May 17, 2019

Daniel Hale arrested for being the source of The Drone Papers

(Updated: October 31, 2021)

Since the start of the Snowden revelations in June 2013, there have been more than 25 publications based upon classified documents provided by other leakers than former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Now, former intelligence analyst Daniel E. Hale has been identified as the source of six of these non-Snowden leaks. He was arrested on May 9 and charged with providing classified documents to the website The Intercept.

The case is highly remarkable, first because the FBI already found out Hale's identity almost five years ago and did not even arrest him when The Intercept published The Drone Papers in October 2015. Secondly, Hale did just as little to stay out of the picture: he featured in a documentary around the time the FBI raided his home.

Some of the slides and documents which Daniel Hale leaked to The Intercept
The abbreviations in the center slide are explained here
(click to enlarge)

Intelligence career

Daniel Everette Hale was born in 1987, is now 31 years old and living in Nashville, Tennessee. Despite his ideological disagreements with the military, he joined the US Air Force in July 2009 out of desperation because he was homeless. At the Air Force, he became a language analyst and was assigned to work at the National Security Agency (NSA) from December 2011 to May 2013.

From March to August 2012, Hale was deployed as an intelligence analyst in support of a task force of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, where he was mainly responsible for identifying and tracking targets for the drone program. He left the Air Force in July 2013.


In a letter to judge O'Grady from July 18, 2021, Hale says that only a few days after he arrived in Afghanistan, he witnessed how a group of men were killed by a drone strike, just because one of them carried a targeted cell phone and that since that time he questioned the justification for his actions.

In the same letter, he says that in December 2013 he got a job offer from a defense contractor and that at first he felt uneasy about working again for military intelligence, but that he still took the job because "the money I could make was by far more than I had ever made before".

From December 2013 to August 2014, he worked for the defense contractor Leidos (formerly SAIC), for which he was assigned to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which derives intelligence from geographical data and aerial and satellite imagery. There, Daniel Hale worked as a political geography analyst, for which he held a Top Secret/SCI clearance, just like for his previous job.

The 1.8 billion US dollar headquarters building for the ca. 16,000 employees of
the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in Fort Belvoir, Virginia
(photo: Marc Barnes/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Contact with Scahill

Already in April 2013, almost two months before the start of the Snowden revelations, Hale used his unclassified work computer at the NSA to search for information on Jeremy Scahill, who then worked for Amy Goodman's news program Democracy Now!. In October 2013, Scahill would join Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras to establish the investigative website The Intercept.

On April 29, Hale attended a presentation of Scahill's book "Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield" about the drone killings program under president Obama. The next day, Hale used his Top Secret NSA computer to search for classified information about people and issues about which Scahill wrote, according to the indictment.

Investigators had been able to retrieve Hale's text messages and found one which he sent to a close friend in May 2013, which read: " [Scahill] 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."

On June 8, Hale was again present at a book presentation, where he was seen and recorded on video (see below) sitting right next to Scahill. In the next months they contacted eachother by phone and by e-mail.

Although Hale had already used his classified work computer for searching about related topics, there are no indications that he was already planning to steal and leak classified documents, at least before September 2013, when Scahill asked him to set up a Jabber account for encrypted chat conversations.

Book presentation at Busboys & Poets in Washington, DC on June 8, 2013,
with Jeremy Scahill (center) and Daniel Hale (right)

Printing classified documents

According to the indictment, Daniel Hale used his classified work computer at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) to print classified documents for the first time on February 28, 2014 and he continued to do so until August 5, 2014.

In total, he printed 36 documents, including four duplicates. Nine documents were related to his work at NGA, but 23 did not. Hale provided at least 17 of these 23 documents to Scahill and/or The Intercept, which published them in whole or in part between July 2014 and December 2016:

A table from the indictment listing the 23 documents that Daniel Hale
printed at the NGA and were not related to his work.
(click to enlarge)

In an earlier posting on this weblog, I listed 28 revelations at various media platforms, accompanied by one or more leaked documents that were not attributed to Edward Snowden.

