Daniel Everette Hale was the best dishwasher in Nashville. He was faster, more efficient, more knowledgeable about the machinery that makes a restaurant run. He could predict when the kitchen would need bowls and when small plates; he could take apart the dishwasher and deliver an impromptu lecture on the proper cleaning thereof. He was 31, slight, with a buzz cut and tattoos down his taut forearms, and while he thought himself the best, in the minds of the men for whom he worked he was a touch too invested. If something broke, such as a spray nozzle, he’d show up the next day with a new spray nozzle and tools to install it, having never checked with management at all, at which point management might say, “Daniel, we already had a backup spray nozzle.” Despite the excellence of his washing, he had been fired many times from many kitchens for generally being a pain in the ass. He was, for instance, persistently pressing the staff to demand higher wages and was repeatedly disappointed that the staff seemed uninterested.
There was only one restaurant that lived up to the standards of the best dishwasher in Nashville. This was Folk, which Daniel recalls as a “beautiful, just beautiful brandnew restaurant with, like, impeccable aesthetics and these big ceiling-high windows that let the light shine in during the midday and a beautiful marble bar and all these fresh, locally sourced ingredients.” The staff was disciplined and well trained and not given to the episodes of sexual harassment he had seen in other restaurants. In the open kitchen, he discovered “this really cool dish machine, a single-rack dish machine I hadn’t used before.” The staff was “like a family,” and the muchcelebrated chef was “always, always there,” not at all like the “complete asshole dirtbag restaurant guys” he’d worked for before. But eventually, as he had in many other Nashville kitchens, Daniel became too difficult an employee to manage, too time-consuming in his ever-expanding list of ideas for improvement, and one evening in May 2019, the chef let him go.
Daniel got drunk, met a woman, went home with her, and immediately regretted it. In the night, he opened a condom but didn’t use it. He returned to his apartment early the next morning and called a close friend to whom he would lament the loss of his job. “I loved it there,” he was telling his friend, there on the porch on a wet May morning in Nashville. “I loved it. I loved every minute of it.”
Daniel heard a rustling in the leaves beside the porch and thought perhaps it was his roommates, though in retrospect they would not be up at 6 a.m. on a Thursday. He stopped speaking.
A man in black ran toward him with a drawn gun. Then two more men. Then six.
This is it, Daniel thought. Finally.
The FBI agents swarmed him, searched him. The last time this had happened, the agents had seemed to Daniel contemptuous, but these guys seemed slightly embarrassed as if to acknowledge that it was all “a little excessive.” An FBI agent stuck his hand in Daniel’s pocket and pulled out the unwrapped condom.
“You couldn’t have warned me?” the agent said.
On the drive to work that morning, the chef turned on NPR, which is how he learned that the dishwasher he had just fired had been seized for stealing documents about the secret assassination program we have come to call the drone war.
ANYONE CAN BUILD A combat drone. If you build a drone for your little makeshift country, no one will be impressed. We may think of drones as indestructible, ironclad, and this is the impression defense companies attempt to impart with the hard names they give the machines they build—Predator drone, Reaper drone, Hunter drone—but in fact the original word, drone, is elegantly apt, and all of these are an attempt to mask the dumb delicacy it captures. Drones are flimsy, light little wisps of things, vulnerable to lost signals and sleepy pilots, vulnerable to gusts of wind and hard rain, lightning, ice. You will send a drone whirling into the sand should you turn too hard into a breeze or press the wrong button on your joystick; should you fly into an area of excessive electromagnetic noise or accidentally fly the drone upside down for a long while, oblivious. They slam into mountains, crash into other planes, fall into farms, sidewalks, and waterways. Sometimes they simply go silent and float away, never to be found again. Hundreds and hundreds of military drones we have lost this way, scattered across the globe. It’s okay. They’re cheap. We make new ones.
What is notable is not the drone but the network that keeps it aloft. This is where American power asserts itself: the satellites we rocket into the sky and the shallow-bowled receivers we nail to the ground. Concrete bases, trucks dragging satellites in their beds, the cables American soldiers lay in ditches they’ve dug into someone else’s dessert. (“A fuckton of cables,” as one whistleblower explained it to me.)
Most of this hard and heavy infrastructure is maintained in a secrecy upheld by the CIA, which runs one drone program, the military, which runs another, the agencies that serve them, and the contractors that serve the agencies. In 2015, an insider leaked dozens of pages of documents about the inner workings of the American drone program, including information about the bureaucracy behind the “kill list” over which Barack Obama then presided. The Intercept published an eight-part series centered on these documents that became a book. “A ‘second Snowden’ Leaks to The Intercept,” announced CNN, an alliteration that would prove irresistible across media; “A Second Snowden Has Leaked a Mother Lode of Drone Docs,” read a headline in Wired. Amnesty International called for a congressional investigation. First Snowden called it “an astonishing act of civil courage.”
Nearly no one knew who Second Snowden was then or for years afterward. After he was seized in the early-morning raid and released on bail and prosecuted through a pandemic, he stopped shaving and grew what a friend called “a ZZ Top beard.” He lost weight and began to wear clothes donated by concerned acquaintances; someone else’s large khakis hung off him, the waistband folded over, a belt yanked to the last loop. Friends pressed him to go public with the story of how and why, but Daniel maintained that in talking about himself, he would be taking the spotlight from victims of the drone war. He rarely left his room.
