Hours after news spread that investigative journalist and war correspondent Michael Hastings had died in a single-vehicle car accident in Los Angeles last Tuesday, social media sites flooded with posts speculating that the government may have been involved in his death.
One day after after Hastings died, WikiLeaks tweeted that the government may be responsible for his death.
“Michael Hastings contacted WikiLeaks lawyer Jennifer Robinson just a few hours before he died, saying that the FBI was investigating him,” WikiLeaks tweeted.
The organization followed up this tweet with another a day later that has since been deleted, saying, “It is not acceptable that the FBI was investigating yet another national security journalist, this time Michael Hastings.”
Hastings, 33, was a reporter for BuzzFeed and Rolling Stone who became well-known after he wrote a piece for Rolling Stone in which he profiled Gen. Stanley McChrystal. The profile included statements from McChrystal that were critical of the Obama administration and is thought to have contributed to the general’s resignation in 2010.
Speculation that Hastings’ death may not have been an accident reportedly came after the Los Angeles Police Department’s assistant chief, Ed Winter, raised questions about the accident. Though the officers believed Hastings’ car “crossed the median, slammed into a tree and burst into flames,” Winter publicly questioned why Hastings crashed his car in the first place.
“The question is ‘Why? Why did he crash?’” he said. “Was it something mechanical that the traffic division of the LAPD is going to be able to find? Did he have a medical condition that caused him to pass out? Did the accelerator stick? Was he under medication? Was there some other factor?”
An automotive writer also expressed his doubts about the accident, saying that even if Hastings was speeding, the damage to his vehicle seemed excessive.
“I’m here to state that I’ve seen dozens of cars hit walls and stuff at high speeds and the number of them that I have observed to eject their powertrains and immediately catch massive fire is, um, ah, zero,” Jack Baruth wrote. “Modern cars are very good at not catching fire in accidents. The Mercedes-Benz C-Class, which is an evolutionary design from a company known for sweating the safety details over and above the Euro NCAP requirements, should be leading the pack in the not-catching-on-fire category. Nor is the C-Class known for sudden veering out of control into trees and whatnot.”
In response to allegations the FBI was involved, Laura Eimiller, spokesperson for the FBI’s field office in Los Angeles, said, “At no time was journalist Michael Hastings ever under investigation by the FBI.”
At the time of his death, Hastings was reportedly working on a story about a privacy lawsuit filed on June 3 by Florida socialite Jill Kelley against the Department of Defense and the FBI. According to the Los Angeles Times, Kelley “alleges military officials and the FBI leaked her name to the media to discredit her after she reported receiving a stream of emails that were traced to Paula Broadwell, a biographer of former CIA director David H. Petraeus.”
Hastings was also reportedly working on a story regarding whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leak of the National Security Agency’s classified domestic monitoring program.
“Before his death, Michael told a number of his friends and colleagues that he was concerned that he was under investigation,” Hastings’ Buzzfeed editor, Ben Smith, said.
Emails obtained by a local Los Angeles news station show that 15 hours before he died, Hastings emailed his colleagues, letting them know that he was working on a big story so he needed to go off the radar for awhile.
In his email, Hastings wrote that 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 news-gathering practices or related journalism issues.”
Hastings reportedly copied Staff Sgt. Joseph Biggs on the email. Hastings met Biggs in 2008 when he was covering the war in Afghanistan. Biggs said he was blind-copied on the email and called the message “very panicked.”
“It alarmed me very much,” Biggs said. “I just said it doesn’t seem like him. I don’t know, I just had this gut feeling and it just really bothered me,” he said.
An ongoing investigation into the accident and Hastings’ death is expected to take up to six weeks.
Not the first or last FBI target
Cenk Uygur, a friend of Hastings, said on his cable television show that the “U.S. government goes after journalists who reveal their [government] secrets,” and added that Hastings “certainly went and exposed some secrets the government did not want you to know.”
While Hastings case may be the latest, he is not the first or last journalist targeted by the government.
Fox News’ chief Washington correspondent James Rosen became the target of an FBI investigation this May after it was discovered he helped leak classified information.
After an FBI agent described Rosen as an “aider and abettor and/or conspirator” with government adviser Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, who was charged under the Espionage Act for releasing the information, the network responded by saying Rosen was only doing his job.
Fox News Executive Vice President Michael Clemente released a statement saying the network was “outraged” that Rosen would be named as a “criminal co-conspirator for simply doing his job as a reporter.”
“In fact, it is downright chilling,” Clemente said. “We will unequivocally defend his right to operate as a member of what up until now has always been a free press.”
Other news organizations also expressed their support for Rosen, especially after Guardian columnist and former constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald wrote that “it is not illegal to publish classified information” under U.S. law.
Greenwald wrote that if the Department of Justice criminalized the release of classified information, they would be criminalizing the act of investigative journalism too.
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