According to the indictment, Hale worked as an intelligence analyst for the Air Force and later as a contractor assigned to the government's National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. The indictment says Hale began communications with a reporter in 2013 while at the Air Force and continued communications after going to NGA.
According to the indictment, Hale provided 11 Top Secret or Secret documents to the reporter and his online news outlet. Those documents were later published either in whole or in part. They include a secret memo outlining a military campaign against al-Qaeda overseas, a top secret intelligence report on an al-Qaeda operative, and a secret PowerPoint slide "outlining the effects of the military campaign targeting Al-Qaeda overseas," according to the indictment.
At an initial appearance Thursday afternoon in the federal courthouse in Nashville, U.S. Magistrate Judge Alistair Newbern ordered Hale released under pretrial supervision pending his next hearing, which is May 17 in Alexandria.
One of Hale's attorneys — Jesselyn Radack, who specializes in representing whistleblowers — said the investigation of Hale had essentially lay dormant for five years up until Hale's arrest. She said the Trump administration is continuing and escalating what she called "a toxic trend" started under the Obama administration of aggressively prosecuting legitimate whistleblowers.
"If you look at the charges, what he's accused of is classic whistleblowing," Radack said. "He contacted a reporter about a matter of extreme importance that's been shrouded in secrecy." Court papers do not identify by name the reporter who allegedly received the leaks, but details in the indictment make clear that Jeremy Scahill, a founding editor of The Intercept, is the reporter who received them.
The indictment states that many of the classified documents were disclosed in an October 2015 news article. On October 15, 2015, Scahill published an article on The Intercept titled "The Assassination Complex" that relies on "a cache of secret slides that provides a window into the inner workings of the U.S. military's kill/capture operations at a key time in the evolution of the drone wars."
The story says the documents "were provided by a source within the intelligence community who worked on the types of operations and programs described in the slides." Scahill's book, "Dirty Wars," was published in 2013, and the indictment indicates Hale and Scahill met while Scahill was promoting the book at a Washington, D.C., bookstore. The book reported on the use of drones to attack and kill targets like al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, among other things.
The indictment states that Hale listed his work with drones on kill and capture operations on his resume and quotes Hale in a text message to a friend stating that Scahill "wants me to tell my story about working with drones."
Betsy Reed, The Intercept's editor-in-chief, issued a statement Thursday saying they do not comment on matters related to anonymous sources. She did say the documents described in the indictment "detailed a secret, unaccountable process for targeting and killing people around the world, including U.S. citizens, through drone strikes. They are of vital public importance."
She criticized the Trump administration for following the path of the Obama administration in aggressively prosecuting leaks and using "the Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers who enable journalists to uncover disgraceful, immoral, and unconstitutional acts committed in secret by the U.S. government."
John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security, said in a statement that the indictment is the "latest step in the Department's efforts to stop the leaks of information that could damage the national security. We have brought four cases in the last two years and have secured three convictions thus far."
The Eastern District of Virginia, where Hale will be prosecuted, has been a frequent location over the years for cases involving leaks and whistleblowers. Prosecutors in Alexandria have filed criminal charges against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and against former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, though both so far remain overseas despite U.S. efforts to obtain their extradition.
In 2015, a judge imposed a 3 ½ year sentence on former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, who was convicted of exposing government secrets to a New York Times reporter. In 2013, another former CIA man, John Kiriakou, was sentenced to 2 ½ years in prison after pleading guilty to leaking a covert officer's identity to a reporter.
Kiriakou's indictment in 2012 prompted then-CIA Director David Petraeus to issue a statement reminding his agency's employees of the need for secrecy in their work. "When we joined this organization, we swore to safeguard classified information; those oaths stay with us for life," he said at the time.
In 2015, Petraeus pleaded guilty in federal court in North Carolina to a charge of unauthorized removal and retention of classified information. He was sentenced to probation.
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker in Washington and Jonathan Mattise in Nashville contributed to this report.