Holding the Government Accountable

An Interview with Rolling Stone Reporter Michael Hastings

Michael Hastings never thought he was going to get the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan fired.

But in June 2010, one of the hottest D.C. summers on record, the Rolling Stone reporter—who was then only 30-years-old—penned a piece that sent shockwaves through Washington and left high-ranking military brass scrambling for their jobs. All it took was for Hastings to write about what he heard and saw while traveling with U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Hastings’ story, “The Runaway General” in Rolling Stone was the result of a month spent with McChrystal and his closest advisors. Hastings got unusual access thanks to the Icelandic volcano, which thwarted the team’s travel plans and extended the reporting trip. The resulting story included quotes from McChrystal’s camp that publicly criticized the Obama Administration. Shortly after the piece came out, President Obama ousted McChrystal.

But the story wasn’t over yet for Hastings—he decided to dig deeper and expand the piece into a book. The result, The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan, was published in January. We caught up with Hastings and spoke about his new book, corruption in Afghanistan and how to write about those in power.

POGO: How did the consequences of your Rolling Stone piece affect your decision to write a book?

Michael Hastings: When I was reporting for the article, I immediately knew I wanted to write a book about it—on day two or three of my trip. So I thought the story would come out, and I’d write a book about it a year later, and it would be about the general who was still running the war. So [the firing of General McChrystal] was obviously a surprise. It made it a much bigger story, and it made Rolling Stone a part of that story in a way it wasn’t before.

POGO: Do you think there is ever a time when a journalist shouldn’t report what he or she hears on record? Particularly about people in power?

MH: I think as a reporter, one is always making decisions about what you’re reporting and what you’re not reporting—that’s just the nature of writing; you can’t report everything. So the question is, what is newsworthy, and are you holding something back for the right reasons?

There is 100 percent, no doubt, a court of national security reporters that are complicit with the officials they cover. There are literally journalists on the payroll of major foreign policy think tanks, funded by contractors, who are pushing this kind of “Pentagon doctrine.” It’s horrible—it’s still horrible. It’s a real symptom of a pervasive corruption that exists in Washington.

There are national defense reporters who view their role as a mouth piece for the government. That’s fine if they want to do that—that’s their prerogative—but I’ve found these reporters can be very hostile to any reporting that contradicts the government line. That’s what most disturbing: It’s one thing if you’re a mouth piece. It’s another if you’re actively milking down critical reporting.

POGO: You called whistleblower Lt. Col. Daniel Davis’ report, “one of the most significant documents published by an active-duty officer in the past 10 years.” Why do you think more whistleblowers in Afghanistan haven’t stepped forward?

MH: There’s an incredible amount of risk involved in coming forward when you’re a whistleblower. Immediately the government and the media, for the most part, actively try to damage your credibility. With a guy like Danny Davis, who has years and years of military experience, there are very real consequences for coming forward, whether it’s getting fired or ruining your pension, etc.

I think it’s really important that we have such a high-ranking officer in good standing—a really respectable guy—come out and say that there has been gross negligence and deception at the highest levels of government. It’s one thing if a reporter says it—it’s completely different when someone on the inside does.

POGO: What do you think of the appointment of the new Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), John Sopko?

MH: To be honest, SIGAR will expose some corruption—if they’re doing their job right, which my guess is that they will—but there’s so much of it that whatever they find is just going to be a small fraction. The question is: Who should really be blamed for that? It’s not just the contractors who are scamming the system. Responsibility also has to come down from the top, from the people who are pushing billions of dollars around with no oversight.

POGO: Any advice for aspiring Rolling Stone reporters?

MH: My advice is basically paraphrased advice that Neil Sheehan [The New York Times reporter who obtained the Pentagon Papers] gave: Basically, first you have to f****ing know what you’re doing—you need to learn how to be a reporter for a mass audience, and that takes time. Second, you have to not give a shit. What I mean there, is not that you can stop caring about doing good journalism, but you cannot be worried about offending powerful people. You cannot be worried about what’s the best career move, or about being invited to a party, or about whether people are going to hate you. Good reporting is about challenging power.

If you’re going to do the kind of reporting that is against the herd, and is calling conventional wisdom into question, there’s a price you’re going to have to pay for that. But at the end of the day, that’s what the job is—and if you’re not doing it, you kind of suck. You’ve got to keep writing, and you’ve got to take risks.