Jake Whitney interviews Michael Hastings
May 1, 2011
The Rolling Stone reporter on his blockbuster articles, how the generals pushed Obama into a war he didn’t want to fight, and the Pentagon’s effort to tear down the wall between PR and propaganda.
Photograph courtesy Lucian Read
On January 17, 2007, Michael Hastings was a twenty-six-year-old Newsweek reporter stationed in Baghdad when a convoy carrying his fiancée, Andrea Parhamovich, was ambushed by Sunni extremists. Parhamovich had taken a position with the National Democratic Institute in Baghdad to be closer to Hastings, and she was returning from a training session that would help her promote democracy. She and three bodyguards were killed in the attack. While the senseless nature of her death shattered Hastings—there were no combatants in the convoy—it produced a need to convey the experience. “It’s one thing to hear about all these deaths during war,” he says, “it’s another to go through the process of having your loved one get killed.” His 2008 book, I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story, recounts that wrenching process.
In the two years prior to Parhamovich’s death, Hastings had grown increasingly dubious about the Iraq war. He was there during the worst of the sectarian violence, and he watched as the country descended into a morass of bloodshed, chaos and corruption. “Three thousand bodies were dropping a month,” he says of that period, “with multiple car bombs exploding every morning.” Witnessing the devastation, Hastings wondered how any future benefits could ever justify the terrible price. Meanwhile, generals were telling him that everything was fine, that the Iraqi police were in control. “There’s a reason for my cynicism,” he says, “and it’s not because I like drinking a latte.”
In 2008, Hastings transferred to Afghanistan where he reported for GQ, then for Rolling Stone beginning in 2010. Hastings penned two articles for Rolling Stone that changed history. “The Runaway General,” in June 2010, told of General Stanley McChrystal and his staff’s contempt for Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan; it led to General David Petraeus replacing McChrystal as head of the Afghanistan forces. (On April 18, 2011, the Pentagon cleared General McChrystal and his staff of any wrongdoing after an investigation by the inspector general of the Department of Defense. In addition, they questioned the accuracy of Hastings’s story. Hastings had no comment, but he pointed me to Rolling Stone’s reply, which said that “The Runaway General” was accurate in every detail.) In February 2011, “Another Runaway General: Army Deploys Psy-Ops on U.S. Senators” revealed that an American military unit had been ordered to use psychological operations on U.S. politicians to coax them into providing more resources for the Afghanistan War; the article sparked an investigation that is ongoing.
Why would military brass utter such controversial and reckless statements to a journalist? How did he get members of our armed services—an institution that depends upon obedience—to open up the way they do? These were the questions that made me seek an interview with Hastings. When I finally connected with him a few weeks ago, he had been covering America’s wars for six years, and his dubiousness about Iraq had extended not only to Afghanistan but to war in general. From his experience, military force was not an efficient means of resolving disputes—and rarely moral. Accordingly, he was adamantly against U.S. involvement in Libya, which Obama had embarked upon just days before our interview.
So what had been planned as a dissection of Hastings’s major articles evolved into a broader conversation about American exceptionalism, the process and duty of war reporting, the privatization of American war making, and the Pentagon’s intensifying effort to “tear down the wall” between public affairs and propaganda. Indeed, the topic of military spin proved to be the axis upon which the rest of our talk turned. And later, as I listened back to Hastings’s thoughtful, often fiery sentences, a final question lingered after my recorder clicked off: If our wars against the Taliban, al Qaeda and Qaddafi are just, why does our military concoct increasingly deceptive ways—psy-ops on senators, soldiers using Facebook for propaganda, the DOD creating fake Twitter accounts—to convince us that we should be fighting them? I caught Hastings by phone in his New York apartment. He was awaiting edits for his forthcoming book, The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, planned for release this summer.
—Jake Whitney for Guernica
Guernica: You’ve said that you wrote I Lost My Love in Baghdad to show how profoundly these wars of choice we undertake affect the family and friends of those killed. How did Andi’s death affect your reporting? Did it make it more negative?
