government’s drone strike program to a journalist.
Daniel Hale of Nashville, Tennessee, has said he was motivated by guilt and a desire for transparency when he disclosed to an investigative reporter details of a military drone program that he believed was indiscriminately killing civilians in Afghanistan far from the battlefield.
“I believe that it is wrong to kill, but it is especially wrong to kill the defenseless,” he said in court, according to the Washington Post. He said he shared what “was necessary to dispel the lie that drone warfare keeps us safe, that our lives are worth more than theirs”.
In issuing the sentence, US District Judge Liam O’Grady cited the need to deter others from disclosing government secrets and told Hale that he had other options besides sharing classified information with a reporter.
“You are not being prosecuted for speaking out about the drone program killing innocent people,” said O’Grady. “You could have been a whistleblower … without taking any of these documents.”
Charges were brought against Hale amid a crackdown on government leaks by Donald Trump’s administration. The prosecution is one in a series of cases the justice department has brought in recent years against current and former government officials who have disclosed classified secrets to journalists.
As in other other leak cases, the arguments on Tuesday were less about whether Hale illegally shared information – he has openly acknowledged having done so – and more about whether the action harmed national security and the extent to which his motives should be taken into account.
Prosecutors had asked for a nine-year sentence, which would have been the longest punishment yet in a leak case.
They argued that Hale, who deployed to Afghanistan in August 2012 and was honorably discharged less than a year later, abused the government’s trust and knew the documents he was sharing “risked causing serious, and in some cases exceptionally grave, damage to the national security” but leaked them anyway. The prosecutors say documents leaked by Hale were found in an internet compilation of material designed to help Islamic State fighters avoid detection.
“[A]s a result of Hale’s actions, the most vicious terrorists in the world obtained documents classified by the United States as ‘Secret’ and ‘Top Secret’ – and thought that such documents were valuable enough to disseminate to their own followers in their own manuals,” the prosecutors wrote.
A signals intelligence analyst, Hale’s job when he deployed to Afghanistan entailed locating targets for drone strikes and tracking down cellphone signals linked to people believed to be enemy combatants.
After leaving the air force, Hale – feeling guilty over his role and believing he could make a difference in how targeted strikes were conducted – shared with a journalist he had previously met documents that showed the drone program was not as precise as the government claimed in terms of avoiding civilian deaths.
He described in an 11-page handwritten letter from jail the horror he said he felt as he watched videos of Afghan civilians killed in part because of work he had done to track them down.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t question the justification for my actions,” Hale wrote.
His lawyers argued in court papers that his altruistic motives, and the fact that the government had not shown that any actual harm occurred from the leaks, should be taken into account for a light sentence.
“He committed the offense to bring attention to what he believed to be immoral government conduct committed under the cloak of secrecy and contrary to public statements of then-President Obama regarding the alleged precision of the United States military’s drone program,” they wrote.
Associated Press contributed to this report