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Who Killed Michael Hastings?

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When Hastings moved back to the States, his grief was never far from the surface. Katie Connolly, a fellow Newsweek reporter, met Hastings for the first time at the Detroit airport and spent the next six hours driving with him to a remote island that was the site of a Republican retreat. “We talked the whole time,” she recalls. “He told me all about Andi and about his experiences in Iraq. It was an incredibly intense car ride. He was crying. I was crying. It was a very intense way to start a friendship.”

Hastings could have been forgiven for never reporting from a war zone again, but he kept going back, including on a December 2010 trip to Afghanistan for Rolling Stone. Promised an interview with a warlord outside Kandahar, Hastings disregarded his bodyguard’s warning and his own apprehensions and got into a white Corolla that moved through the city and toward Herat. Nothing happened in the end, but it easily might have. “You never put yourself in these situations, but you always seem to find yourself in them,” he would write of that episode. “I know it’s a risk, I know it’s not a healthy lifestyle. I know it’s an addiction; I know it’s the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.”

When Jeff Hastings, who served in infantry units in Iraq and Afghanistan, later read his brother’s account of the trip, he was alarmed. “That’s extreme. That could have been partially because of his experience with Andi dying. I’m sure he had tons of guilt. When Andi died, my thought was: Mike or I should have died; she shouldn’t have died.

It was another trip to a war zone that gave Hastings a measure of fame. In early 2010, he pitched Rolling Stone on a story about Afghanistan as “the forgotten war” and about the man leading U.S. operations there: General Stanley McChrystal. The magazine’s editors were skeptical, but Hastings impressed them with his instincts for maneuvering past barriers, and by April, Hastings was with McChrystal and his entourage in Paris as they loosened their epaulets and got hammered at Kitty O’Shea’s Irish Pub. He captured a McChrystal adviser referring to Joe Biden as “Bite Me” and McChrystal expressing disdain for diplomats like Richard Holbrooke and Karl Eikenberry. The story, titled “The Runaway General,” marshaled the McChrystal crew’s trash talk to argue that the military leadership was running a rogue operation whose counterinsurgency strategy had turned the Afghan War into a quagmire.

The day after the article was published, McChrystal was summoned to Washington by President Obama, who accepted his resignation. Hastings, still in Kandahar, told an interviewer for Newsweek that he was “shocked by the response.” He wasn’t being disingenuous, according to those who knew him. He’d thought it would be a great magazine story with the makings of a book. But that was all. “I bet people don’t believe he didn’t expect McChrystal to get fired,” Cullen says, “but I know it’s true, ’cause he told me many times. He’d blurt it out; it would never occur to him to bullshit about that.”

Right away, though, the article came in for reproach from other journalists, who seemed skeptical that this glossy-magazine interloper could have elicited scenes of such impolitic candor from an American military leader. CNN.com ran an opinion piece: “ ‘Runaway general,’ or runaway reporter?” The Washington Post quoted anonymous “officials close to McChrystal” claiming Hastings had broken agreed-upon ground rules and used “clearly off the record” material. CBS News’s Lara Logan, appearing on CNN’s Reliable Sources, said, “Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has.” David Brooks suggested Hastings had read too much meaning into garden-variety “kvetching.”

The government undertook two investigations into the episode, ostensibly to assess its own officials’ misconduct. The first, by the Army, blamed a single McChrystal aide for many of the comments but didn’t question Hastings’s reporting. The second, by the Pentagon’s inspector general, determined that “not all of the events at issue occurred as reported in the article,” though this seemed an overstatement of the findings, which were simply that no one remembered certain things described by Hastings. The New York Times uncritically repeated the Pentagon’s conclusions in an article headlined “Pentagon Inquiry Into Article Clears McChrystal and Aides.”

Even after Hastings’s death, the suggestion would linger that something hadn’t been quite right with his big scoop. The Times obituary prompted an unusual rebuke from public editor Margaret Sullivan, who found it to have overweighted the Pentagon inspector general’s report in such a way that “the obituary seems to diminish his work’s legitimacy.”

Hastings won a Polk Award for the article, but the backlash from colleagues was at least as great a boon to his career. He got his Rolling Stone contract. He was booked on The Colbert Report. And within a week of the article’s publication, he’d cranked out a book proposal, and Little, Brown had made a preemptive offer reported to be in “the high six figures.”


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