August 13, 2021

The Filmmaker Who Chronicles National Security Whistleblowers

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Daniel Hale was one of the drone whistleblowers featured in Sonia Kennebeck’s film, “National Bird,” and ahead of Hale’s sentencing, Kennebeck wrote a letter to Judge Liam O’Grady to share her experience working with him.

“Over the years, my team got to know Daniel as an intelligent, principled, and reliable person who took his military service and work in intelligence very seriously. We have also seen him be deeply caring and compassionate for people and specifically families, children, and other civilians who lived through wars and were affected by drone strikes,” Kennebeck recalled.

For the film, Hale shared, “The most disturbing thing about my involvement in drones is the uncertainty if anybody that I was involved in ‘kill or capture’ was a civilian or not. There’s no way of knowing.”

Hale was sentenced to 45 months in prison on July 27 after pleading guilty to violating the Espionage Act. He delivered a 17-minute speech in court, and Kennebeck was present at his sentencing to hear him eloquently describe the motivations behind his whistleblowing.

In this special edition of the “Dissenter Weekly,” Kennebeck discusses “National Bird” and working with Hale, as well as her two most recent films, “The United States vs. Reality Winner” and “Enemies of the State.”

She describes what led her to chronicle the stories of Reality Winner, Matt DeHart, and the drone whistleblowers in “National Bird.” And we delve a little bit into the struggle of making films that involve subject matters, which are all too often shrouded in secrecy.

Listen to the interview with Sonia Kennebeck:

“My story and my particular interest in national security goes back to 9/11,” Kennebeck shares. “I was born in Malaysia. I grew up in Germany, and I had a scholarship to study in Washington, D.C., in 2001. I arrived just a week or so before 9/11. I was actually interning at the time at NBC News and so I was at the Pentagon day after. And I also had four friends who survived the World Trade Center attacks in New York.”

Kennebeck adds, “I actually never studied film. I haven’t even taken a film class.” However, she studied international affairs and politics and worked as a journalist and producer in broadcasting. “Then I transitioned into independent documentary film” so she could produce longer and deeper investigations.

The work on “National Bird” started in early 2013, prior to the revelations from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and before any drone whistleblowers had spoken out publicly.

According to Kennebeck, “[Daniel Hale] only went in front of the camera to share his experiences and shine light on the victims and survivors of drone warfare. That was his motivation. He was plagued and traumatized by his experiences, but until this day he always wants to focus and wants people to focus on the victims and survivors.”

She was, like most in attendance, moved by Hale’s speech in court. “It was extremely impactful and also emotional.”

“It reminded me of the “Winter Soldier” testimonies around the Vietnam War in the early ‘70s, where people were listening to testimonies of veterans. I really felt that more people should have been able to hear him.”

“I knew how important it was for him during the filming of ‘National Bird’ to educate people about the secret drone war because there has been such a discrepancy between this world wide war essentially and the way this technology had been used for a such a long time and how little the citizens in this country know about it,” Kennebeck recalls.

“When I was touring with ‘National Bird,’ people came out crying after screenings and said things like, I had no idea these drones carry bombs. Or that these drones are as large and as massive as they are. Or they thought just because of the way politicians [were] describing drone warfare as these precision strikes that people had an impression that they would work like a sniper, and a drone does not carry these bombs and Hellfire missiles.”

As far as the case against NSA whistleblower Reality Winner, Kennebeck remembers discussing the indictment with her production partner Ines Hoffmann Kanna.

“Ines encouraged me to fly out and witness and see one of the pretrial hearings and maybe meet Reality Winner’s family. And what I saw there and found quite concerning was there was so little coverage,” Kennebeck states.

“There is such an increasing lack of original reporting. Major news outlets sending journalists on a regular basis to these type of pretrial hearings and events. This is an important part of our history and our current affairs. We need witnesses to it.”

The story of Winner was almost combined with the story of Matt DeHart (Enemies of the State) into one film. Ultimately, Kennebeck decided to plow ahead with a film on the first whistleblower prosecuted by President Donald Trump, even though she was not sure how funds would be raised for the production.

Both Billie Winner-Davis and Gary Davis, the parents of Reality Winner, are central characters in the film. It gives an audience a rare glimpse into what it is like for a family to go through an Espionage Act prosecution.

“The story of the parents is so important. It kind of shows people that even though the parents may have not been activists from the beginning—going to street protests and being advocates like Reality was before blowing the whistle—that it can still impact you,” Kennebeck contends.

Plus, what they survived can educate people about the dangers of mass surveillance and data collection.

“Their communications became evidence in the pretrial hearings. The most private jokes became entirely public.”

In fact, the messages were twisted to keep Winner confined in a local jail in Georgia until she was sentenced and transferred to a federal prison.

*Prior review of "Enemies of the State"