Edited by Sam Thielman
ON THURSDAY, I joined Rep. Ilhan Omar, Steven Donziger, About Face's Natasha Erskine, my old pal Jesselyn Radack and the legendary Daniel Ellsberg to urge President Biden to commute the sentence of drone whistleblower Daniel Hale.
If you're not familiar with Daniel Hale or his story, read this wonderfully written profile by another old pal, Kerry Howley. If you are, you can sign your name to this petition agitating for Hale's release. If you'd like someone to make the argument for why you should, below are my remarks at Thursday's press conference.
For those of you who opened this email or loaded this link but aren't in a position to watch a video, I’ve included my remarks below. There are a few places where I went very slightly off script—mainly, Dan Ellsberg wasn't on the Zoom yet, so I didn't deliver the line referencing him—but the differences are very minor. Imagine I said "authorities" in the bit about "dismantling the operations and the institutions of the War on Terror." Anyway:
I'M NOT USED TO BEING on this side of a press conference, but I'm here because Daniel Hale shouldn't be in prison. Whistleblowers aren't spies, no matter what the Espionage Act says. It's a symptom of a broader institutional sickness in our government that a 100-year old law, a law passed during a previous era of American war hysteria, conflates the two.
I've spent 20 years of my life reporting on our current era of American war hysteria, known as the War on Terror. Most of the stories I'm proudest of having reported involved someone like Daniel. Someone inside the military, intelligence agencies, law enforcement or their associated contractors recognizes a grave mistake, injustice or crime occurring within their organizations. That mistake, injustice or crime often has official approval, explicit or implied, which usually means the mistake, injustice or crime is concealed from the public or presented within a misleading narrative. The official channels for voicing internal objections are rigged to perpetuate the mistake, injustice or crime that has official approval, explicit or implied.
The people who see these mistakes, injustices or crimes happening experience a crisis of conscience. They react to it the way we tell ourselves honorable people—people we want to be, people we teach our children to be like—would act. They don't look past it, even though that's the easiest and the safest option. They put themselves in jeopardy to expose it to the public. They do so as an act of faith in their fellow citizens, that we are a free people, and we are brave enough to stop the harms that our leaders commit in our name.
There's a long lineage of whistleblowers that Daniel Hale is now a part of, and no one could better exemplify that than Daniel Ellsberg, who you'll hear from shortly. But when I think of Daniel, I think of soldiers in Afghanistan a dozen years ago who came up to me when they heard there was a reporter on their base. They wanted to talk to me because they didn't understand how what they were ordered to do made any sense and the explanations they got from their commanders seemed to insult their intelligence. Meanwhile, on that same reporting trip, I interviewed generals who spoke confidently about how what they were ordering those soldiers to do would yield something like victory. Those soldiers spoke to me, even though they could have been disciplined for an unauthorized talk with a journalist, because they wanted the people they loved back home to know that the war was neither winnable nor worth fighting.
People like that may not necessarily leak classified documents, but they're on a continuum with those who do, because they're trying to fix something that's gone terribly wrong. If people like Daniel were the spies the Espionage Act implies, if they were out to harm or humiliate the United States, they would have peddled what they knew to a hostile intelligence service. Daniel was a drone operator. He worked with the Joint Special Operations Command. Think of how valuable, how lucrative, his brain would be to a foreign adversary. Instead he's convicted of revealing to journalists ways that the wartime panopticon built by the U.S. after 9/11 can kill people or, in the case of government watchlisting, obliterate their civil rights. It's a grim and unforgivable irony of the War on Terror that the slogan "If You See Something, Say Something" doesn't apply to people with a close-up view of the horrors and injustices committed in the name of counterterrorism.
Daniel should be out here riding his motorcycle. The country that trained and then imprisoned him should be dismantling the operations and the institutions of the War on Terror now that President Biden and so many other political leaders claim the 9/11 Era is over. In August 2021, defending the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the president remarked, "as we turn on the page on the foreign policy that has guided our nation the last two decades, we've got to learn from our mistakes." Mr. President, learning from our mistakes requires us to free Daniel Hale. If you don't commute his sentence, we're only turning the page on someone who tried to get us to learn from those very mistakes.