Trying to identify their source, I assumed that a then unknown "source nr. 3" was responsible for the documents that were scanned from paper and with a more or less military content:

Source nr. 3 (someone from US military intelligence?)
- NCTC watchlisting guidance
- NCTC terrorist watchlist report
- Ramstein AFB supporting drone operations
- The Drone Papers
- Cellphone surveillance catalogue
- FBI & CBP border intelligence gathering

Comparing the dates of these six publications with those in the table from the indictment leads to the following conclusions:

- Daniel Hale provided the documents for the first five revelations I attributed to Source nr. 3: from the "NCTC watchlisting guidance", which was published by The Intercept on July 23, 2014, to the "Cellphone surveillance catalogue" from December 17, 2015.

- The 14 original documents about "FBI & CBP border intelligence gathering", which I assumed could also have been provided by source nr. 3, are actually not among those that Hale printed out. Therefore, those files have to be leaked by someone else, probably an FBI or CBP employee.

- The indictment lists four unclassified documents (O, P, Q and R) and says these were published in December 2016, but so far no one seemed aware of a similar intelligence or national security revelation in that month.

Clapper's blog

Looking for articles that Jeremy Scahill published in December 2016 led me to a short story about James Clapper's blog called Intercept. It's indeed based upon four unclassified documents, which are again scanned from paper: a screenshot of a blog post from May 29, 2013, handwritten letters to and from Clapper and a few comments on that blog post.

This blog post is just a curiosity compared to the other documents, so it seems the only reason that Hale printed this out, is that the main comment, posted under the nickname "Wormy", is his own. The comment warns against increasing restrictions on civil liberties, with arguments based upon the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights - it reminds of how Snowden usually argues.

The documents leaked by Daniel Hale and published by The Intercept
(click to enlarge)

Raided by the FBI

On August 8, 2014, right after Daniel Hale's assignment at the NGA had ended, the FBI raided his home. This was just three days after he had printed out his last document at the NGA and some two weeks after The Intercept published its first article based upon his material, which means the FBI identified and found him rather quickly.

At his home, FBI agents found a thumb drive with the TOR software and the TAILS operating system, both used for anonymous internet communications. Also found was the unclassified (and unpublished) document T on his computer and one page of document A, which was classified Secret and published in October 2015, on a thumb drive.

Why Hale brought these files in digital form to his home, after having already printed the documents at his work place at the NGA, is not clear, but it was careless and unnecessarily risky.

It is not known how exactly Hale was traced, but a tweet from his lawyer, Jesselyn Radack seems to suggest that The Intercept failed at their source protection. That would be their third time, because NSA linguist Reality Winner and former FBI agent Terry Albury had already been arrested due to The Intercept's sloppyness.

But Daniel Hale was bad at operational security (OPSEC) too and did little to stay out of the picture: already in November 2013 he began speaking out publicly against the government's drone program at the "Ground the Drones" summit organized by Code Pink, where he apologized for his own participation in the program.

In January 2014, Hale also spoke at a rally outside the White House against the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. Again very similar to Snowden, who organized a Crypto Party while he was working for the NSA in Hawaii.

The big difference is that Hale just took a handful of selected documents that he thought were in the public interest, while Snowden (and Manning) acted just like the NSA: "collect before you select."

Featuring in National Bird

And just like Edward Snowden was being recorded on camera when his leaks came out in Laura Poitras' film Citizenfour, Daniel Hale was being interviewed for the drone whistleblower documentary National Bird around the time the FBI raided his home.

In National Bird it's mentioned that Hale was being investigated under the Espionage Act, allegedly because he was seen as a source for information about the drone program. The Intercept had already begun publishing the files he stole at the NGA, but of course Hale did not admit that on camera.

He just pretended that he didn't knew the reason for the investigation: it might had to do with the fact that he had worked for intelligence agencies and that he was politically active, which could have made the government suspicious.

Right after the release of National Bird in February 2016, at least some people must have noticed that Daniel Hale would make a perfect fit for being the source of The Drone Papers, but it seems they all kept quiet.

