28 April 2014

Investigative Journalist Michael Hastings was killed Tuesday in a fiery crash close to his home in Los Angles. His car, which was reported to have been traveling at a high rate of speed, jumped the median and immediately exploded in a dramatic fashion upon impact with a tree.


Witness Luiz Cortez was quoted by KTLA as saying “I was just coming northbound on Highland and I seen a car going really fast, and all of a sudden I seen it jackknife, I just seen parts fly everywhere and I slammed on my brakes and stopped and tried to call 911.” According to various news reports the car’s engine was found in a yard between 60 and 100 feet away. Hastings was pronounced dead at the scene but his remains were too charred to immediately identify. His death was later confirmed by the LA county coroner’s office through fingerprints.


Hastings was best known for his high profile story on General Stanley McChrystal published in Rolling Stone in 2010. McChrystal was quoted making disparaging comments about President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, while he was the commander of US forces in Afghanistan. McChrystal's comments led directly to his early retirement following their publication. Hastings had been working for the online news outlet BuzzFeed at the time of his death.


Wikileaks tweeted Wednesday that they had forthcoming news about Hastings death. Wikileaks later tweeted that Hastings had contacted one of their lawyers, Jennifer Robinson, concerned he was the target of an FBI investigation. L.A. Field Office spokeswoman Laura Eimiller was quoted by the Burlington Free Press "At no time was journalist Michael Hastings ever under investigation by the FBI," on Thursday.


Hastings' concern about the release by Wikileaks is corroborated by his statements in an email to friends provided to KTLA after his death: “Hey [redacted copy], the Feds are interviewing my ‘close friends and associates.’ Perhaps if 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.” He added, “Also: I’m onto a big story, and need to go off the radar for a bit.” He ended the email: “All the best, and hope to see you all soon.”


Hastings's last story for BuzzFeed was a fiery op-ed that managed to denounce a rogue’s gallery of administration officials and congressional Democrats for defending the very same NSA domestic spy programs they used as a wedge issue during the Bush administration.


At the time of his death, Hastings was reportedly working on at least three stories. Although the details will likely remain eternally unknown, all three had national security implications and all three had direct bearing on the current domestic spying scandal.


Immediately after the 2012 election, it was revealed that retired four-star General Petraeus, who was then director of the CIA, had an affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell. Petraeus, who had been McChrystal's superior, predecessor and successor as commander of US forces in Afghanistan, resigned at once. The affair had been revealed because Broadwell had repeated sent anonymous threatening emails to Florida businesswoman and military booster Jill Kelley, who was also a friend of General Petraeus, along with a number of other top military and diplomatic brass. Feeling threatened, and because the emails contained sensitive military information, Kelley contacted the FBI. The FBI then used the metadata from the emails to track them to Broadwell. Server information was then seized and deleted emails between Petreaus and Broadwell revealed their affair to investigators.


One of Hastings's unfinished stories is reported to deal with the fallout from this recent sex scandal. Over the course of the FBI investigation, several alleged improprieties popped up. The original FBI agent assigned to the case was reported to have sent shirtless pictures of himself to Jill Kelley via the internet. Government officials made statements suggesting without substantiation that Kelley herself was having an affair with General John Allen, who succeeded Petraeus as the US commander in Afghanistan. These allegations were denied by Allen, Jill Kelley and her husband Scott.


Although Allen was cleared of any wrongdoing by a board of inquiry, he was not given another assignment and retired on April 29, 2013. Feeling that their personal lives had been invaded, and that they had been exposed to media scrutiny and scorn, Jill and Scott Kelley filed suit against the FBI and DoD in federal court on June 3rd. Days later, the NSA domestic spy scandal exploded across the world media scene.


Hastings was believed to be covering the story in a way that was sympathetic to Jill and Scott Kelley, representing them as honest patriotic citizens victimized by a government spy operation that treated crime victims as collateral damage. According to the LA Times, “Hastings, 33, was scheduled to meet with a representative of Kelley next week in Los Angeles to discuss the case, according to a person close to Kelley.”


Hastings is also believed to have been working on a story about the Petraeus's replacement as director of the CIA, John Brennan. Brennan is the key architect of Obama's Disposition Matrix, affectionately called a “kill list” by the press, which help the National Command Authority to decide who to kill and how to kill them outside of combat zones without judicial review. A career CIA man, Brennan was considered for nomination by Obama for the agency's top post once before, but withdrew his name once his public support for torture and extraordinary rendition (illegal kidnapping and torture) became a potential liability.


