At the time of his death in a mysterious one-car crash and explosion, journalist Michael Hastings was researching a story that threatened to expose powerful entities and government-connected figures. That story intersected with the work of two controversial government critics—the hacker Barrett Brown and the on-the-run surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Any probe into Hastings’s untimely death needs to take into account this complex but essential background.
But First, the Raw Facts
A little over 12 hours before his car was incinerated on an LA straightaway on June 18, 2013, Hastings sent out a short email headed, “FBI Investigation, re: NSA.” In it, he said that the FBI had been interviewing his “close friends and associates,” and advised the recipients — including colleagues at the website Buzzfeed — “[It] may be wise to immediately request legal counsel before any conversations or interviews about our news-gathering practices or related journalism issues.” He added, “I’m onto a big story, and need to go off the radat [sic] for a bit.”
From: Michael Hastings
Date: Mon, Jun 17, 2013 at 12:56 PM
Subject: FBI Investigation, re: NSA
To: [REDACTED] [REDACTED] [REDACTED]
Hey [5 REDACTED WORDS] the Feds are interviewing my “close friends and associates.” Perhaps if the authorities arrive “Buzzfeed GQ”, er HQ, may be wise to immediately request legal counsel before any conversations or interviews about our news-gathering practices or related journalism issues.
Also: I’m onto a big story, and need to go off the radat for a bit.
All the best, and hope to see you all soon.
The next day, Hastings went “off the radar” permanently.
Here is a video that shows a lateral view of Hastings’s speeding car just before it crashed. (It shows at about 0.07.)
The Freedom of the Press Foundation and ProjectPM — the research wiki that Brown was involved with — are in the process of filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to learn if indeed Hastings was the subject of an FBI probe.
The FBI denial notwithstanding, a number of clues indicate that the proximity of Hastings to Brown and the work of ProjectPM may have been what spawned the purported investigation in the first place.
When the FBI raided the Dallas home of journalist Barrett Brown in March 2012, the travails of the Vanity Fair and Guardian contributor didn’t get much ink — that is, until Michael Hastings published an exclusive on the Brown raid on Buzzfeed.
The story included a copy of the search warrant that revealed why the government was so interested in Brown: Along with colleagues at the research wiki he started, ProjectPM (PPM), Brown was looking into a legion of shadowy cybersecurity firms whose work for the government raised all sorts of questions about privacy and the rule of law.
Since Hastings was familiar with the government contractors listed in the search warrant, he was also potentially culpable in whatever “crimes” the feds believed Brown and PPM were guilty of. Is this why he was being investigated in the days before his fatal crash on June 18, 2013? By then, Hastings had established a reputation as a fearless muckraker, whose stories often stripped the haloes from the powerful and well-connected:
- The besmirched “runaway” Special Forces general Stanley McChrystal, whose career Hastings had dispatched in a 2010 article for Rolling Stone
- The saintly General “King” David Petraeus—former commander of Central Command (CENTCOM), International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan, and head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
- Daniel Saunders—a former assistant US attorney for the Central District of California
- Former Secretary of State and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, with whose staff Michael had many pointed exchanges regarding State’s Benghazi spin.
“To Maintain and Cultivate an Enemies List”
In his profile on the blogging consortium True/Slant, Hastings confided that his “secret ambition” was “to maintain and cultivate an enemies list.” Such ironic distancing was Hastings’s way of making palatable an inherently cynical view of the world. He knew that power corrupted, and to effect change it was necessary to point out the Emperor’s glaringly naked flesh.
In this manner, he was much like his blogging colleague at True/Slant, Barrett Brown. So much so, in fact, that the latter approached Hastings to work on a project that would change the way the public viewed the murky world of intelligence contracting in the post-9/11 era.
For those unfamiliar with Brown’s tale, WhoWhatWhy has been chronicling his trials since February 2013. He is currently in federal custody in Ft. Worth, Texas, facing over a hundred years behind bars for researching 70,000 hacked emails obtained from the cybersecurity firm HBGary Federal and its parent company HBGary. At no point is the government alleging he was involved in the hack itself. His putative “crime” is doing what investigative reporters are supposed to do: digging for the truth about breaches of the public trust.
To do this, Brown pioneered a collaborative wiki where researchers and journalists could sift through these emails and create an encyclopedia from the information contained within. This was known as ProjectPM (PPM).
In 2009, Brown invited Hastings to join forces on PPM, but Hastings’s interest was tempered by other commitments. When the two spoke next, Hastings told Brown he was working on something big.
“Not One of Us”
Hastings was referring to his impending 2010 article, “The Runaway General,” for Rolling Stone, in which he quoted several high-ranking military officials from within Gen. McChrystal’s inner circle disparaging their civilian command. The article caused a stir in official Washington, and eventually led to McChrystal being relieved of duty by President Obama.
Amid the fallout from this journalistic coup, an interesting narrative began forming in certain sectors of the press: “Michael Hastings is not one of us.” Hastings had broken one of the rules governing Washington’s hermetic circle of “access journalism” by quoting his subjects without their express permission. Elsewhere, most working reporters would call this, well, journalism.
Brown was quick to defend Hastings, penning an article for Vanity Fair titled, “Why The Hacks Hate Michael Hastings.” Later, the two blurbed each other’s books, further cementing their professional relationship.
One thing they shared was a deep discontent with the mainstream media. Indeed, Brown says, they were “obsessed with coming up with ways to change the dynamic.”
The busy Hastings never fully immersed himself in the work of PPM. “[Hastings] was an outlet for us to pass things to,” says Alan Ross, better known on PPM’s Internet relay chat (IRC) as Morpeth. “His relationship was one of talking to Barrett in my experience, rather than direct involvement in PPM.” He was “more of an associate than a member.”
“Get ready for your mind to be blown.”
For Hastings, Brown was clearly a confidential source—the type that flourishes best when kept in the dark and away from other reporters. Yet on January 24, 2013, Hastings tweeted that he was finally beginning to work on the Brown story, telling his interlocutors to “get ready for your mind to be blown.”
Kevin Gallagher, the administrator of Brown’s legal defense fund at FreeBarrettBrown.org, said Brown and Hastings hadn’t been able to talk securely in eight or nine months, but that after a few months of back and forth with Brown’s lawyers Hastings finally planned on interviewing him in custody in June.
After whistleblower Snowden’s bombshell revelations of dragnet surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA), Hastings wrote an article on June 7 that referenced Brown for the first time since April 2012. Titled “Why Democrats Love To Spy On Americans,” it lambasted supposedly liberal Democrats for their Bush-like surveillance fixation and their unrelenting war on those who seek to expose the operations of the surveillance state:
“Transparency supporters, whistleblowers, and investigative reporters, especially those writers who have aggressively pursued the connections between the corporate defense industry and federal and local authorities involved in domestic surveillance, have been viciously attacked by the Obama administration and its allies in the FBI and DOJ.
“Barrett Brown, another investigative journalist who has written for Vanity Fair, among others [sic] publications, exposed the connections between the private contracting firm HB Gary (a government contracting firm that, incidentally, proposed a plan to spy on and ruin the reputation of the Guardian’s [Glenn] Greenwald) and who is currently sitting in a Texas prison on trumped up FBI charges regarding his legitimate reportorial inquiry into the political collective known sometimes as Anonymous.”
The article ended with “Perhaps more information will soon be forthcoming.”