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Rolling Stone reporter, DOD at odds over denied embed request

ARLINGTON, Va. — The reporter whose controversial Rolling Stone profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal led to the Afghanistan commander’s firing is decrying a Defense Department decision to deny him permission to accompany troops in Afghanistan on the grounds that he is not trustworthy.

Michael Hastings said Col. Wayne Shanks, spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul told him his request to “embed” with a unit in Afghanistan was being denied due to “political fallout” over his McChrystal article, which quoted the general and his subordinates making disparaging comments about senior political officials, including President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Just days after details of the article spread on the Internet in late June, Obama fired him, and he retired from the Army soon afterward.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Hastings broke unspecified ground rules during his interviews with McChrystal and his aides and was therefore no longer considered credible or trustworthy by unit commanders. He said the Defense Department supports the decision of the ISAF public affairs commanders.

“It should come as no surprise to anybody if unit commanders in Afghanistan are apprehensive about doing work with this reporter in light of the previous experience that their commander had with this reporter,” Morrell said Thursday. “You’re only as good as your word, and clearly they don’t believe his word is worth much.”  

Hastings insisted he violated no rules while reporting the profile of McChrystal, and said he has built a trusted record among troops over dozens of embeds in Afghanistan and Iraq dating back five years.

“I left on very good terms with Task Force Saber as well as with public affairs officials at Task Force Destiny,” he said. “I would be surprised if units on the ground were contacted.”

A military official in Afghanistan, who would only speak anonymously out of fear of being punished, confirmed Hastings’ account that the decision to deny his embed request came suddenly from top-level commanders and did not result from any any mistrust expressed by ground-level units.

“At the unit level, I’ve never heard of anybody having an issue with him,” the official said. “The unit was fine with him. That is all true.”

In mid-June, before Rolling Stone published the McChrystal article, Hastings was traveling to Afghanistan to embed with Kiowa Warrior attack helicopter pilots for a forthcoming article in Men’s Journal. On the way, he received an invitation by the 101st Airborne Division to embed with their soldiers in Regional Command-South later this fall.

After the Rolling Stone article ran and as recently as two weeks ago, Hastings said that command was still facilitating his next embed and had sent him a “preliminary approval” letter--a near-final formality that details the probable units and dates of the embed. But last weekend, Hastings said he was surprised to receive a letter from Shanks canceling the embed.

“No one has said anything is wrong with the story, but yet I am losing the privilege to embed because of it — which doesn’t seem to track with me,” Hastings said.

In addition, earlier this week Pentagon officials complained that the Army had allowed Hastings a follow-up interview for his Kiowa story with officials at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala.  Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan said the Army did not vet the interview request “to the level we would like it.”

When asked if the Defense Department was, in effect, blackballing Hastings from any military reporting, Lapan said: “No, we don’t have anything akin to blackballing.”

Said Morrell: “If you don’t respect ground rules, how do you expect us to trust you? How do you expect us to extend to you privileges such as embedding with a unit? This is not a game; there are lives on the line.”

The Defense Department’s guidance for war zone media embeds specifies that reporters must agree to ground rules established with the unit they wish to accompany.

Among the rules are stipulations that all interviews are on the record, but that commanders can decide that certain sensitive military details may not be published. The system is designed, the document says, to give reporters on-the-record, “minimally restrictive access” as much as possible.

“We need to tell the factual story — good or bad,” it reads.

The guidance also lays out what the military cannot do, such as hand-pick which reporters media organizations may send to an embed. But last year, Stars and Stripes reporter Heath Druzin was denied an embed in Mosul, Iraq, with the 1st Cavalry Division by a public affairs officer who complained Druzin had “refused to highlight” good news during an earlier reporting tour. The newspaper declined to send another reporter in his place.

Hastings said he feels his rejection is part of a Pentagon effort to influence public perceptions of the war after a tough period of fighting in Afghanistan.

“I think it is a privilege to embed. ... I do not take that lightly at all,” he said. “But I saw this in Baghdad in ’06 — if the war’s going well, we’re going to report the war’s going well. If the war’s going badly, we’re going to report it’s going badly. It’s pretty simple. That’s the formula.”

baronk@stripes.osd.mil

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