AND WITH THAT, we're going to return in 2023. I've got a freelance piece due in a month that I want to make progress on before the holidays. Maybe I'll do one more of these before 2023 for subscribers that will be filled with random stuff I want to say about books I've recently read and so forth. But before we otherwise say goodbye for the year, read this groundbreaking ProPublica piece by Lynzy Billing about the CIA's Afghan Zero Units, death squads comprised of Afghan men, often accompanied by their U.S. mentors, that terrorized Afghanistan in the name of saving it from the Taliban.
Billing's piece is an uncomfortable thing to recommend, both because of how wrenching—and personal—it is, and because we here at FOREVER WARS have been working on a different Zero Units story that I cannot responsibly say more about at present. But honestly? There's no chance our story would be on the same level. Billing interviewed over 350 people and worked with a forensic expert to investigate Zero Unit night raids. Her story sure does recontextualize how severely the Trump administration opposed an International Criminal Court inquiry into Afghanistan.
Over the next three and a half years, I did what it appeared that no one else was doing — nor will be able to do again — I tracked what the U.S.-trained and sponsored squads were doing on the ground, concealed from most of the world.
I cataloged hundreds of night raids by one of the four Zero Unit squads, which was known in Afghanistan as 02 unit, eventually identifying at least 452 civilians killed in its raids over four years. I crisscrossed hundreds of miles of Nangarhar interviewing survivors, eyewitnesses, doctors and elders in villages seldom, if ever, visited by reporters. The circumstances of the civilian deaths were rarely clear. But the grieving families I spoke to in these remote communities were united in their rage at the Americans and the U.S.-backed Kabul government. …
My reporting showed that even the raids that did end in the capture or killing of known militants frequently also involved civilian casualties. Far too often, I found the Zero Unit soldiers acted on flawed intelligence and mowed down men, women and children, some as young as 2, who had no discernible connection to terrorist groups.
I can't summarize this story, you have to read it for yourself. "You know, I became the bad guy, or maybe I wanted to be the bad guy all along," a Zero Unit veteran tells Billing. Billing gets Rahmatullah Nabil, one of the most important Afghan intelligence officials during what I guess we should call The American War, to admit that he and other senior officials knew the Zero Units conducted lethal raids based on bullshit intelligence and did not discipline anyone when the Zero Units killed innocents.
Meanwhile, the CIA, typically, told Billing "the Zero Units had been the target of a systematic propaganda campaign designed to discredit them because 'of the threat they posed to Taliban rule.'" But the Zero Units, established after 2008, turned out not to be that big a threat to the Taliban, didn't they? Turns out the threat the Zero Units posed was not to the Taliban but to Afghans like those in Kamal Khel in July 2019—a very recent moment Billing identifies as peak Zero Unit activity—whose "children were so covered in blood that it was difficult to guess their ages." One of them, Ghulam Rasul, who lost two teenage grandchildren, recalled receiving as compensation from the provincial governor "a parcel of rice, a can of oil and some sugar."
- I haven't yet had the time to listen to Mike Prysner's Eyes Left episode about Ron DeSantis at Guantanamo, so you should beat me there.
- WALLER VS. WILDSTORM, my debut comic book miniseries, has been re-solicited by DC Comics with a new release date of March 21, 2023! It's co-written by Evan Narcisse and illustrated by—I'm very proud to say—the comics giant Jesús Merino. Please remember to go to your local comics shop this holiday season and ask them to reserve you a physical copy, the metric by which comics companies determine success!
- I'm very, very grateful for all of you FOREVER WARS subscribers. For those of you reading this who aren't yet at the paid tier—well, it is the holidays and all… Please buy a subscription! For yourself and your loved ones! I'd like to keep writing this depressing newsletter this time next year!