Michael Hastings: By the time of her death, I had already grown skeptical of the Iraq war. What [her death] made me realize was what the actual price was. Going through that kind of loss and seeing how devastating it was on her family and friends made me decide that I was only going to write about things that I really believed in. I’m not going to compromise on that. I have a deep-seated skepticism about the morality of violence. Violence is almost always morally corrosive. I wrote about flying back with her casket in an AC-130 from Baghdad to Dover. Hers was one of twenty-five caskets covered in the [American] flag. There are all these ceremonies when they carry the caskets on and off the plane, but there was this brief moment at Ramstein Air Force Base when the caskets become cargo, and there’s no ceremony. I remember sitting on the plane with these contractors who lived in Germany. They just wanted to get home so they took this plane even though they would be flying with caskets. These guys are just kind of sitting around next to the caskets listening to their iPods and having boxed lunches.
Guernica: Did it represent the way some people can remove themselves from death, particularly Americans?
Michael Hastings: Yeah. And there’s this talk that we’re asking soldiers to make the greatest sacrifice, but the reality is that civilians bear the burden of war more than the combatants. You’re much more likely to get accidentally blown up or killed by a death squad than you are to die in a firefight.
Guernica: Let’s talk about the different schools of thought on war reporting. After “The Runaway General” came out, Lara Logan of CBS News accused you of betraying the troops. She said that you act like you’re one of them in the field and then turn on them in your articles by revealing things they didn’t want revealed. How would you reply to that? Have you ever felt like you betrayed any of your soldier sources?
Michael Hastings: Not at all.
Guernica: Have you ever regretted anything you’ve written?
Michael Hastings: Shit, the only thing I’ve ever regretted is not writing more; not being more honest; not saying how it really is. It’s hard to get there sometimes.
Guernica: Should the American media focus more on U.S. military successes like Logan’s work on 60 Minutes does?
Michael Hastings: They do in high-profile cases all the time. But the question is once you get to a point, what’s the value of that? Look, I could go with a unit to a village in Afghanistan and they could say, “Hey, this village is safe. Three of my buddies got killed and we spent $2 billion over the last eight years to make this village safe. But look, it’s a success.” My response to that would be “what a waste.” No, I think the Pentagon press release corps spins things positively enough.
Guernica: What about the argument that consistently negative war coverage damages troop morale? Could it interfere with their chances of victory?
Michael Hastings: I don’t think it impacts morale. If you polled the military in Afghanistan as to how many think we should be there or not, the numbers would probably be similar to what the U.S. population believes. That’s not because they’re watching the news. But, hey, they are out there risking their lives. No one likes to be criticized and it really sucks to be criticized when you’re risking your life. But on the other hand, these wars of choice that we engage in rely on popular support. So that’s where it becomes tricky. If the news is negative and popular support drops, does that make it more difficult for the generals to convince us to send more troops? It doesn’t seem to, actually.
Guernica: In this age of embedded reporters and controlled access, does the mainstream media give us an accurate picture of our wars?
Michael Hastings: I asked a general once about death squads in Baghdad. It was during Iraq’s sectarian civil war and we were walking through this horrible, abandoned neighborhood where there had been massive sectarian violence. There was sewage in the streets and the neighborhood was totally decimated. I asked the general if he was worried about the death squads, and training the Iraqi police. He said, “No I think it’s going to be like Mayberry around here.” So this is not about being liberal or conservative. It’s about being in these situations for years and having people lie straight to your face. I’ve always said that if you want to find out what’s going on in Iraq or Afghanistan or Libya, I’ll give you a choice. You can either read The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, or you can go to the NATO, ISAF, multi-national force websites where they have their own news releases. Who will give you a more accurate picture? I’ll take the mainstream media.
After a decade of war you have this Pentagon-military apparatus run amok using resources that they shouldn’t be to try to manipulate U.S. public opinion.
Guernica: Tell me about the process of war reporting. You embed with the troops. You’re in a situation where everybody’s life is on the line. I imagine a feeling of camaraderie develops and they begin to trust you as one of their own, which leads them to reveal things. Is this why you get such fantastic details in your stories?
