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Magazine betrayed McChrystal, officials say

Washington Post: The military command has concluded from its own review of events that the magazine inaccurately depicted the attribution ground rules for the interviews that led to the general's ouster.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal was fired by President Barack Obama as the top military commander in Afghanistan for remarks he and his aides made in a Rolling Stone magazine article titled "The Runaway General."Rolling Stone via AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal has made no public comment since President Obama relieved him of his Afghan war command Wednesday, silently taking his lumps for disparaging remarks he and his aides made about administration officials in the presence of a reporter from Rolling Stone magazine.

But the command has concluded from its own review of events that McChrystal was betrayed when the journalist quoted banter among the general and his staff, much of which they thought was off the record. They contend that the magazine inaccurately depicted the attribution ground rules for the interviews.

"Many of the sessions were off-the-record and intended to give [reporter Michael Hastings] a sense" of how McChrystal's team operated, according to a senior military official. The command's own review of events, the official said, gleaned "no evidence to suggest" that any of the "salacious political quotes" in the article were made during a series of on-the-record and background interviews Hastings conducted with McChrystal and others.

The official, one of many subject to a Pentagon advisory not to discuss the situation without authorization, spoke on condition of anonymity. He said he was motivated by what he described as untrue claims made by Rolling Stone.

Two others with direct knowledge of the command's dealings with Hastings offered similar accounts.

Rolling Stone executive editor Eric Bates categorically denied that Hastings violated any ground rules in writing about the four weeks he spent with McChrystal and his team. "A lot of things were said off the record that we didn't use," Bates said in an interview. "We abided by all the ground rules in every instance."

"In every case in this story there were multiple times in which there were express requests for off the record and background or not-for-attribution and we abided in every instance," Bates said.

No push-back
Neither McChrystal nor anyone else has denied making the derisive comments, including a depiction of Obama as "uncomfortable and intimidated" in his first meeting with the general and of national security adviser James L. Jones as a "clown."

Some commentators have questioned why McChrystal and his aides were being pilloried for complaints about Washington commonly heard in diplomatic and military facilities overseas. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Thursday that the atmosphere of disrespect for civilian leaders that McChrystal tolerated was grounds for dismissal regardless of the context in which the offensive comments were made or who made them.

In an interview with this week, Bates said that the Kabul command was forewarned about the article and offered "absolutely" no push-back.

"We ran everything by them in a fact-checking process as we always do. They had a sense of what was coming and it 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."

But 30 questions that a Rolling Stone fact-checker posed in a memo e-mailed last week to McChrystal media adviser Duncan Boothby contained no hint of what became of the controversial portions of the story.

In the e-mail, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, Boothby is asked to confirm the makeup of McChrystal's traveling staff on a trip Hastings took with them to Paris, and the communications equipment they brought with them on an earlier visit to London. "They don't come close to revealing what ended up in the final article," said the military official.

"Does McChrystal's staff joking refer to themselves as Team America?" the fact-checker asked. "Not really," Boothby replied. "We joke that we are sometimes perceived that way by many of the NATO forces" under McChrystal's command.

In the article, Hastings wrote that McChrystal and his aides "jokingly refer to themselves as Team America, taking the name from the South Park-esque sendup of military cluelessness, and they pride themselves on their can-do attitude and their disdain for authority." In other passages, Hastings took what appear to be similar minor liberties with the facts as Boothby described them.

Off the record
In the last question, the fact-checker asked "Did Gen. McChrystal vote for President Obama? (The reporter tells me that this info originates from McChrystal himself.)"

Boothby replied in all capitals. "IMPORTANT -- PLEASE DO NOT INCLUDE THIS -- THIS IS PERSONAL AND PRIVATE INFORMATION AND UNRELATED TO HIS JOB. IT WOULD BE INAPPROPRIATE TO SHARE." He went on to describe the "strict rules" under which military personnel keep their political views to themselves.

In the article, Hastings reported that the general "had voted for Obama."

Bates said that the remark was "absolutely" not off the record, and noted that Boothby's appeal "isn't on accuracy or even that it was off the record," but that it was irrelevant.

Why this remark, but not other controversial utterances, were included in the fact-checker's questions was unclear. But the magazine was under no obligation to check them, Bates said. "If we have [remarks] on tape or said . . . in our presence, and we have detailed notes, it's not like we're hearing from someone else and checking 'Hey, is this right?'" he said.

When public figures say things that are unwise, "we don't go back to the sources and say 'Hey, did you really say that?' " he said.