The documents revealed the extent of civilian deaths in US drone strikes, which were touted for their supposed accuracy.
Daniel Hale, a former US Air Force intelligence analyst who helped leak information on the inner workings of the military’s controversial drone warfare programme, was sentenced to 45 months in prison on Tuesday.
The 33-year-old was indicted in 2019, after leaking documents including highly sought after information on how the military chooses its targets and the high numbers of civilians often accidentally killed using the supposedly precise method of warfare.
He told a judge in federal court in Virginia on Tuesday he chose to leak the documents to expose what he called “the lie that drone warfare keeps us safe, that our lives are worth more than theirs”.
“I am here because I stole something that was never mine to take — precious human life,” Hale said. “I couldn’t keep living in a world in which people pretend that things weren’t happening that were. Please, your honour, forgive me for taking papers instead of human lives.”
Since 2004, the US drone programme has killed between 9,000 and 17,000 people, according to various estimates, including potentially thousands of children and multiple US citizens, though accurate data is obscured by the government labelling casualties during drone strikes “enemies killed in action” unless proven otherwise.
“With drone warfare, sometimes nine out of 10 people killed are innocent,” Hale said on Tuesday. “You have to kill part of your conscience to do your job.”
Federal officials took a less idealistic view of Hale’s conduct. US district court judge Liam O’Grady, who presided over the trial, said the former analyst was “not being prosecuted for speaking out about the drone programme killing innocent people” and “could have been a whistleblower … without taking any of these documents.”
Meanwhile, assistant US attorney Gordon Kromberg wrote in a filing that the leaks had endangered national security.
“We do not know whether this information already has been or will be used in the future by terrorists or other foreign adversaries,” he said. “What we can be sure of is that Hale’s actions risked damage to the safety and security of Americans in the past, and will continue to do so in the future.
Officials implied that The Intercept, a news outlet focused on civil liberties and national security, received the leaked materials.
“Daniel Hale will spend years in prison for leaking documents that the government implied were published by The Intercept,” the outlet’s editor-in-chief Betsy Reed said in a statement on Tuesday.
“These documents revealed the truth about the US government’s secretive, murderous drone war, including that the killing of civilians was far more widespread than previously acknowledged. The Intercept will not comment on our sources. But whoever brought the documents in question to light undoubtedly served a noble public purpose.”