Conspiracy Corner – The Mysterious Death of Michael Hastings

Every Thursday, about 8:15am, Matthew talks with Zac on 95bFM’s “Breakfast Show” about conspiracy theories.

In the early hours of the morning, June 18th, 2013, Michael Hastings died in a freak automobile accident. “Freak” because it involved only one vehicle and “freak” because Hasting’s Mercedes C250 Coupé (I say, writing like Dan Brown at my 15″ MacBook Retina) was seen by witnesses to be driving at full speed before fishtailing and crashing into a Palm Tree (no, I don’t know what species it was. Albuquerque Red?) in a manner which was, apparently, not very Michael Hastings-like.

For those of you who don’t know who Michael Hastings was, he’s the journalist who helped bring down Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Hasting’s had the reputation of being a journalist who didn’t quite play by the rules (where the notoriously ambiguous notion of “the rules” here refers to, at the very least, Hasting’s ignoring the accepted protocol of being an embedded journalist, to whit failing to write a puff piece of his “tour” with the militrary).

So, Hasting’s, a man with at least one powerful enemy, died in a freak accident. So what?

Well, what if I told you Hasting’s was being investigated by the FBI at the time he died? Would that make you suspicious?

Now, I’m not going to tell you that; all I’m going to do is suggest it, because that seems to be the story here. Hasting’s believed he was being investigated by the FBI and, despite the fact the FBI have denied this, the story has taken on legs.

When someone dies mysteriously and that someone happens to be the kind of person who makes powerful enemies it’s not that unreasonable to think “Maybe it was foul play.” However, to move from a suspicion of foul play to asserting the existence of a conspiracy may well be unreasonable, if the evidence for the existence of the conspiracy doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

So, that being said, is there/what is the evidence of foul play?

Let’s start with the e-mail Hasting’s sent to friends and colleagues the day before he died.

Hey [name redacted] – the feds are interviewing my ‘close friends and associates’. Perhaps if the 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.

Also: I’m onto a big story, and need to go off the radar for a bit.

All the best, and hope to see you all soon.

Post Hasting’s death, that e-mail sounds panicked (excuse the lousy acting):

Imagine, though, that you got the e-mail the day before and you were a working journalist. You might have read it in a much more casual tone:

I would argue that the e-mail, on its own, doesn’t tell us much at all. Hasting’s was warning people that the Feds might be interested in his work, so if anyone asked about it, they should clam up and ask for a lawyer. Standard practice/warning, really. It’s only after the fact of his freak death that you might start thinking it should be read in a worried or harried tone. I.e. the tone of the e-mail depends an awful lot on what else we know about Hastings, and given he died in a freak accident, it’s easy to into the e-mail the notion he was panicked when, maybe, he was not.

So, what story was Michael Hasting’s working on, such that it might justify his assassination?

We don’t know. We might never know what he was working on.

There was a rumour circulating that he was investigating the relationship between Jill Kelley and David Petraeus, but His last story, “Why the Democrats Love to Spy On Americans” had been published eleven days earlier, but no one seems to be suggesting that piece would deserve state-ordered assassination.

Of course, all that aside, the actual accident was a freak one, and, as such, was weird/suspicious in nature. Richard Clarke, sometime advisor to four consecutive US presidents, has weighed in on the description of the accident and said:

What has been revealed as a result of some research at universities is that it’s relatively easy to hack your way into the control system of a car, and to do such things as cause acceleration when the driver doesn’t want acceleration, to throw on the brakes when the driver doesn’t want the brakes on, to launch an air bag. You can do some really highly destructive things now, through hacking a car, and it’s not that hard.

So if there were a cyberattack on the car – and I’m not saying there was, I think whoever did it would probably get away with it.