Hastings's third reported pending story was the most potentially shocking. It concerned his friend and fellow investigative journalist Barrett Brown. Like Hastings, Barrett Brown was a young iconoclast deeply concerned about national security and domestic spying issues. When Brown came into possession of emails from HBGary and Stratfor he ceased work on his book and began looking into the mechanisms and implications of domestic spying. The sheer volume of the revelations by Jeremy Hammond and other members of LulzSec caused him to initiate a crowd sourced journalistic entity called Project PM.


Although Project PM considered their work journalistic, they were very loosely structured, published information via a wiki, and remained mostly anonymous. Although the HBGary and Stratfor emails had been stolen by LulzSec, they had been disseminated through Wikileaks and via torrent. So it was a surprise to Brown – who had worked for Vanity Fair, the Guardian, Newsweek and many other mainstream publications – when the FBI came knocking with a warrant to seize his computer.


As reported in The Nation, Barrett Brown was not home at the time. Instead he and his laptop were with his mother. This led to a chain of events that may well lead to Brown being imprisoned for over a century. First, the FBI arrested his mother for obstruction of justice for possessing Brown's laptop. She faces up to a year in prison herself. Brown then took to YouTube, perhaps unwisely, and threatened the FBI agents with exposure for their alleged crimes and heavy handed tactics.


Brown was then arrested and charged with various computer crimes related to the possession and distribution of credit card numbers contained in some of the dumped emails from Stratfor. The people he is accused of distributing them to are other members of project PM, although none of the numbers have been published and no unlawful transactions have occurred. These are the same credit cards that Jeremy Hammond faces ten years for stealing.


Within the thousands of emails between HBGary executives, their staffers, and other intelligence contracting companies they were hoping to build marketing alliances with was an email from an the Chief Technology Officer of Xetron. Xetron is an information security firm that is a division of Northrup Grumman. Xetron and HBGary were hoping to add a third company, Endgame Solutions, to the a technology consortium they were forming.



Endgame Solutions is a very publicity shy company seems to specialize in offensive cyberwar capability. In the email from Xetron's CTO, Brian Masterson, wrote “While I was at their place getting briefed by Chris, Gen. Patraeus' [sic] exec called three times to set a follow-up meeting. It seems like there is plenty of interest in them.” Petraeus was commander of CENTCOM at the time and had huge amounts of discretionary funds at his disposal through the Combatant Commander Initiative Fund. It is unclear what interest Petreaus had in building his own independent offensive cyberwar capability or how he intended to use it.


Brown is currently being held without bail and has been awaiting trial for nearly 300 days. His defense team recently filed a motion for a continuance, order to examine the results of their discovery motions which include two terabytes of data.


Hasting and Brown shared a biting and irreverent style and an unwillingness to compromise for the sake of acceptance or access, the way other media figures so often do. Hastings was much maligned by some in the mainstream press for breaking the unwritten rules about not attacking the powerful. His style alienated many other reporters who routinely trade obedience for access.


There are many theories currently swirling about the internet about Hastings's death. They focus on the minutia of speed and engineering. How could Hastings's engine have flown 60 feet from his car? Or was it 100 feet? How long were the skid marks? Were their skid marks at all? How fast was he going? Why did his car burst so immediately and dramatically into flames? Why was he driving so fast? The summing up of the questions of course leads to “Was Michael Hastings murdered and if so, how?”


The full details of Michael Hastings' death may never be truly known. Despite the LAPD's pronouncement that there was no foul play, their investigation will last an additional six weeks, which is an eternity of news cycles. Honesty and respect for human rights have never been hallmarks of the LAPD's character and their statements should will always be suspect because of their history.


The question that the Free Press hopes to help answer is this: “What made a fearless journalist so fearful that he sought legal help, warned his employer and colleagues of an impending FBI investigation and made plans to disappear?”


All three of Hastings' known lines of inquiry lead to retired and disgraced General Petreaus, the officer clique and intelligence agents around him, and his immediate successors. Is Petreaus somehow involved in Hastings death? That is unknown and quite a leap, based on what is known. The convergent lines of inquiry centering on him do make him what law enforcement types would call a person of interest.


What is the relationship between a dead journalist and men with secret kill lists? More importantly, what does that relationship say about our society? The answers to those questions are not in a burnt car or at a crash scene in LA. Those answers are in leaked documents, public records and most chillingly, in the mirror. If we wish to honor a courageous journalist we will look for those answers in all the uncomfortable places.