The widely circulated piece, "The Runaway General," revealed unvarnished animosity from McChrystal's top aides toward Obama administration officials and created a P.R. nightmare for the White House that eventually culminated in McChrystal's resignation as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Ironically, when the piece was published, Hastings was reportedly embedded with U.S. troops in Kabul. Having returned from the trip last month, he thought he had been granted permission to rejoin the army as an embedded correspondent in September, as a message posted recently on his Twitter account reveals.
But the Pentagon had other ideas. On Tuesday, a Defense Department spokesman told The Associated Press that Hastings would not be allowed back.
"There is no right to embed," Col. David Lapan said. "It is a choice made between units and individual reporters, and a key element of an embed is having trust that the individuals are going to abide by the ground rules. So in that instance the command in Afghanistan decided there wasn't the trust requisite and denied this request."
But both Hastings and his editor, Eric Bates, have denied that any strictures were violated in the reporting of "The Runaway General."
"Whatever ground rules were put down, we followed them," Hastings said during a recent media conference, as AOL Daily Finance reported.
And just what are the current ground rules, anyway? What latitude does the Pentagon have for denying embedded status? Surge Desk takes a look at Hastings' own recollections of how things went down and the policies outlined in the "Media Ground Rules and Hold Armless Agreement" form posted on the website of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
An Unflattering Portrait?
According to the ground rules, a reporter could not be barred for simply painting an unflattering portrait of an American military subject, as Hastings did. The introduction to the document makes it abundantly clear that the guidelines "are in no way intended to prevent the release of negative coverage or embarrassing information but do restrict the release of certain categories of information which could provide mission details useful to the enemy putting military and civilian lives at stake."
Off the Record?
The potentially most convincing argument for those who charge Hastings with breaking the ground rules is that his article included quotes from conversations that had allegedly been agreed upon as "off the record." Rule 7 of the document expressly states: "All interviews with service members will be on the record. Security of information will be the responsibility of the service member being interviewed" -- which on its own seems pretty clear-cut.
But the rule continues with a very crucial clause: "The military member must be informed by the accommodated media when he/she is in an interview situation. The service member will always have the right to decline an interview." This is the main sticking point in the case of Hastings, who followed McChrystal and his staff around in and out of a variety of casual and professional situations.
Did Hastings clearly delineate when he was actually interviewing people for the story and when he was just tagging along? He's claimed that in his understanding, everything he observed and heard was "on the record," except for sensitive specifics of military plans (more on that below). But anonymous senior military officials disagree, telling ABC News and The Washington Post that the most damaging quotes came from times when sources thought they weren't being interviewed.
Disobeying the Military Code of Conduct?
The embedded journalist has the responsibility "when accepting accommodation from units under NATO command" to "comply with the respective national military codes of conduct (e.g. bans on alcohol, taking of war trophies, etc.)."
Interestingly, just months after taking over as International Security Assistance Force commander in late summer 2008, the general banned all alcohol consumption, even by civilians, at the security forces' headquarters in Kabul, after some troops were alleged to be partying it up to the point that it was affecting their performance.
One passage in the Rolling Stone article vividly describes McChrystal and his aides getting "s***faced" at an Irish pub in Paris the night after McChrystal made a speech designed to drum up French support for the war effort. In addition, he told NBC that throughout the subsequent ride from that city to Berlin, McChrystal and his aides were drinking alcohol "the whole way." Hastings himself has not admitted to drinking during any point of his time with McChrystal and travel to Afghanistan for the story.
Detailing Supplies and Troop Movements? (aka "Pulling a Geraldo")
Embed status can also be revoked for publishing information deemed "not releasable," which basically includes all the specifics pertaining to troop movements, specific battle plans and supply levels. Hastings' piece did not include anything of the kind, focusing largely on the general's relationship with his staff and their collective relationship (or lack thereof) with the White House and an examination of McChrystal's COIN strategy.
Having a Personal Breakdown?
Embed status may be limited or restricted "If, in the opinion of the unit commander, a media representative is unable to physically, psychologically, mentally or emotionally withstand the conditions required to operate with the forward deployed forces." But there's no evidence that this applies to Hastings, who has visited war zones multiple times now and appears eager to go back for more.
Notably, nowhere in the International Security Assistance Force ground rules document is there any mention made of the "trust requisite" cited by the Pentagon in its explanation for denying Hastings the embedded privilege.