Now, Clarke has a background in cyberattacks (I questioned his qualifications in this respect in the radio segment, but on closer inspection he probably is the right kind of authority to refer to) but note that he’s not saying this was a cyberattack, just that it could have been. Sure, Hasting’s had powerful enemies, the kind who probably could have knowledge of how to cyberattack a car ((I’m not entirely sure what that would entail/require.)), but that doesn’t mean it happened. Clarke is basically musing out loud and presenting a candidate explanation for the event. It’s a possible explanation which accounts for how the accident occurred but its not necessarily among the pool of likely explanations. ((There’s some similarity here between the death of Michael Hasting’s and the notion it was caused by some device attached to the car, with Ian Wishart’s claims about how Paul White died. Wishart has always maintained that White’s freak automobile accident was suspicious and has posited that it was caused by the placing of a device on the car, such that the car’s flipped over and killing the driver was not due to bad driving but, rather, deliberately caused remotely.)).

After all, freak accidents are, by their definition, unusual and seemingly unlikely. Hasting’s death by car accident, the way the witnesses described it, was weird but not so weird that it automatically qualifies as being suspicious-qua-the result of outside forces. It’s only when you factor in who Hasting’s was that the death looks more than just merely freakish.

For example, if Hasting’s thought he was being investigated by the FBI and that they were on to him, the accident might have been caused by Hasting’s driving being erratic due to his thinking he was being tailed. That’s another candidate explanation, one which allows for there to be a conspiracy against Hastings, but one that isn’t responsible for his death.

Or, of course, he might just have been driving erratically. It could just have been an unfortunate accident. Of all the candidate explanations, this is probably the most likely, all other things being equal. Unfortunately accidents happen more often than we like to think (and, in most places in the world, more often than assassinations, state-sponsored or otherwise).

Some skeptics of conspiracy theories like to claim that the more likely explanation, in a situation where there is a conspiracy theory and some theory citing a coincidence, is always going to be the coincidence theory. That is clearly a bad argument. For one thing, in a choice between rival explanations we should judge the individual explanations by their merits. For another, it’s by no means clear we should prefer coincidence theories, given what we know about the level of conspiratorial behaviour that actually goes on in the world we live in.

However, in this case we have to ask “Is Michael Hasting’s death more likely to be a freak accident (a series of unfortunate events) or assassination (a conspiracy)?” I’m siding with the coincidence theory here. This is not to say that it’s outside the bounds of probability that Hasting’s was on to something with his latest investigation and thus was removed from the equation (a terrible way of saying “killed by the State”). No, I just think it’s more likely that he was involved in a car crash and he died because of it. He may well have been being investigated by the FBI, but that doesn’t mean they also intended to kill him. It’s possible to be under suspicion and be involved in a car accident of your own making.

Likely, even.


Ned S. says:

Hi michael, have just listened to the bfm spot, and you mischaracterise clarke’s speculation re “car hacking” as relating to the installation of a physical device (which could possibly be found, you suggest, were there to be an effective investigation) instead of a remote hack, e.g. through wireless network or satellite radio, which the studies clarke referred to (!) have confirmed is possible:

Unfortunate you didn’t mention these two papers, given that you base your rating of “likely coincidence” upon the notion that car hacking would’ve been difficult/impossible. It’s also unfortunate that you also lend credibility to the fallacious notion that US law enforcement agencies would be able to independently get to the bottom of things in a matter such as this, were any higher-level players to have actually been involved.

If no foul play, this looks more like a suicide than accident – no skid marks, etc.

Ongoing coverage/speculation here:

Hi, Ned.

It’s Matthew, not Michael. On more substantive matters, you’ll note that I did admit in the write-up of that segment that Clarke is more of an appropriate expert than I gave him credit for on the radio. That being said, even Clark admitted that he’s just thinking out loud and that the death of Michael Hasting’s looks as much to be a car crash as a caused accident. Given the balance of probabilities, it’s just prima facie more likely that it was a car crash (car crashes are common, after all). So, in the absence of compelling evidence to the extent that Hasting’s death was a hit, I’m waiting on news about the toxicology report.

Ned S. says:

Waiting for the tox screen? You sure have a lot of faith in the LAPD.

But… of course Hastings would’ve been out getting loaded after telling people he feared he was being watched/followed by Feds and needed to get off the radar because he’s working on a huge story. Never mind he’s not a drinker, straight edge for years according to his books, drove like a granny according to frinds… but he probably thought “hey, this is the perfect time for this.” The absence of skid marks means he was probably busy making notes, or something.