Michael Hastings: I would make a distinction between the McChrystal story and my other reporting with the troops. With the McChrystal story [I was] dealing with high-ranking officers who had tons of experience with the highest levels of media.
Guernica: And these high-ranking officers were bragging and shooting their mouths off…
Michael Hastings: I’ll say they were very confident. And almost everything they said that would later cause the controversy was said in the first forty-eight hours. On the other hand, I did an embed in Afghanistan on the Pakistan border in 2008. One of the things you realize when you’re talking to low-ranking enlisted men is that no one listens to them. So when I showed up they loved having someone to talk to. That’s a real privilege for me. The guys on the ground are the guys I care about. I’ve had the most satisfaction telling their stories. But when you’re in combat with somebody, yes, a bond does grow. There was a story I did for GQ where I ended up going on guard duty for hours and I would just let the tape recorder roll because these guys are bored out of their heads and they just talk. But there is trust and there is stuff that you learn to hold back, especially when you’re dealing with younger guys or lower ranking officers. That’s different from the top brass who are basically just politicians anyway.
Guernica: What’s an example of something you held back?
Hastings: A unit once showed me a video of a soldier in Afghanistan trying—and succeeding—to touch a donkey’s penis. The donkey was just hanging out in a field, and the soldier snuck up on it. I didn’t report that at the time in my story. I later mentioned it but didn’t say who the soldier was, or who showed me the video. Another time a soldier in Iraq said that he wanted to “punch Donald Rumsfeld in the gut, then in the face” or something like that. He wanted me to use his name, but I knew he’d get in trouble, so I didn’t. However, I felt it was a great quote because it summed up the frustration of those guys at that moment.
Guernica: Your most recent high-profile article revealed that the American military was using psychological operations—psy-ops—on visiting American senators in order to manipulate them into providing more resources for the Afghanistan War. This sounds like something out of a bad spy novel. Tell me about it.
Michael Hastings: An information operations team was sent to Afghanistan to conduct various psychological operations on the Afghans and Taliban. The team was then asked not to focus on the Taliban but on manipulating senators into giving more funds and troops [to the war]. But this unit said no, that’s not right. The military then launched a retaliatory investigation into the guy who had complained. But keep in mind this isn’t Manchurian Candidate. The word psy-ops is spooky. They’ve changed that to MISO, by the way—Military Information Support Operations. What’s incredible about it is that if you look at what psychological operations are, what information operations are, what public affairs are, they’re all trying to influence and manipulate. The key is that the psy-ops guys are allowed to lie. And they’re only supposed to target foreign populations. The way the Pentagon and its defenders have pushed back against this story is to say: “They weren’t doing psychological operations, they were doing information operations and public affairs. They were just helping us spin senators like we normally do [laughs].”
Guernica: What were some of the psy-ops techniques?
Michael Hastings: It’s pretty innocuous stuff. Do a lot of in-depth research on Senator [Al] Franken and find his pressure points. How do we plant ideas in his head, and how do we manipulate these guys? So it wasn’t a Jedi mind trick—and the story never makes that claim. But the frightening aspect is that it’s part of a larger effort from the Pentagon to tear down the wall between public affairs and propaganda, and essentially say there is no difference between information operations, public affairs and psychological operations. It’s all one and the same. They have a new name for that too, it’s called Information Engagement. What I hope people take away from this story is that it’s a window into a larger phenomenon. After a decade of war you have this Pentagon-military apparatus run amok using resources that they shouldn’t be to try to manipulate U.S. public opinion. Some of the pushback was “Oh, well it’s not a big deal.” But Senator [Carl] Levin, one of the senators targeted, voted in favor of giving $2 billion to General Caldwell a year later. So, obviously there’s informal spinning going on, but when you’re using a unit that is trained to influence and target the Taliban and Afghans, that’s what they’re there for. That’s why we’re spending $6 million on them.
Guernica: That’s $6 million for a five-man unit. Sounds like a lot of taxpayer dollars fund the military spin machine.
