At the end of his life, Michael Hastings, like many of the progressive journalists he counted among his friends, felt besieged by an overreaching government. Hastings was living in Los Angeles, and at a Beverly Hills theater in April, he took part in a panel discussion about the documentary War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State. Interviewed in May on The Young Turks, a talk show on Current TV, Hastings railed against the Obama administration, which “has clearly declared war on the press”; the only recourse, he said, was for the press to respond: “We declare war on you.” On May 31, he dashed off an urgent tweet: “first they came for manning. Then Assange. Then fox. Then the ap.drake and the other whistle-blowers. Any nyt reporters too.” He attended screenings of his friend Jeremy Scahill’s film Dirty Wars, which seeks to expose “the hidden truth behind America’s expanding covert wars,” and when leaks about the NSA began appearing in The Guardian, and Edward Snowden was charged with espionage, Hastings was deeply troubled by the revelations and the Justice Department’s response. On June 7, his last post for BuzzFeed, where he was a staff writer, focused on “Why Democrats Love to Spy on Americans,” and at the time of his death, Hastings was working on a profile of CIA director John Brennan for Rolling Stone.
It was for Rolling Stone, where Hastings had a contract, that he’d written “The Runaway General,” the 2010 article that resulted in the cashiering of General Stanley McChrystal, America’s commander in Afghanistan, and made his name as a journalist. Mark Leibovich, in this summer’s inside-the-Beltway big read, This Town, describes Hastings’s McChrystal piece as “the most consequential” journalism of 2010 and possibly Obama’s entire first term. But despite going after big game, Hastings tended to be nonchalant about possible repercussions. “Whenever I’d been reporting around groups of dudes whose job it was to kill people,” he said once, “one of them would usually mention that they were going to kill me.”
By the middle of June, though, Hastings, then 33, had become openly afraid. Helicopters are a common sight in the Hollywood Hills, but he had told Jordanna Thigpen, a neighbor he’d become close to, that there were more of them in the sky than usual, and he was certain they were tracking him. On Saturday the 15th, he called Matt Farwell, his writing partner, and said Farwell might be interviewed by the FBI. Farwell was unsettled. “He was being really cagey over the phone, which was odd, very odd,” Farwell says. On the 17th, Hastings e-mailed colleagues at BuzzFeed to warn them that “the Feds are interviewing my ‘close friends and associates’ ”; he was “onto a big story” and needed to go “off the rada[r] for a bit … hope to see you all soon.”
“He was deeply agitated,” says The Young Turks host Cenk Uygur. Since Hastings didn’t want to say anything more over e-mail or the phone, Farwell, who lived in Virginia, set up a lunch for him the following Thursday with a trusted friend of Farwell’s, also in L.A., so that she could pass along whatever Hastings had to tell him on her forthcoming trip East.
The lunch never happened. At 4:20 a.m. on Tuesday, June 18, Hastings’s silver Mercedes C250 coupe, speeding south on Highland Avenue, crossed Melrose, jumped the median, hit a palm tree, and exploded. The charred body of the driver was identified by the Los Angeles coroner as John Doe 117 until fingerprints confirmed that the deceased was Michael Hastings.
Sergeant Joe Biggs, who met Hastings in 2008, when the reporter, on assignment for GQ, was embedded with his unit in Afghanistan, hadn’t spoken to his friend in three months, but Hastings had BCC’d him on the June 17 e-mail to BuzzFeed colleagues. “I tried calling him when I got that e-mail,” Biggs says, “ ’cause I felt so fucking scared, because it didn’t seem like him.” Biggs e-mailed BuzzFeed, too. “They weren’t helpful at all. I kept e-mailing back, ‘What should we do? I’m not a journalist. I don’t know how to go about this stuff.’ They never responded to me.” Biggs tried contacting other media to let them know about the ominous e-mail; the only person who got back to him was a local L.A. reporter. “If that thing didn’t get released,” Biggs told me when I first called him, two weeks after Hastings’s death, “people would keep thinking it was an accident.”
Hastings lived as he died. On the small side, with blue eyes and scruffy good looks that suggested Jude Law’s little brother, he did everything fast: chain-smoking Parliament Lights, calling and e-mailing people late at night, speaking in a jittery torrent, churning out copy. (The first, long draft of his McChrystal article was a 48-hour production.) “The dude was exhausting,” Farwell says. “He just kind of vibrated energy. He had a deep well of moral outrage and sadness that I think goes back to a lot of the hypocrisy he saw and felt.”