In 2014, an anonymous person leaked more than 150 pages of classified material that revealed a lot about the American drone program. That leak was reportedly the basis of The Drone Papers, an expose by The Intercept published the following year. The revelations in The Drone Papers shook America to its core in the way these things so often do: by being almost totally ignored.
The Drone Papers was truly scathing in its reporting. The information The Intercept reviewed “shows that after a “kill operation” there is typically nobody on the ground to collect written material or laptops in the target’s house, or the phone on his body, or capture suspects and ask questions. Yet collection of on-the-ground intelligence of that sort — referred to as DOMEX, for “document and media exploitation,” and TIR, for “tactical interrogation report” — is invaluable for identifying future targets.”
In other words, drone strikes might be effective at killing targets, but they don’t gain anything beyond that. The U.S. doesn’t learn anything about the target or what they’re doing or their network. There is no intelligence to be gained through drone strikes.
But, surely, not everything requires intelligence? After all, drone strikes do kill targets. They just also kill a lot of other people. During a five-month period between 2012 and 2013, drone strikes in Afghanistan had an eye-popping 90% failure rate. That’s not “90% of the time, the strikes missed the target” but “90% of the people killed in U.S. airstrikes were not the intended target.” In some cases – many of which have been well-publicized – scores of civilians are killed because they happen to be nearby to a drone target, and occasionally it isn’t clear if there even was a valid military target at all.
The staggering rate at which the U.S., under three different presidents of two different parties, has killed civilians outraged enough folks that it pushed President Joe Biden to issue strict rules on the use of drone warfare in March 2021. Biden, who was vice president during the drone-happy Obama administration, has led the U.S. to a relatively drone-free era, but it’s still early in his four-year term and it remains to be seen if the U.S. will remain committed to the new rules, which require – among other things – that the White House give the go-ahead for drone strikes in areas where there aren’t U.S. troops on the ground already.
These revelations about drone strikes and the furor they’ve sparked came almost entirely from Daniel Hale. Hale was a contractor with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency in 2014 when he collected and leaked the documents because, in his own words, “the victorious rifleman, unquestionably remorseful, at least keeps his honor intact by having faced off against his enemy in the battlefield. But what possibly could I have done to cope with the undeniable cruelties that I perpetrated?”
Prosecutors wanted Hale imprisoned for over five years, citing the sentence given to Reality Winner. Winner revealed details of Russian election hacking to The Intercept and was sentenced to 63 months in prison in 2018, but was released in June 2021.
At his sentencing, a visibly shaken Hale said, “I couldn’t keep living in a world in which people pretended that things weren’t happening that were. Please your honor, forgive me for taking papers instead of human lives.”
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