Michael Hastings: You have the general’s PR staff of two dozen, which is already costing us close to $28 million in Afghanistan. Plus the PR staff at ISAF headquarters, which costs tens of millions more. Plus the PR guys scattered throughout the country. We’re talking huge amounts of money spent on the spin machine.
A $200 million contract just got awarded to develop software to provide the Department of Defense with fake Twitter and Facebook accounts.
Guernica: What other ways does the military spin American citizens and journalists?
Michael Hastings: The U.S. mission that trains Afghans is called NTM-A/CSTC-A, it’s an $11.6 million a year mission and their sole purpose is to train the Afghan army and police. But one of their major initiatives this year was getting all of their officers on Facebook. So the question is, Why are these people who are there to train the Afghans being pressured to be on Facebook? Again, it sounds benign until you realize that the military’s concern isn’t the Afghans, it’s convincing the American people that we should be in Afghanistan.
Guernica: How is being on Facebook supposed to accomplish that?
Michael Hastings: Soldiers can put up pictures and say “See how happy the Afghans are because of our presence here.” It’s a way to directly influence the American people using propaganda. But one of the absurdly comic things… I had this chart that listed the top 100 Facebook users in this one command. Over a two-month period they used ninety-nine days’ worth of Facebook and forty-five gigabytes—so much that the base’s network slowed down. This is all taxpayer-funded. And then you have this new program that they’re developing, which I didn’t get into in my story. A $200 million contract just got awarded to develop software to provide the Department of Defense with all these sock puppets who have fake Twitter and Facebook accounts.
Guernica: Explain that.
Michael Hastings: A new software is being developed so the psychological operations guys and the Pentagon’s strategic communications guys—and we don’t really know who’s running it—but this is all totally out in the open. It’s this new program that will allow them to have like ten fake Twitter accounts and ten Facebook accounts so you can pretend…
Guernica: So you’re saying people at the DOD will be creating phony users on Facebook and Twitter?
Michael Hastings: Exactly. It’s called Operation Earnest Voice. It’s incredible when you think of the power of this. Why not create ten fake Libyan Twitter users and then get one journalist to follow them. But the problem is, of course, it corrupts the entire process. One of the caveats is that [the DOD says] anything they write is going to be in a foreign language so it won’t affect Americans. But that doesn’t make any sense because: A) it can be translated pretty easily, and B) Americans also speak other languages.
Look at the violence in Pakistan and the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan: the more troops we put in the more violent Pakistan becomes.
Guernica: What effect have your high-profile stories had on your access?
Michael Hastings: I’m currently sort of banned from going on embeds. So in that sense, it doesn’t help. On the other hand, I’m talking to people all of the time. So it hasn’t really had a big impact. Access is never my main concern anyway. If you keep digging and making phone calls you can get stories and not have to rely on the good graces of the Pentagon spokesperson. I am not in his good graces.
Guernica: Let’s talk about Afghanistan since that’s what your new book will be about. Is the tide turning in our favor, as our military leaders and politicians keep asserting?
Michael Hastings: There are isolated pockets where things have gotten better. But violence is up seventy percent everywhere else. There’s this amazing statistic that I’ll probably get wrong but it’s something like: violence has dropped in about three or four out of 314 districts. So it’s clear that the tide is not turning. Look at the violence in Pakistan and the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan: the more troops we put in the more violent Pakistan becomes.
Guernica: Do you agree with the conventional wisdom that had we not shifted our attention from Afghanistan to Iraq, we could have left Afghanistan long ago?
