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Why was the FBI looking into a Michael Hastings story about a missing soldier?
The FBI got angry about a recent Al Jazeera story on the agency’s interest in Michael Hastings. The question is, why?
On Monday, journalist Jason Leopold wrote an article for Al Jazeera America about the FBI’s interest in the recently deceased journalist Michael Hastings. The piece unexpectedly drew the ire of the bureau; the following day Leopold tweeted that an FBI spokesperson called him and “reamed me out [about] Hastings’ story. She said she’s going to say bad things [about] me to reporters.”
“I’ve had a lot of people say bad things about me,” Leopold told the Daily Dot. “They’ve never given me advanced notice.”
Leopold’s story was written as a rather straightforward account of a three-page FBI file he obtained through the a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit. And so the question is, what got the bureau so upset?
The FBI file on which Leopold’s story was based focused on a 2012 Rolling Stone article that Hastings wrote about Bowe Bergdahl, the last U.S. prisoner of war in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
The bureau referred to Hastings’ Rolling Stone article as “controversial reporting.” In the piece, Hastings detailed the conflicted relationship Bergdahl had with the Army, citing the soldier’s emails home in which he wrote: “one of the biggest shit bags is being put in charge of the team”; “In the US army you are cut down for being honest”; “The system is wrong. I am ashamed to be an american.” The piece went on to detail the soldier’s disappearance, the failed negotiations for his return, and the behind-the-scenes debate over whether the White House should trade Taliban prisoners for a disgruntled U.S. soldier.
Though the file was too redacted to draw any certain conclusions, the FBI seemed focused on the sources Hastings used for the story. A few partially redacted lines indicated that the bureau was interested in how Hastings came about and acquired his sourcing:
Based on statements like these in the file, as well as its “Secret” classification, Leopold wrote that “the law-enforcement agency is continuing to investigate” Hastings. Further down in the piece, FBI spokesperson Laura Eimiller completely denied that allegation, stating that at no time was Hastings ever under investigation by the FBI.
Eimiller, who later phoned Leopold to voice her anger about the piece, told the Daily Dot that Leopold, in claiming the FBI was investigating Hastings, appeared to be calling her a “liar” in the story. “Mr. Hastings was not under investigation,” she said. Eimlller said the file was not about Hastings but about another matter, calling it “completely routine.”
“I’m not going to play word games,” Leopold said. He explained that whether or not the FBI had officially opened up an investigation about Hastings, they were clearly digging into his story. “I posted the docs,” he said. Indeed, Hastings’ article seemed to be the sole subject of the classified document.
Whether or not Hastings was being investigated by the U.S. government has become a contested issue since his death in a car crash in June. The day before Hastings died he sent an email to colleagues stating, “the Feds are interviewing my ‘close friends and associates.’…may be wise to immediately request legal counsel before any conversations or interviews about our news-gathering practices or related journalism issues…I’m onto a big story, and need to go off the rada[r] for a bit.”
The email, sent so close to Hastings’ car accident, has fueled unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about his death. Eimiller told the Daily Dot she thought it was “irresponsible” of Leopold to link the story to Hastings in this way.
However, Leopold, who knew Hastings, didn’t explicitly connect the car accident to the file. He provided details about Hastings’ email as background toward the end of the article. “I think Michael Hastings died in a car accident,” he said. “There is no evidence to suggest otherwise.”
Curiously, then, the FBI doesn’t seem to be on the same page as Leopold about what issues the story is trying to raise.
According to Leopold, the question everyone should be asking from the story is why the FBI opened this file when it did. “Something happened after Michael Hastings wrote the story that caused the FBI to open this file.” Leopold pointed to the reason for classifying the file, code 1.4 (c), which means the information pertained to intelligence or cryptography.
Indeed, something Hastings wrote seems to have surprised the federal government, causing them to “assess the credibility” of the information provided to Hastings and refer to the journalist’s reporting as “controversial.”
Bowe Bergdahl, the subject of Hastings’ Rolling Stone piece, is still missing. And if the federal government learned something intelligence related from the story, it is possible it pertains to his disappearance—or the negotiations for his return. Eimiller declined to comment further on the reason the FBI file was opened about Hastings’ article.
Leopold wondered, “Is there something in that story?”
Photo by U.S. Army/Flickr
Joe Kloc is a former Daily Dot contributor who covered technology and policy. He's contributed to Newsweek and Mother Jones, discussed his reporting on air with WNYC, and written Weekly Reviews for Harper's Magazine.