You offer the brilliant observation that car crashes are common, therefore this is most likely a common car crash… context be damned.

How much does Auckland Uni charge to print out PhDs these days? 😉

I’m not saying “context be damned”. I’m just saying that going for the conspiratorial explanation over the coincidence explanation at this stage is making some pretty big assumptions, and so if someone is going to argue that it was a hit, then they’re going to need more evidence than “freak death looks suspicious”.

Also, if you are going to rely on the claim he “drove like a granny according to frinds”, then its inconsistent to point out my postulated drunk-driving hypothesis whilst claiming the evidence at the scene is consistent with the notion “he was probably busy making notes, or something.” Either he was a cautious driver (which precludes drink-driving and driving whilst preoccupied with some other activity) or he wasn’t. People notoriously overestimate the risk-adverse nature of friends and family: take this article for example. The victim’s mother claims her son is risk-adverse, but the facts of the matter suggest that in some circumstances he’s quite happy to engage in very risky behaviour.

Unfunny jokes about my PhD aside, I think you’ll find it’s not the cost of the PhD which is interesting but rather the peer review which lead to it being awarded.

Ned S. says:

The “making notes” comment was a joke, mocking your hypothesis that Hastings chose this time in his life to start drinking again and go on a potentially murderous drunken joyride… a time when he appears to be seriously work-oriented, pursuing the biggest story of his life, telling others he feared he was under the Federal spotlight.

His friends testify that he was a careful driver – hearsay yes, but it’s not exactly his mother saying he was a good boy. But yes, they could be wrong, etc.

Then there is the evidence destruction – the body was cremated against family wishes. Oops, accidents happen, etc.

No skid marks, okay, perhaps he was too loaded. But this, and eyewitness reports, make it sound more like a vehicular suicide than an accident.

So, beyond the extremely unusual nature of the crash/explosion, I think it’s unreasonable to conclude that the resulting speculation is based on “omg looks suspicious!” Consider the history of journalist (and politician) assassination in the US, e.g. Danny Casolaro. Would you agree it’s harder to imagine this sort of thing actually happening if you’ve spent your life in a safe, comparatively uncorrupt nation like NZ?

Ultimately how you choose to evaluate a situation like this depends on how your rate the viability of alternative scenarios (you didn’t read or even cite the papers Clarke referred to) and perhaps more so, how you model the power landscape, esp regarding certain institutions, in the US – history is the key. At a young age, in a remote country, on the spot as an “expert”, and perhaps focused more on epistemological and sociological explanations, I imagine it’s difficult to find the time to do adequate due diligence in such a “can of worms” area.

Of course it’s too soon to rate this as “proven assassination”. But it seems like you’re putting far too much weight on the tox screen. You simply can’t rely on evidence filtered through compromised institutions like LAPD. Again, history and not epistemology is the key. If we are to be responsible and cautious in our analysis, then unfortunately we would need to piece together the puzzle independently of these easy, pre-packaged conclusions…

…which is precisely why all sorts of idiot bait is seeded and encouraged online – a certain proportion of anti-hegemonic rumor and conspiracy theory – because they serve to inoculate the masses against the rarer, legitimate speculative conspiratorial meme and reinforce the perceived authority of certain orthodox information/disinformation sources. I assume you get this, and understand propaganda techniques on a level several steps beyond the 1950’s model.

On this more general note, and forgive my bluntness, but (especially in your media appearances) if you actually want to move beyond arrogantly scoffing at the credulous, hysterical masses and their nutty uncritical theories, then your ongoing examination of popular conspiracy culture could/should be leading you towards something far more socially valuable, i.e. the deconstruction of intentional top-down disinformation, propaganda, and perception management strategy; epistemological phenomena within heirarchical, gamed information environments; and the role that CT memes currently play within all of that. The most obvious examples of top-down CT are still some of the most prevalent today: consider Birchers, LaRouchies, Neocon terrorism propaganda, etc…

Bluntness? More like presumption.