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):
[mejsaudio mp3 src=”/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/sad.mp3″]
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:
[mejsaudio mp3 src=”/uploads/2013/07/happy.mp3″]
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 car1, 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.2.
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.
- I’m not entirely sure what that would entail/require.↩
- 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.↩