The full version of the 2016 documentary National Bird with German voice-over

Featuring in Citizenfour

Almost two years before Hale himself could be seen in National Bird, the information he leaked already appeared in Laura Poitras' film Citizenfour, which was released in October 2014. It shows Glenn Greenwald visiting Snowden in Moscow, telling him about a new source and writing the most sensitive details on sheets of paper.

When the camera zoomed in on the notes, it could be seen that the new source provided information about the chain of command for the drone strikes, the fact that their signals are relayed through Ramstein AFB in Germany (which would cause "a huge controversy") and that some 1.2 million people are in one way or another on a government watch list.

When Snowden expressed his concerns about the safety of the source, Greenwald reassured that they were "very careful in handling the source." Maybe they tried during the time Hale was handing over the documents, but given their prior non-secure contacts and Hale's public appearances, it was already too late for a sufficient source protection.

Glenn Greenwald informing Edward Snowden about The Intercept's new source
(still from the documentary film Citizenfour)

Interesting is that just before the scene in the Moscow hotel room, Citizenfour shows Jeremy Scahill talking to Bill Binney, former technical director of the NSA's World Geopolitical and Military Analysis Reporting Group, about how to handle confidential sources.

Binney gives the advice that the best way to talk to such sources is like Bob Woodward and Deep Throat did: meet physically in the basement of a parking garage.

We can assume that Daniel Hale met in a similar way with Scahill to hand over the documents he had printed out at the NGA. It's not clear though whether the conversation with Binney was recorded before or after these meetings, so at least Binney's advice was also meant for any future leakers.


For the relation between Hale and The Intercept the advice had come too late, and both must have known that, so apperently both were too eager to go along with publishing the files.

For The Intercept, the drone program seems to present the most clear and direct link between the NSA and actual illegal killings - despite the fact that these operations were actually run by the CIA, before Obama tried to transfer them to a military command.

Also, one of the slides leaked by Hale says that drone strikes will only occur when the presence of the target is based upon two forms of intelligence and all parties involved, being the local Task Force, the Geographic Combatant Command, the US Ambassador, the CIA Station Chief and the government of the host nation, have to concur or no strike occurs.

For Daniel Hale it may have become a moral mission to inform the public about the secret details behind the drone program and maybe this was also his way of making up his own involvement in the program during his time in Afghanistan.


Hale will appear before a judge on May 17. Under the Espionage Act of 1917, which doesn't distinguish between providing information to enemies or to the press, he can be sentenced to up to a maximum of 50 years imprisonment.

At least he has one of the best (and expensive) defense attorneys: Abbe Lowell, who recently represented Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner(!), and who apparently does Hale's case pro bono.

Update #1:

Daniel Hale's lawyers sought to have the case dismissed, arguing that the Espionage Act was intended to target spying and should not be used against whistleblowers who expose government wrongdoing. US District Judge Liam O'Grady rejected this motion and in December 2019, prosecutors were allowed to move forward with their case against Hale.

Update #2:

On March 31, 2021, Daniel Hale eventually pleaded guilty to leaking classified documents, just days before he was slated to go on trial in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, for violating the Espionage Act. Sentencing is scheduled for July 13.

Update #3:

On July 27, 2021, Daniel Hale was sentenced to 45 months in prison for violating the Espionage Act: "You could have been a whistleblower … without taking any of these documents" according to District Judge Liam O'Grady.

Links and sources

- Emptywheel: Daniel Hale, Citizenfive
- Intercepted Podcast: The Espionage Axe: Donald Trump and the War Agianst a Free Press
- Emptywheel: On the Curious Timing of Daniel Everette Hale’s Arrest
- Mint Press News: Another Whistleblower Bites the Dust as The Intercept Adds a Third Notch to Its Burn Belt
- The Washington Post: Former intelligence analyst charged with leaking drone details to news outlet
- Lawfare Blog: German Courts Weigh Legal Responsibility for U.S. Drone Strikes
- Zone d'Intérêt: U.S. Intelligence Support to Find, Fix, Finish Operations
- The Drone Papers: Acronyms, abbreviations, and initialisms

1 comment:

Clipping said...

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