Michael Hastings: Afghanistan would have been difficult enough without Iraq. Iraq made it impossible. The argument that had we just focused on Afghanistan we’d now be okay is persuasive, but it omits the fact that we weren’t supposed to get involved in nation-building in Afghanistan. That was the premise in 2001 and drove the policy decisions that were made. In my new book, I open with a quote from Rumsfeld. In October 2001, he said of Afghanistan: “It’s not a quagmire.” Ten years later there are 150,000 Western troops there. I remember in 2001 there were journalists who said we had to beware of getting stuck in Afghanistan. They were laughed off the front page. Johnny Apple, a New York Times correspondent, wrote a front-page story saying Afghanistan could be a quagmire and he was mocked and derided. What is certainly true is that all sorts of resources that would have been used in Afghanistan were diverted to Iraq. Would those resources have helped? Almost undoubtedly. Whether or not Afghanistan would be a peaceful nation-state had we not gone into Iraq I doubt. Afghanistan is going to be Afghanistan, no matter how hard we try to make it something else.
Guernica: Let’s climb into Obama’s mind for a minute. What’s his thought process on Afghanistan? He’s an intelligent man. Why doesn’t he get what so many others do and pull us out of there already?
Michael Hastings: Inside the White House there were always extreme amounts of doubt about whether they should be escalating in Afghanistan. In fact, most of the president’s advisers said, “This is probably not going to work.” A lot of people in the military said, “This is probably not going to work.” In December 2009 Obama gave his famous West Point speech where he said here are the reasons why this isn’t going to work and we shouldn’t be doing it, but we’re doing it anyway. So I think the calculation was made for fairly cynical political reasons. The military knew this and boxed him in. If the thumbnail version of the Iraq war was that Bush lied about WMD, the thumbnail version of Obama’s war in Afghanistan is that the generals pushed him into a war he didn’t want to fight. That’s not exaggeration; that’s what happened. The military sensed weakness, exploited it and played him. Obama’s foreign policy has been consistently hawkish despite this reluctant warrior schtick that he pulls. But at the end of the day a reluctant warrior is still a warrior. Look at the drone strikes, the tripling of the war in Afghanistan, and now Libya. I’m convinced that had Obama been in the Senate in 2003 he would have voted for the Iraq war. He’s clearly easily convinced by his advisers and the Pentagon.
Guernica: And now he’s just in too deep to get out?
Michael Hastings: That’s the next big fight: Can he impose his will on the Pentagon? This is the battle that as we speak is going on between between Petraeus and Obama. The military doesn’t want to start drawing down in July 2011. They have always been very clear: we’re doing a fully resourced counter-insurgency campaign that will take years. Maybe in 2014 we’ll start drawing down in significant numbers. The question is: Is Obama going to force the military’s hand? It was interesting watching the Afghanistan war review deliberations, this three-month process where Obama did the most thorough foreign policy review ever by a modern American president. Compare that to Libya. For a month he said we weren’t going to do anything, then suddenly changed his mind and did it on the fly. My view is that it’s not how long or quick you take to make a decision, it’s whether you make the right one.
Guernica: Does that mean you disagree with U.S. involvement in Libya?
Michael Hastings: I would not have gotten involved. I don’t see the need for it.
Guernica: Why not from a humanitarian standpoint? Wasn’t it worth protecting the protesters-turned-rebels who would have been slaughtered without assistance?
Michael Hastings: Allegedly slaughtered. We don’t know what we prevented. The humanitarian argument is so selective I find it difficult to swallow. It’s not even so much about the choice as to where we should get involved and where we shouldn’t. The minute you start arming people in these conflict zones, things don’t go as expected. We also need to look at precedent before making these decisions. Instead of listening to Muammar Qaddafi’s rhetoric, we should look at how he’s behaved. The fact is he’s been making concessions recently. He gave up his nuclear weapons. He allowed hundreds of Americans to evacuate Tripoli. Did he crack down on his people who revolted? Yes, but that’s not so unusual. For me, it’s always a failure of diplomacy. Our willingness to immediately turn to a military solution is disturbing. I’m not defending this asshole. In fact, I think it would be more humane to kill the guy than to give a lot of civilians guns and kill all his poor soldiers. Go kill Qaddafi, have some balls. Fucking wimps.
Guernica: Is America exceptional and to what degree does that legitimately play out in an intervention like this?
