After the Vietnam War, the United States and its military-industrial complex had a big problem. Protests at home had led the Pentagon to abandon the draft in the 1970s in favor of a leaner all-volunteer military. If America intended to remain an imperial power throwing its military weight around, it would need to do so with as few boots on the ground as possible. In conflicts from Iraq to Somalia, the brass hoped to rely on superior air power. Since the turn of the millennium that’s increasingly meant drone warfare — unmanned, able to attack enemy targets from the skies with zero risk of American casualties.
“Now we kill people without ever seeing them,” Navy Rear Adm. Gene La Rocque told a reporter in 1995. “Now you push a button hundreds of miles away ... Since it’s all done by remote control, there’s no remorse ... and then we come home in triumph.”
I’ve never seen a better summary of modern Pentagon philosophy carried out through a generation of “forever wars” that have aimed — sometimes immorally, often ineptly — to fight murky enemies in a wide swath of nations on the other side of the world such as Afghanistan, where in 20 years the U.S. spent $2.2 trillion with little to show for it except for thousands of deaths, including innocent Afghans killed at their weddings by drone strikes.
I know La Rocque’s words because they were highlighted recently by a remarkable young man named Daniel Hale. In 2012, Hale was an Air Force intelligence officer in Afghanistan who used cell phone data to track people — sometimes as far away as Yemen — that U.S. intelligence suspected were terrorists, occasionally watching the drone attacks that incinerated them. Now 33, Hale stood up late last month in a federal courthouse in Virginia and accepted a 45-month prison sentence for his work as a whistle-blower trying to alert citizens about the drone program, an effort that led him to plead guilty to violating the 1917 Espionage Act.
Hale, who’d provided documents to The Intercept that led to stories publicizing how the U.S. drone assassinations worked and many of the abuses, said he was haunted by remotely watching an August 2012 missile strike that targeted supposed al-Qaeda members in Yemen but killed two respected villagers who’d been opposing terrorism. The young officer was horrified when he heard a brother of one of the murdered men speak about the senseless incident at an anti-war conference after he’d returned home the following year.
Before his sentencing, Hale wrote a lengthy letter to the judge in which he said he remained haunted by the “graphic violence carried out from the cold comfort of a computer chair. Not a day goes by that I don’t question the justification of my actions. By the rules of engagement, it may have been permissible for me to have helped 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.” But he found it morally quite wrong. Hale said he came to feel the “forever war” was being waged for defense contractors and, “When I think about this I am grief-stricken and ashamed of myself for the things that I’ve done to support it.”
One of the things that struck me about Hale’s story is that it’s not unique. Quite the opposite of that U.S. rear admiral’s cocky boast that American men and women would operate drones to kill supposed enemies with “no remorse,” a community of young ex-troops or intelligence officers have become anti-war activists or even whistle-blowers like Hale.
I’ve been chronicling the case of Reality Winner, also an Air Force veteran who’d been trained as a linguist in order to monitor conversations in languages such as Farsi and Pashto, also troubled that the information was used to target drone attacks. In 2017, back home and working for a defense contractor with a security clearance, she leaked a document to The Intercept showing the government was hiding the extent of Russian efforts to hack the 2016 presidential election. Winner was also prosecuted under the Espionage Act — which prevents whistle-blowers like her or Hale from offering a moral defense for their actions — and sentenced to a lengthy 63 months. Now on home release, supporters are still pleading for President Joe Biden to pardon her.
Heather Linebaugh, who was a geospatial analyst working on the drone program for the Air Force from 2009 to 2012, told a 2016 documentary called National Bird — which chronicled both the psychic toll on the American operators and the even more haunting impact on villagers who lived in constant fear of their flying death machines — about the PTSD that she and many others suffered. In the groundbreaking work by filmmaker Sonia Kennebeck, Linebaugh said “sometimes you’ll stick around and watch family come and get them or, like, pick up the parts and put their family member in a blanket. And a couple people hold onto a corner of the blanket, and carry him back to their compound.”
After Hale’s sentencing, it’s hard to say what is more frustrating about it. Is it the rigidity of Justice Department prosecutors in wielding the powerful club of the Espionage Act and winning ridiculously long sentences against whistle-blowers, despite considerable evidence that their courage posed no significant threat to national security, while informing American citizens what is being done in their name? Or is it the fact that Hale’s compelling case — which led some to compare him to the surveillance whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who received tons more publicity — was buried and received virtually no mainstream coverage from a mainstream media distracted by COVID-19 and still obsessed with the follies of The Former Guy?
That’s the thing: The lack of public outrage — and even the ho-humming over whistle-blowers like Hale or the others who have bravely criticized the program — was pretty much the whole idea behind the flying death robot concept. The Pentagon guessed right that Americans wouldn’t rise up to protest our military meddling overseas if their next-door neighbors weren’t coming home from some far-away land in body bags, and thus not question our dubious entanglements in places like Afghanistan, or places where we didn’t even know we were fighting, like Niger. The damaged psyches of Americans like Daniel Hale, Reality Winner, or Heather Linebaugh are just the collateral damage, along with the carnage — including between 900 and 2,200 innocent civilians — in those distant nations.
I want to publicize Hale’s courage and his words because I hope they’ll serve as ammunition for lawmakers on Capitol Hill who are still fighting — after 20 years — to undo the congressional authorizations for the 2003 war in Iraq and the 2001 vote for an amorphous “war on terror” that has been used to justify endless conflict with virtually no accountability. Our knowledge of the immoral nature of drone warfare should also buck up support for President Biden as — in the face of enormous criticism from the military-industrial complex — he finally winds down the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan this summer.
But that’s not enough. It’s time that President Biden acknowledge the public good achieved by whistle-blowers in this era of rampant government corruption, and reward the bravery of Hale and Winner — who knew they would be punished for their actions, and who have been, severely — with a small measure of his own courage by issuing them a pardon. Scrubbing at the stain of a shameful episode in American history is long overdue.
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