Exclusive: McChrystal was shocked by controversy over Rolling Stone article
Stanley McChrystal, the retired general and former head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, was shocked by the Rolling Stone article that led to his firing, he reveals in a soon-to-be-published memoir. "Sir, we have a problem," McChrystal aide Charlie Flynn told McChrystal upon waking him up at 2:00 in the morning one night in Afghanistan. ...
Stanley McChrystal, the retired general and former head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, was shocked by the Rolling Stone article that led to his firing, he reveals in a soon-to-be-published memoir.
"Sir, we have a problem," McChrystal aide Charlie Flynn told McChrystal upon waking him up at 2:00 in the morning one night in Afghanistan. "The Rolling Stone article is out and it’s really bad."
"’How in the world could that story have been a problem?’ I thought, stunned," McChrystal wrote in the memoir, which is set to be released Jan. 7. (The Cable obtained a copy of the book independently from a local bookstore and was not a party to a publisher’s embargo on the information contained within.)
McChrystal was referring to the article "The Runaway General," by Rolling Stone correspondent Michael Hastings, in which Hastings details his time with McChrystal’s staff on a stay over in Paris in 2010. In the article, Hasting documents McChrystal staffers insulting top Obama administration officials including Vice President Joe Biden and the late Amb. Richard Holbrooke. Obama recalled McChrystal to Washington and demanded his resignation shortly after the article’s publication.
McChrystal does not mention Hastings by name, but he does describe the Rolling Stone affair as a failed attempt to give the reporter an insight into the brotherhood of his soldiers.
"I was surprised by the tone and direction of the article," McChrystal wrote. "For a number of minutes I felt as though I’d likely awaken from a dream, but the situation was real. Regardless of how I judged the story for fairness or accuracy, responsibility was mine. And its ultimate effect was immediately clear to me."
McChrystal said he was called back to Washington that night, but he already knew his career in the military was over and decided to resign right away.
"From the moment I’d seen the article, I’d known there were different options on how to act, and react, to the storm I knew I would face," he wrote. "But I knew only one decision was right for the moment and for the mission. I didn’t try to figure out what others might do; no hero’s or mentor’s example came to mind. I called no one for advice."
The Rolling Stone article was not the first time McChrystal had run afoul of the leadership in Washington. He also reflects in his book on the angst following his October 2009 speech at London’s Institute for Strategic Studies, where he rejected the idea of a counterterrorism-focused mission in Afghanistan, right in the middle of the White House’s internal policy review.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen woke McChrystal in the middle of the night to communicate the administration’s concerns over his remarks. But McChrystal wrote that neither he nor President Barack Obama raised the issue of the speech when the two met the next day for a previously scheduled meeting aboard Air Force One in Copenhagen.
"My response (to a reporter’s question in London) was reported as a rebuttal of other policy options for Afghanistan and as criticism of the vice president’s views," he wrote. "It wasn’t intended as such, but I could have said it better."
Overall, McChrystal’s book paints a portrait of a commander who was not well-suited to handling the intense media spotlight that come with being the leader of a controversial war during a period of domestic turmoil. He was also taken aback that his strategic assessment in the fall of 2009 calling for 40,000 more troops in Afghanistan was leaked to the press as well.
"In retrospect, I never felt entirely the same after the leak of the strategic assessment and then the unexpected storm raised by the London talk," McChrystal wrote. "I recognized, perhaps too slowly, the extent which politics, personalities, and other factors would complicate a course that, under the best of circumstances, would be remarkably difficult to navigate."
In his book, McChrystal also defends his actions related to the death of Army ranger and NFL star Pat Tillman, who was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2010. McChrystal led the process of recommending Tillman for a Silver Star, which included reporting "devastating enemy fire." Later it was revealed that there was no enemy fire and Tillman had been killed by accident by coalition forces.
"[McChrystal] deliberately helped cover up Pat’s death and he has never adequately apologized to us for doing that," Mary Tillman, Pat’s mother, told ABC News in 2011. Pat’s brother Kevin testified to Congress that Army leaders including McChrystal misled the family, altered witness statements, and printed incorrect details on Tillman’s Silver Star commendation, all as part of a campaign of "deliberate and calculated lies."
McChrystal has said before that he failed to properly review the Silver Star recommendation and that it was not "well written." In his book, McChrystal insists that there was no intentional cover-up.
"Five investigations were conducted and accusations of intentional deception, cover-up, and exploitation of Corporal Tillman’s death for political purposes were propagated. Sadly, truth and trust were lost in this process," McChrystal wrote. "Genuine concerns over slow and incomplete communication with the family increasingly became mixed with suspicions of intentional misconduct."
McChrystal said he intended to be forthright with the family and assumed they would be notified that fratricide was a possibility in Tillman’s death. But he stood by the decision to issue the Silver Star commendation with incomplete information.
"In the citation, we thus sought to document what I believe was his heroism, without drawing official conclusions about friendly fire that were still premature," he wrote. "Any errors, which I should have caught, were not the result of any intention to misrepresent or mislead."
Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.
A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.
Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin
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