Michael Hastings: I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. I’ve lived overseas and I like it here [laughs]. I love living in Vermont and I love living in New York. Does my love for Vermont give us the right to rain bombs down on Tripoli? Of course not. There are exceptional qualities about the United States. But it doesn’t give us the right to impose our will on other cultures when they often don’t want it. They’re currently telling us the Libyan people are asking for our help. They told us that in Iraq, too. But as we learned in Iraq, you don’t stay in power without a power base. Thirty to forty percent of the Libyan people probably still support Qaddafi. When you go into a country like Libya where a large chunk of the population wants the old regime back you could end up with a protracted civil war. That we’re now in a stalemate was both entirely predictable, and predicted. That we’re now relying on drones is disturbing. How vital can a cause be if we’re not willing to risk American lives to defend it, and instead use robots and remote control operators? It gets me back to the larger feeling about the intervention—there’s just not a compelling reason for us to be involved.
Guernica: Should we ever use our military for humanitarian reasons?
Michael Hastings: A state department official once told me this about the role of the president. He said: “We wage war for realist reasons, we justify wars for idealist reasons, and it’s the president’s job to balance the two.” I agree. As the wealthiest country with all the blessings that we have, do we have an obligation to help the outside world? I think we do, as we have an obligation to help everyone within our own borders. The problem is that this automatically gets translated into: “What’s the point of having a huge military if we can’t bomb people?” That’s the problem that I have. Our foreign policy is essentially our defense policy. The State Department is essentially… I was going to use the word useless. But I don’t know if that’s correct. But the DOD runs the show. And the DOD’s whole deal is making war. So the fact that our largest presence in the world is our massive military is going to dictate how we engage with the world.
Guernica: Has the American military been a force for good or for harm in the world?
Michael Hastings: I don’t know if I’d look at it in those terms. I’m post-cynical on this stuff. I look at the El Salvador model as the glory days: Why don’t we just fund the death squads secretly and keep our boys at home? That where I almost am at this point. Clearly the American military has been a force for good for the United States. There’s a reason we have a standing military. But there’s something to be said for having a much smaller military because then we wouldn’t be tempted to get involved in things we shouldn’t be getting involved in.
Guernica: Which is how our founders wanted it. The Tea Party loves to cite the founders, but I’m yet to hear them cite the founders’ distrust of a standing military.
Michael Hastings: It’s a huge issue. Gore Vidal, Glenn Greenwald, Noam Chomsky, all these guys talk about how the United States became a national security state after World War II. I agree with that thesis. Essentially there’s this bipartisan foreign policy elite who’ve been calling the shots for the last few decades and they’re clearly still in control regardless of how clownish or absurd or stupid they demonstrate themselves to be. There’s no shaking their orthodoxy. That to me was the most depressing thing about Libya. Having covered Iraq and Afghanistan and seeing these full-scale military interventions firsthand for a number of years, seeing how quickly we can get involved in another war without any sort of… with very little debate.
If the thumbnail version of the Iraq war was that Bush lied about WMD, the thumbnail version of Obama’s war in Afghanistan is that the generals pushed him into a war he didn’t want to fight.
Guernica: Another big reason why some think we are so quick to get into wars these days is because of the increasing privatization of war-making. FDR said that he didn’t want any millionaires made from WWII, yet American corporations today rake in billions from the practice of killing people. Does the increasing privatization of war create an incentive for America to get involved in more wars and prolong them?
Michael Hastings: Oh, definitely. It’s a huge gravy train. I made this bad joke on Twitter the other day saying, “I want to put in my first no-bid contract to train the Libyan army and police force.” These counter-insurgency guys like to say, “We don’t do the big F-16 or big boondoggle projects, we’re not pulling this stuff because it’s good business.” But in fact it turns out there are tons of business opportunities involving [counter-insurgency operations]—and it’s not like we’re getting rid of the boondoggle programs either, we’re just doing more of everything. Even on just the career level for your average officer, there’s no incentive to end the wars. There’s not even an incentive for these think-tank guys to end the wars. They would never admit it and say, “Oh, how could we at the Center for a New American Security not want the wars to end?” Well then, why the hell are you continuing to promote strategies that will keep us fighting for years?
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