The impolitic comments that torpedoed Gen. Stan McChrystal's career were "almost all" made by his most junior staff — men who "make tea, keep the principal on time and carry bags" — who had no reason to believe their words would end up in print, according to a staff member who was on the trip to Europe during which the comments were made.
Two other sources familiar with the trip, including Air Force Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis, McChrystal's personal spokesman, said the quotes that appeared in a Rolling Stone article that got McChrystal in trouble were made in "off-the-record" settings.
All three sources also accused Rolling Stone of publicly misrepresenting its communications with McChrystal's headquarters after the story had been reported but before it went to print. E-mails obtained by Army Times appear to support the McChrystal side's version of events.
Rolling Stone did not return a call seeking comment for this story.
President Obama relieved McChrystal of his command of the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan on June 23 in response to the article, which quotes McChrystal and members of his staff making derogatory comments about a range of senior civilian officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, who is a retired lieutenant general, and National Security Advisor James Jones, who is a retired Marine general.
Only a few of the quotes were attributed to McChrystal himself: In the opening sentence of the eight-page article, he asks his staff how he got "screwed into" attending a dinner with a French government minister; he imagines responding to a hypothetical question from a French audience about the vice president by pretending not to know who Biden is; the general is described as checking his BlackBerry and groaning, "Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke ... I don't even want to open it." In what appears to be the only contentious quote drawn from an on-the-record interview with McChrystal, he says he felt "betrayed" by U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry.
The remaining quotes have a variety of anonymous attributions:
• Descriptions of Obama appearing "uncomfortable and intimidated" and "not very engaged" in two early meetings with McChrystal are attributed to "sources familiar with the meeting" and "an adviser to McChrystal" respectively.
• "One aide" is said to have called Jones a "clown ... stuck in 1985."
• "A member of the general's team" says his boss describes Holbrooke as "a wounded animal."
• "An aide" makes a crude joke about the Holbrooke e-mail.
• A comment about the dinner with the French minister being "f------ gay" is also attributed to an anonymous "aide."
• A quote that rhymes the vice president's surname with the phrase "bite me" is attributed to "a top adviser."
• A comment that visits by Sens. John Kerry and John McCain are typically "not very helpful" is attributed to "another aide."
Many of the quotes are drawn from banter among staffers that the article's author, freelance writer Michael Hastings, overheard shortly after he joined McChrystal's team when the general was on a speaking trip to Paris.
But although Hastings describes the personnel on the Paris trip as "the most powerful force shaping U.S. policy in Afghanistan," the people he quoted in the article were mostly junior personnel who have no significant role in advising McChrystal, a source who was on the Paris trip told Army Times. "Almost all the offending quotes ... were, in fact, from conversations with the most junior people on the trip," the source said.
Taking issue with Hastings' description of the power of McChrystal's traveling party, the source noted that it included neither Mark Sedwill, NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan and a close McChrystal ally, nor any of the influential three-stars under McChrystal's command, such as Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, who runs the war on a day-to-day basis as the head of ISAF Joint Command; Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who is in charge of training the Afghan security forces; and Vice Adm. Robert Harward, who runs detainee operations in Afghanistan. "These are the powerful folks driving strategy," said the source who was on the trip.
The flag officers who did make the trip, including Rear Adm. Greg Smith, ISAF's deputy chief of staff for communication; Maj. Gen. Mike Flynn, ISAF's intelligence chief; and Maj. Gen. Bill Mayville, ISAF's deputy chief of staff for operations, were responsible for none of the offending comments, the source said. "I know the person who said, ‘Bite me,'" the source said. "I wouldn't call them a senior adviser."
To quote young aides in a way that implies that they were officials with more significance is "unfair" of Hastings, the source said.
"Do these young men write policy? Do these young men have an official impact on the working relationships between institutions of government? They make tea, keep the principal on time and carry bags, and they are so in awe of this man [i.e. McChrystal] that they get to work with," the source said.
As an example of Hastings breaking ground rules, the source who was on the Paris trip cited an invitation by Duncan Boothby, a civilian contractor who was special assistant to McChrystal, extended to Hastings to dine with McChrystal, his wife and the rest of the team in an Irish pub in Paris on the night of the McChrystals' wedding anniversary.
