Three years into the disappearance of Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan, Michael Hastings — the journalist whose reporting cost General Stanley McChrystal his job — wrote a Rolling Stone story on the missing soldier, a piece which the magazine called “the definitive first account of Bowe Bergdahl.”
Hastings, who died in a car accident in Los Angeles in June 2013, had unparalleled access for that story.
He spoke to Bergdahl’s parents, who had by that time stopped talking to the press, following “subtle pressure” from the army, and he quoted from emails the young soldier had sent to them, documenting his growing disillusion with the war and the US military.
Hastings also spoke to several unnamed men in Bergdahl’s unit — soldiers who, we now know, had to sign a strict nondisclosure agreement forbidding them from discussing the soldier’s disappearance and search with anyone — let alone one of the top investigative journalists in the country.
'Michael and Matt both worked really, really hard on that story, and I know for a fact that they did it in a way that completely angered the US military and the US government.'
But most controversially, Hastings’ piece revealed what has been the subject of much debate and vitriol over the last few days: That a disillusioned Bergdahl had actually abandoned his post and “walked away.”
At the time of the story’s publication, the media had all but forgotten about Bergdahl — who was released on Saturday after five years in the hands of the Taliban, in exchange for five Guantanamo prisoners. And, with the exception of some initial chatter, Hastings’ piece, which paints a deeply unflattering picture of Bergdahl’s unit and its leadership, hardly had the impact of some of his other investigations.
But someone did pay attention to it: the FBI.
That, at least, is what was revealed in a heavily redacted document released by the agency following a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request — filed on the day of Hastings’ death — by investigative journalist Jason Leopold and Ryan Shapiro, an MIT doctoral student whom the Justice Department once called the “most prolific” requester of FOIA documents.
The document, partially un-redacted after Leopold and Shapiro engaged in a lengthy legal battle with the FBI for failing to fulfill its FOIA obligations, singles out Hastings’ Rolling Stone piece — “America’s Last Prisoner of War” — as “controversial reporting.” It names Hastings and Matthew Farwell, a former soldier in Afghanistan and a contributing reporter to Hastings’ piece.
'If this deployment is lame, I’m just going to walk off into the mountains of Pakistan.'
The document also included an Associated Press report based on the Rolling Stone piece, and what it identifies as a “blog entry” penned by Gary Farwell, Matthew’s father — which actually appears to be a comment entry on the Idaho Statesman’s website.
“The article reveals private email excerpts, from [redacted] to his parents. The excerpts include quotes about being ‘ashamed to even be American,’ and threats that, ‘If this deployment is lame, I’m just going to walk off into the mountains of Pakistan,’” the FBI file reads. “The Rolling Stone article ignited a media frenzy, speculating about the circumstances of [redacted] capture, and whether US resources and effort should continue to be expended for his recovery.”
'I’m happy the FBI is reading Rolling Stone on the job.'
The FBI file — as well as a Department of Justice document released in response to Leopold and Shapiro’s lawsuit — suggests that Hastings and Farwell’s reporting got swept up into an “international terrorist investigation” into Bergdahl’s disappearance.
A spokesperson for the FBI told VICE News that the agency does not normally comment on pending investigations and that it lets FOIA documents “speak for themselves.” The investigation was still pending as of last month, Leopold said.
According to the files — and a rare public statement by the FBI following Hastings’ death — Hastings was never directly under investigation by the agency, despite having pissed off a lot of people in very high places.
But it is not exactly clear why Hastings and Farwell’s “controversial” reporting made it into a criminal investigation that was already active before they even wrote the Rolling Stone story.
'The FBI says Hastings was not a target of their investigation but his reporting was. How do you investigate someone's reporting without investigating them?'
“Michael and Matt both worked really, really hard on that story, and I know for a fact that they did it in a way that completely angered the US military and the US government, and while other reporters were steering away from it, they were totally on it,” Leopold told VICE News. “The FBI was investigating this, whether they were investigating Michael or investigating the story, and there was a lot of fear around it, because they characterized the story as ‘controversial’ — whatever that means.”
“Then the question became, why was the FBI looking at this, what were they looking at?” Leopold added. “The FBI says Hastings was not a target of their investigation but his reporting was. How do you investigate someone's reporting without investigating them?"