In November 2020, his housemate coaxed him out for a beer at a place called Moreland’s Tavern in Northwest D.C. When Daniel arrived, eight people he knew were seated at tables outside in the cold. The intervention had been arranged by the housemate and by one of Daniel’s closest friends, an activist named Noor Mir, who knew that Daniel was hesitant to impose on people and that he needed help. “I think it’s hard for men to understand that it’s okay to feel really, really scared,” Mir told me.
They went around the table, one by one, and told Daniel that he had to get his shit together. He needed to participate in his defense. He needed to prepare for the possibility of prison. He needed to consider the future care of his cat. He needed to tell his story because if he failed to do that, the prosecution’s story would stand unchallenged. Daniel had his feet on a chair, his arms around his knees, supremely uncomfortable. Two hours in, the last person said what he had come to say. They waited for Daniel to respond.
“All right, everybody,” he said, half-smiling for the first time that evening. “Can we shut the fuck up now?”
Daniel told none of his friends he was ready to talk, but on April 4, he called me. He said he didn’t want to be called a whistleblower. He preferred the word traitor.
No one owns a secret state, and no one answers for it. There was a moment in 2012, 2013, when various people outside Yemen and Pakistan and Afghanistan began to notice that inside Yemen and Pakistan and Afghanistan, the U.S. was waging constant, secret war under a set of rules known to few. It was May 2013 when Obama finally felt it necessary to give his big drone speech, in which he acknowledged that drones were morally complicated, promised to “review proposals to extend oversight,” deemed them an unfortunate necessity for the safety of Americans, and generally gave the impression that he would make the program accountable. But everything of note that happens in this story happened after such gestures were forced, and made, and forgotten.
DANIEL DID NOT come to the Air Force so much as he surrendered. He had grown up the son of a disapproving, Bible-quoting truck-driver father in Bristol, Virginia, which is just across the state line from Bristol, Tennessee. He is a descendant of Nathan Hale, hanged by the Brits in 1776 for attempting to pose as a Dutch schoolmaster and steal information on troop movements (according to Daniel, “not a very good spy”). Daniel’s parents were under constant stress: food pantries, endless dinners of rice and beans. The services he attended as a child were “fire and brimstone”—country music, his sister said, was sufficiently sinful to send you to hell. Among the various Appalachian churches was one, Emmanuel Baptist Church, where the pastor was revealed to be raping and torturing a young girl he and his wife had kidnapped. It was 1998, and Daniel was 11.
By the time he finished high school, Daniel trusted a single source of information, which was Democracy Now! Daniel’s father had, from a very young age, suggested the military as a way out of poverty, but Daniel was already on an intellectual journey in which he would come to see Edward Snowden as insufficiently extreme; he wanted nothing to do with it. He tried enrolling in a regional UVA campus and dropped out. He tried community college and dropped out. He met a friend on the internet playing World of Warcraft, moved to Vegas to look for work at a casino, could find no such work (“I was kind of a dipshit at the time,” he says), and moved back home. He answered a job ad that said it did not require experience and was given a bus ticket to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he joined a bunch of kids he describes as “mostly runaways.” The company put them up, two to a room, in hotels, and had them selling magazines door-to-door. You could get rich, the managers said, if you kept at it. You could be like them. It would be hard to imagine a worse salesman than Daniel Hale, who once told me he has frequent nightmares because “any person of conscience in America builds up a sense of dread.” Humiliated, he asked his dad for a ride home. Now he was in Bristol again, 21, with no real prospects and a sense of how brutal the world could be to a man with no skills for which the world had asked. He and his father got into a fight that became physical. Daniel walked into a military-recruitment office in a strip mall near a Walmart. He took a test, aced it, and was told he could do anything he wanted.
It wasn’t so bad, the life he had accepted when no others made themselves known, under a new president who made promises in which it was tempting to believe: the closing of Guantánamo, an end to forever war. Daniel assumed it was impossible to be a president without becoming a war criminal, but he had attended an Obama rally in his hometown. At the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, he studied Mandarin for the greater glory of the state. He adored his classmate Michael, with whom he had long conversations about politics and indie rap. He thought a lot about ways to get dishonorably discharged, but he woke up in the morning and went to class.
Obama did not in fact close Guantánamo in his first 100 days. He did not end the drone program or usher in a new age of transparency. Not a week into office, he authorized two drone strikes that killed 14 people, many of whom were not the targets. Obama increased the tempo of attacks and would, two years later, introduce the novel element of killing American citizens. At first, the strikes had been limited to “Al Qaeda and associated forces,” but gradually they were found useful for forces it was extremely hard to argue were associated with Al Qaeda. It was useful, Obama found, to employ drone strikes against the tribal enemies of various governments the U.S. was supporting. It was useful to target not just high-ranking members of various organizations but low-level members; useful to evolve the whole thing from an assassination program to a holistic counterinsurgency machine. In parts of Pakistan, locals had stopped drinking Lipton tea, out of fear that the tea bags were homing devices used by the CIA to attract drones.
In early 2001, the U.S. did not know how to launch a missile from a Predator drone without damaging the drone. In early 2001, one could not have run an assassination program based on geolocation, simply because terrorism was not yet run on cell phones. Fourteen years later, the Pentagon was planning to spend nearly $3 billion on unmanned aerial vehicles in a single year. The president had access to technologies available to no president before him, and he opted to use them.
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