The invitation was contingent on Hastings treating "everything" that night as "off the record," to which Hastings agreed, the source said. However, the article includes a description of the staff getting "completely s----faced" at the pub.
But McChrystal was not blaming his men for his downfall. Nor has he denied that any of the remarks was made. "He's a military commander and he will take responsibility for anything that his men do, and that's ultimately what he's done," the source said. "But keep in mind McChrystal did not make the offending remarks quoted in the article."
No matter who uttered the quotes, by using them, Hastings violated ground rules that public affairs personnel had established with him, said a senior military official familiar with the trip.
In an interview on CNN's "Reliable Sources" show, Hastings said there were "no ground rules laid down," which he said "means it's on the record," thus allowing him to quote what he heard freely. Eric Bates, executive editor of Rolling Stone, echoed this claim in a June 22 appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," saying all the quotes that got McChrystal in trouble were spoken when the speakers knew they were on the record.
Neither Bates nor Hastings explained in their interviews how this squared with the fact that one of the most damaging anonymous quotes in the article, in which Jones is referred to as a "clown" by "one aide," is preceded by the following sentence: "In private, Team McChrystal likes to talk s--- about many of Obama's top people on the diplomatic side." The phrase "in private" usually implies an off-the-record conversation, meaning it cannot be repeated in an article.
McChrystal's team saw things very differently from Hastings and Bates. "Many of the sessions were off the record and intended to give him a sense of how we operated as a team," said a senior military official familiar with McChrystal's Paris trip. "Hastings conducted several one-on-one interviews — some of those were on background and others were on the record. I have found no evidence to suggest that any of the salacious political quotes were from any of these one-on-one interviews. They all appear to have been in settings that were off the record."
Hastings' claim that there were "no ground rules" was "an absurd statement," said the senior military official.
"Ground rules varied as appropriate, but significant portions of the time were considered to be off the record or on background," said Sholtis, who did not make the trip to Paris but helped coordinate Hastings' embed with the McChrystal team when it continued in Afghanistan. "Based on my experiences in the job, I'm confident that Gen. McChrystal and his staff believed they were off the record," Sholtis said.
Two sources familiar with what happened on McChrystal's fateful trip to Europe backed him up.
"I don't think most of those folks when they had those conversations with Michael expected those words to show up in Rolling Stone," said the source who was on the trip. "I don't think the young men who were in conversations there thought that they were in an interview in that particular moment."
McChrystal's traveling party of about 10 included two public affairs officials: Smith, who is ISAF's senior public affairs officer, and Boothby. It was Boothby who was in charge of the Rolling Stone project. Smith was aware of it, but left everything up to Boothby, who did not require Hastings to sign a document covering the ground rules of his embed, as virtually all journalists who embed with ISAF units in Afghanistan must. Boothby has resigned in the wake of the Rolling Stone article.
In Hastings' case, all agreements were verbal. This arrangement was not unusual when reporters profiled McChrystal, said the source who was on the trip, but it appears to have left the rules open to differing interpretations, or at least to have left McChrystal's people with no hard evidence that Hastings broke them.
Members of McChrystal's inner circle are also furious at what they perceive as Rolling Stone's false account of events leading up to the publication of Hastings' article.
In his June 22 appearance on "Morning Joe," when asked if McChrystal's staff had known "this was coming for some time," Bates, the Rolling Stone editor, answered, "Yes."
"We ran everything by them in our fact-checking process, as we always do, so I think they had a sense of what was coming, but this was all on the record and they spent a lot of time with our reporter, so I think they knew that they had said it."
These comments infuriated those at ISAF headquarters in Kabul. Army Times obtained a copy of the questions that Rolling Stone's fact-checker sent to ISAF headquarters, along with Boothby's replies. None of the questions discusses the controversial aspects of the article, nor are any of the quotes that cost McChrystal his job included.
"We first learned about sensitive content in the article when reporters called who had received advance copies four days prior to actual newsstand deliver," Sholtis said. Two days later, McChrystal was gone, leaving the men quoted anonymously in the article to rue their actions.
"Those guys are mortified now, because they privately are aware probably of who said what and of the ultimate consequences of those words," said the source who was on the trip. "A number of us ... feel that we have let perhaps the greatest military mind of his generation down in a deeply, deeply personal way and that we have somehow even jeopardized the greater mission."