Farwell declined to discuss the details of the file, but told VICE News, “I’m happy the FBI is reading Rolling Stone on the job.”
He had not known that his name, and his father's, showed up in the FBI's files until Leopold pointed it out to him. Leopold told VICE News: "When I showed Matt these files he was like, oh my god, this is basically outlining my conversations."
Farwell said: “When it first came out it was just Michael, and Jason was like, ‘Hey dude, this has your dad in it.’ And I was like, ‘Oh shit, they're talking about me in these redactions, that's weird.’ Anyway, I signed a privacy waiver and sent it out to Jason."
Entire paragraphs in the FBI documents remain redacted — leaving many questions about the scope of the investigation into the journalists’ work. But the un-redacted sections about Farwell characterize him as a 10th Mountain infantryman, who helped broker a meeting between Hastings and — presumably — some of the sources for the Rolling Stone story.
Now that Bergdahl is free, the lid on Pandora’s box has been lifted.
In his comment on the Idaho Statesman's site, also picked up in the FBI file, Farwell Senior comes to Bergdahl's defense after the Rolling Stone article sparked backlash against the soldier, of a similar sort that we are seeing today. He also credits his son for brokering Hastings’ meeting with the Bergdahls.
“I’m going to excuse that young kid for his choice of words, but I’m not going to excuse the leadership of his outfit, nor the misguided policies of our government in Afghanistan and elsewhere which have put our young people in harms way without a clear vision of what they are doing,” Farwell, himself a retired Air Force officer, wrote then. “It’s my hope this Rolling Stone article helps the Bergdahl’s get their son back and helps expose some misguided policies and conduct far above the pay grade of this young disillusioned soldier.”
Now that Bergdahl is free, the lid on Pandora’s box has been lifted.
'Even before Bergdahl’s release, “the dam was getting ready to burst.”'
“For five years, soldiers have been forced to stay silent about the disappearance and search for Bergdahl. Now we can talk about what really happened,” Nathan Bradley Bethea, who served in Bergdahl’s battalion, wrote in the Daily Beast on Monday. “I served in the same battalion in Afghanistan and participated in the attempts to retrieve him throughout the summer of 2009. After we redeployed, every member of my brigade combat team received an order that we were not allowed to discuss what happened to Bergdahl for fear of endangering him. He is safe, and now it is time to speak the truth.”
"Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down," Bethea stated.
Soldiers forced to silence for years have now taken their accounts — and anger — about the missing soldier’s ordeal to social media and the press. Republican strategists eager to turn Bergdahl into the next Benghazi have also jumped on the opportunity to offer critics of the young “deserter” up for interviews, as the New York Times noted today.
'As for the circumstances of his capture, when he is able to provide them, we’ll learn the facts.'
In the last few days, Bergdahl has been blamed with the deaths of “every American soldier killed in Paktika Province in the four-month period that followed his disappearance,” according to the Times — charges that the Pentagon dismissed as unsubstantiated. Today it was reported that the army will launch an inquiry into the circumstances of Bergdahl's disappearance and his personal conduct.
"The questions about this particular soldier’s conduct are separate from our effort to recover ANY U.S. service member in enemy captivity," General Martin E. Dempsey said in a Facebook post today. "As for the circumstances of his capture, when he is able to provide them, we’ll learn the facts. Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty. Our Army’s leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred."
A US Army investigation into Bergdahl's own conduct might appease or inflame his critics. But even before Bergdahl’s release, “the dam was getting ready to burst,” Farwell said.
“That was one of the weirdest things about the case, that everyone in the whole brigade was required to sign a pretty strict nondisclosure agreement that was enforced at a pretty high level, so basically if any of the people from that unit talked about Bowe, they thought they could be losing their careers,” Farwell said. "It was a blanket statement, ‘you will not talk about anything about this.'”
And while there is no suggestion — in the un-redacted bits of the FBI file on Hastings — that the agency was after any soldier who had taken his frustrations to the press, the fact that the FBI was looking into the reporters’ sources and methods raises at least the question.
Now, everyone wants to talk about it. But Hastings’ ever “controversial” reporting got to it first.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi