Interview with "Rolling Stone" Writer Michael Hastings

Interview with "Rolling Stone" Writer Michael Hastings

By Larry King Live - June 23, 2010


LARRY KING, HOST: Tonight, disgraced General Stanley McChrystal, the man running the war in Afghanistan, is abruptly fired by President Obama.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Today I accepted General Stanley McChrystal's resignation as commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

KING: The journalist who brought him down is here for his first on-camera interview.

Who gave him access to a four-star commander in the middle of a war? Did McChrystal forget he was talking to a reporter? Did the journalist know that his bombshell story was going to blow a military career?



KING: Good evening. Michael Hastings is a contributor to "Rolling Stone" magazine. He's author of the article "The Runaway General." That article will be out on the magazine stands Friday. It led to General McChrystal's resignation.

He's also written "I Lost My Love in Baghdad." This is his first on-camera interview about the uproar that his piece has caused.

President Barack Obama has nominated us, the U.S. Central Command General, David Petraeus to replace General Stanley McChrystal as the top commander in Afghanistan.

Let's take a look at the president's remarks earlier today. And then we'll talk with Michael. Watch.


OBAMA: But war is bigger than any one man or woman, whether a private, a general or a president. As difficult as it is to lose General McChrystal, I believe that it is the right decision for our national security.

The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general. (END OF VIDEO CLIP)

KING: All right, Michael Hastings, the obvious first question is, how did you get this? How did you get access? How did you get this whole thing done?

MICHAEL HASTINGS, CONTRIBUTOR, ROLLING STONE: Well, when my editors and I at "Rolling Stone" came up with the idea to do a profile of General McChrystal, I simply just e-mailed General McChrystal's press staff, said we wanted to do a profile, and said if you could give us anytime to hang out with the general that would be great.

I was expecting actually no access or perhaps, you know, one or two days or 45-minute interview. When the response was, hey, why don't you come over to Paris when we're going on a NATO trip, you can join us in Paris next week, see the general, meet him, and then come to Kabul a few weeks after that to see him in the war zone.

It's kind of a different sort of spin or a different twist on the normal profiles. But then what happened was --

KING: Why do you --

HASTINGS: While I was in Paris, the volcano in Iceland exploded and so I ended up getting stuck with the general and his staff.

KING: Why do you think they did it? I mean, we know that "Rolling Stone" is a kind of a left-wing magazine. And they are not exactly on the left side of the political spectrum. Why did they let it happen?

HASTINGS: I think one of the main reasons was they wanted to reach a different demographic than they had during the other profiles. A number of young officers read "Rolling Stone." So I think by featuring General McChrystal in the magazine like that they figured they would reach an audience that they'd normally wouldn't reach.

KING: When you finished the article and you knew it was going to be published, did you know that an uproar was coming?

HASTINGS: I knew that there would probably be some sort of response. (INAUDIBLE) and some stories thinking they have little impact have big impact. But my sort of thinking was maybe they'll be, you know, one or two or three days, maybe it will create somewhat of a headache for General McChrystal's staff.

But they in the past had had much worse -- or at least had seemed to have gone through much worse sort of cycles in the media. But I had no expectation that General McChrystal would lose his job after the piece.

KING: Most of the quotes are staff quotes, correct? I read the piece. It's brilliantly written, by the way. There's very little McChrystal's quotes to you.

HASTINGS: I would somewhat disagree with that. I think there are -- you know, General McChrystal's voice is reflected in the piece throughout at the appropriate times. But I also would like to point out that the staff's quotes are also I think a very good reflection of General McChrystal's thinking on the number of issues that I addressed.

KING: In retrospect, Michael, do you think the president made the right decision today?

HASTINGS: I really don't -- you know, my goal as a journalist is to write the best story possible, to write the most accurate story possibility, to sort of give the readers an idea of what's really going on.

That's my focus. Whether or not President Obama made the right decision to change leaders -- I'm not really sure I'm the best person to answer that question.

I will say, though, that if the White House wanted to sweep this under the rug and keep General McChrystal, they could have easily done that. They could have -- there's a number of ways they could have swept this under the rug.

So I think actually their response confirms what I wrote in the story, which was the relationship between General McChrystal and the White House is obviously fraught with tension.

KING: All right. Is there a part of you that's feeling a little sad for the general?

HASTINGS: Well, obviously General McChrystal is a very impressive individual in many ways. And I write about that in the story. He's a great warrior so to speak. He's the kind of person you actually do want out there fighting, you know, wars on behalf of the United States.

I think the problem becomes, in my view, is when guys like General McChrystal who spent their last nine years fighting these wars -- and they've made huge sacrifices to fight these wars, unimaginable sacrifices. General McChrystal himself would only see his wife I think less than 30 days a year for 5 out of the last 7 years.

But I think when war becomes your life, I think it's very difficult to have the proper perspective to be able to create a fully balanced policy. I think that's what's happened here.

The policy between the military side of the strategy in Afghanistan and the diplomatic side is totally out of whack and General McChrystal sort of controlled both of them.

KING: All right. The general issued a statement. I'll read a portion of it.

"The president accepted my resignation as commander of U.S. and NATO coalition forces in Afghanistan. The president's strategy in Afghanistan, I'm deeply committed to our coalition forces, our partner nations and the Afghan people. It was out of respect for this commitment and a desire to see the mission succeed that I tendered my resignation."

What do you think is going to happen to him now, Michael?

HASTINGS: I'm not sure. I think -- as I said, I think General McChrystal is the type of individual that you want in the U.S. military. So I'm sure if he wants to stay, they will find a home for him.

I know that he had talked about after his retirement he wasn't going to go into politics, he was going to open a book shop, you know, somewhere, you know, in some rural town, so perhaps he'll have had enough of the rough and tumble life that -- this sort of high-wire life that is being a general, that is being a high-level, very famous politician, and decide to call it quits.

But I would also think that if he want to stay in the military, there would be a home for him very easily.

KING: We'll ask if anything was left out of the article when we come back. And then a panel will join us. And Michael will hang around, too. Don't go away.


KING: Joan Rivers here tomorrow night. Jermaine Jackson on Friday. Go to LARRY KING LIVE for behind-the-scene photos of Jermaine and me honoring the memory of Michael on the first anniversary of his death.

Michael Hastings is with us from Kabul, Afghanistan. He's the author of that bombshell article, "The Runaway General". It will be out on the stands Friday in "Rolling Stone."

Anything you regret? Anything you left out? Anything you're sorry about?

HASTINGS: No, I think I did my job to the best of my ability. Obviously, in the magazine story, there's always tons you leave out. So -- but in terms of regret, certainly no regrets.

KING: All right, we have us a couple of excerpts from the article. Ask you to comment on. Number one. On the first encounter with Obama at the Pentagon, according to sources, you write, familiar with the meeting, McChrystal thought Obama looked uncomfortable and intimidated by the room full of military brass.

That was -- without specifics, who told you that?

HASTINGS: Without specifics, who told me that.


HASTINGS: People very close --

KING: That's a cute way of asking. HASTINGS: -- to General McChrystal -- people very close to General McChrystal and confirmed with a number of people very close to him. So I am very confident in my sourcing there.

KING: On the first one-on-one meeting, you say it was a 10- minute photo op says an adviser to McChrystal. Obama clearly didn't know anything about him and who he was. Here's the guy who's going to run this expletive war. Doesn't seem very engaged. The boss was pretty disappointed.

Why were they revealing this to you?

HASTINGS: That's a great question. I think you'll have to ask them. These quotes that you're reading to me now --

KING: Did you ask them?

HASTINGS: Those I got -- I haven't had the time actually to reach out to too many members of his staff. But yes, I mean, at the time it wasn't necessarily something that I was interested in asking, but I think it's -- you know, what's important is that they obviously were so frustrated with the relationships they have with the White House that staffer after staffer was willing to describe that relationship. And the tense tensions there.

If anyone wants to ask the general any other questions along those lines, ask them how they felt about the fact that President Obamas has only visited Afghanistan once since becoming commander in chief. Ask them about the night before -- the phone call before the Marjah operation that was very underwhelming to McChrystal and his staff.

I mean you go down -- you can go down the list. It's more than just, you know, what ended up making into the final version of the story. So I think, you know, why that -- and I think that tension has been reflected in the entire year of his command here.

KING: All right. How much were you surprised -- two areas -- by the dislike of Joe Biden and the like of Hillary Clinton?

HASTINGS: I certainly wasn't surprised by the dislike of Joe Biden. As for the like of Hillary Clinton, I -- you know, I've covered Secretary of State Clinton before. I covered her during her campaign. And she's a very likable and charismatic person once you get the chance to spend any time close to her.

And she's also been trying to build up her defense credentials over the past few years. And I know she was supportive of General McChrystal during the strategic review and assessment last year.

So I think if you supported them, there's a much better chance of them liking you, as opposed to, say, Vice President Biden who is the most vocal critic of General McChrystal's strategy within the White House.

KING: Are you surprised that one aide calling Jim Jones, the National Security adviser, a clown?

HASTINGS: I wasn't too surprised by that because within the sort of Washington, D.C. chattering classes, General Jones -- General Jones, though, obviously a very well-decorated military veteran, doesn't -- he doesn't have the sort of -- he's someone who takes a lot of flack within the Washington, D.C. gossip circles.

KING: Is this going to change the Pentagon and the press?

HASTINGS: I -- it's probably very doubtful that one story will do much to change the Pentagon or the press. The Pentagon has a budget of $600 billion a year and the press seems pretty incorrigible in their behavior anyway.

Will it change the relationship between -- no, I don't know who the first journalist is who's going to profile General Petraeus in his new job as commander in Afghanistan. But I can probably guess it's not going to be me, though I'd be happy to talk to him, if they talk to me.


KING: We'll take a break. When we come back, Ari Fleischer, Pete Hegseth, Peter Beinart, and Jon Soltz will join us.

The impact of the departure on the troops, the Taliban, the war. Michael is going to hang around, too. Don't go away.



OBAMA: I don't make this decision based on any difference in policy with General McChrystal as we are in full agreement about our strategy. Nor do I make this decision out of any sense of personal insult.

Stan McChrystal has always shown great courtesy and carried out my orders faithfully. I've got great admiration for him and for his long record of service in uniform.


KING: Joining us, Ari Fleischer, former White House spokesman for President George W. Bush. Pete Hegseth is president of Vets for Freedom. He's an Iraqi war veteran. Peter Beinart is the author of the "Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris" and senior political writer for the

And Jon Soltz returns, co-founder and chair of He served as a captain during Operation Iraqi Freedom. And staying with us from Kabul is "Rolling Stone's" Michael Hastings who wrote that bombshell article about General Stanley McChrystal that will be everywhere on Friday.

All right, Ari, what do you make of the developments? ARI FLEISCHER, FMR. BUSH WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, it's shocking, Larry. It's just an end to a good career and the proper to it. The president did the right thing. You just cannot have the military do that. And in fairness, it was mostly his aides. But that doesn't get the general off the hook.

But, Larry, the big question I have is who in the world approved Michael getting this interview? And, you know, things like this aren't just the general's people out in the field. People at the Pentagon have to sign off on this.

Public affairs staff at the Pentagon needs to explain all of this. Because I don't want those people in charge of anything serious again. When you allow a journalist especially into a bar like that for that drinking scene in the article, that's not allowing journalism to take place. That's allowing eavesdropping to take place with all due respect to Michael.

KING: Michael --


KING: Michael, did they know it was coming?

HASTINGS: Did they know that the -- that it was going to be a --

KING: Did they know the gist of -- the gist of your story, that it was going to be rough? Did they get an advance of what was coming?

HASTINGS: Yes, I talked to an individual on the staff of General McChrystal's staff who deals with his press. And I gave him -- I sort of indicated to him that it could be a rough couple of days. But I didn't expect it was going to be as rough as it turned out to be for them.

But I would disagree with Ari, just saying I'm pretty happy with the policies they have and hope they continue them.


KING: All right, Pete Hegseth, what do you make of it? Vets for Freedom, Iraqi war veteran.

Pete, what's your read?

PETE HEGSETH, EXEC. DIR., VETS FOR FREEDOM: Well, Larry, his comments were not -- he wasn't insubordinate. It was unfortunate the way they were said and what his staff said. But at the end of the day, you know, he's a war hero. He's a great general. We're sorry to see him go.

It's great to see that General Petraeus is taking the helm. The guy who was the architect of the Iraq surge.

The bigger question is the sentiments behind what General McChrystal said. He shouldn't have said it the way he did and in the form that he did. But at the end of the day, he was expressing serious frustration about the support he was receiving from the White House, about the civilian leadership, in Holbrooke, and Eikenberry, and about this looming deadline that's sort of hanging around the necks of our troops of July 2011, about whether or not this policy can actually succeed when we're telling our enemy when we're going to leave the battlefield.

I mean, contrast what -- I mean, basically, McChrystal had to wait four months to actually meet with the president. When he did, it was a scolding session in Europe on Air Force One. And as the author said, it had been -- Obama has only visited Afghanistan once since the war started.

So if you really paint the kind of tension that our generals crave for something as important as Afghanistan, I think that's the frustration that McChrystal expressed that needs to be addressed by the president.

KING: But Michael -- Michael, the president said today that they were in agreement on the policy.

HASTINGS: Yes, yes, I think -- I mean, one of the things that -- one of the sort of, in my view, positive things about this article is that it gave us a chance to sort of discuss the Afghanistan policy because I think there are some serious, serious problems with it.

One of the main ones being the relationship between the military and civilian side. But I think if you read the article, it's not so much about General McChrystal, it's about using General McChrystal to look at some of the wider policy problems.

And as the gentleman mentioned, the sort of inflammatory comments that were said get at these very real and very serious tensions between the civilian side and the military side.

KING: We'll get the thoughts of Peter Beinart and Jon Soltz when we come back. Don't go away.


KING: All right, Peter Beinart, author of the new book "The Icarus syndrome," what's your read on these incredible developments today and the article by Mr. Hastings?

PETER BEINART, THE DAILY BEAST: I think really the critical issue is the one that your guests just got to, which is that President Obama said this flap has nothing to do with the disagreement over policy.

If you read Michael Hastings' remarkable article, it's very clear that is not the case. In fact, there is a fundamental difference between McChrystal's desire for an all-in counterinsurgency campaign with as much money and as many years as it will take, and Barack Obama's clear desire to put limits on our intervention in Afghanistan.

And all of these small things about Obama not paying enough attention, that's really ultimately I think goes to this root question, which is Obama is trying to limit this war because he sees a larger strategic picture in which the United States is going deeper and deeper into debt and needs to focus on other things and McChrystal wants to do whatever it takes to win the war.

KING: Michael, you want to comment?

HASTINGS: No, I think Peter has it exactly right. If you look at the speech President Obama made last March of 2009, he specifically says, my goal is to narrow the aims of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan.

A year later, those aims under the clan of General McChrystal had expanded exponentially.

KING: Jon Soltz, what do you think of General Petraeus coming on the scene?

SOLTZ: Well, I think there's a couple reasons the president chose him. I think the first thing that is shows is that there's not going to be a change in COIN strategy immediately. I thought the president absolutely did what he had to do today. Every person I know who has talked to me about this says, if this was at my level, and I'd done this, I'd be gone too. So I think General McChrystal had lost that good order and discipline he needed to command.

In regards to General Petraeus, I think the arguments against relieving General McChrystal focus around the idea of, hey, do we switch horse midstream or whatever these sayings are. By putting General Petraeus in there, you're putting the architect of the COIN strategy doctrine, you're putting General McChrystal's boss, you're putting somebody in there that allows the president not to be attacked on the fact that, hey, you're really changing strategy or idea.

Everyone has confidence in General Petraeus. Certainly Senator McCain, Senator Lieberman, Senator Graham aren't going to oppose that. So I think it shows there's not going to be a shift in tactics in the next six to 12 months.

But I think there's a huge concern, as we move forward, about this time line. This time line, to be realistic about it, it's kind of a joke. It's not viable. I think there's going to be another showdown here six or 12 months down the road, about where we're really headed on this mission.

KING: Ari, is this comparable to McClellan in the Civil War, Patton in World War II, MacArthur in the Korean War? Is it comparable?

FLEISCHER: No, I don't think so, especially with MacArthur and Truman, because that was a real policy difference. Here you still have the same support for counter-insurgency. But I think the point just made is the big point we all have to keep our eye on going forward. Can we win in Afghanistan? Can we win when the president says the withdrawal will start in July of 2011? Or do we need to leave it more open ended than that so the military can have the flexibility to fight and win? That's a debate to come. I was pleased to see the president's muscular speech today, though. He talked about defeating al Qaeda. He said we are a nation at war. The question is, will he back up his military, as that deadline gets closer, and remain muscular if he's under a lot of pressure within his own party not to be that way. That's the big fight to come, Larry.

KING: Michael, is General McChrystal confident about an eventual victory there?

HASTINGS: General McChrystal recently called his sort of centerpiece operation in Marjah a bleeding ulcer. So that doesn't reflect the sort of confidence one would expect from the commanding general. So -- as you look at his other -- the other public comments he makes, they're all cautiously optimistic. Even calling them cautiously optimistic might be an optimistic way to characterize them. He talks about Afghanistan being tough, Afghanistan being long, Afghanistan being a long hard fight.

So I think it's -- you know, I think there's definitely a question of how much -- how confident they believe they were in an eventual win.

KING: Peter, is this a demotion for Petraeus? Peter Beinart?

BEINART: Well, on paper. But it also just adds to the myth of Petraeus, as, you know, the one guy who can really save us in this circumstance. Certainly, if Petraeus can turn the war in Afghanistan around, his legend will become even greater. But I think the fundamental question that we really need to be focusing on is, is this a coherent policy? I agree with what everyone else has said here. It's not at all realistic to think we're going to have made a lot of progress by the time we've reached this deadline. You either have to be a real counter-insurgency person, in which you say we're going to do it for as long as it take, as much as it's going to cost, and it's going to take a long time and cost a lot, or you have to recognize that we need to -- that we have to radically reduce our goals in Afghanistan. There's no middle path there. Obama is looking to split the baby. And you just can't do it.

KING: Michael, you're there. What do you see?

HASTINGS: Well, I mean, this morning I witnessed a -- I was down in Kandahar and witnessed a nasty fire fight between Taliban and Americans. I was in a helicopter when it happened. Then, later in the afternoon, the base I was on was rocketed, which -- and we all had to get into the bunker and dive under our desk. These are daily occurrences. The fighting in Kandahar specifically, which is going to intensify over the next few months, it's going to be bloody and it's going to be rough.

The Afghan government officials are very nervous about the July 2011 draw-down. I think this is one of the key problems. You know, President Obama has committed to sending 150,000 troops approximately to Afghanistan. But by putting the deadline there, he undercut any strategic impact he is going to have. So he's paying the cost of putting the troops there, but he's undercut himself by saying he's going to withdraw. Because then the sort of Afghan players he needs on his side don't trust that he's there with them for the long haul.

KING: We'll ask the veteran Jon Soltz what he thinks about that when we come back. Don't go away.


KING: Want to help our friends in the Gulf? We're still raising money. Go to Click on the charity buzz auction to bid on some great items, with proceeds going to the people and the wildlife who need it the most. All right, Jon Soltz, where's all this going in Afghanistan?

SOLTZ: Well, we're not going in the right direction. Look, Larry, we were on the segment together after the president's initial speech at West Point. The time line makes no sense at all when you want to put all these troops in there. The question is what are our objectives on the ground? We sort of feel at Vote Vets we need to have a very limited objective, which is deny al Qaeda the ability to train terrorists to attack our country.

What happens when we put force throughout, you know, any of these countries? It happened in Kosovo when we kicked Milosevic out. They went into Macedonia and they started fighting. It happened in Iraq. In my unit, in Mahmadia (ph), we put a lot of ground power on the ground to free up our logistics lines. As soon as we put troops on the ground, we push the enemy somewhere else.

So we can put all these hundreds of thousands of troops in Afghanistan. We're going to push people around. But, in the end, the problems still exists. So we really need a slimmed down strategy. It's not about time lines. Maybe we need 20,000 on the ground in Afghanistan, 15,000 on the ground. But hundreds of thousands of troops for tens of years was what would really be required for counter-insurgency. That is the sort of big debate that looms here, because I do think General Petraeus and General McChrystal are more biased towards this, let's prove I'm right on COIN strategy, where the vice president still is in the corner of we need a very trimmed down mission that's global.

KING: Ari, you disagree?

FLEISCHER: Larry, I'm not a military expert or military strategist. So invest in those who are. In this case, it's General Petraeus and General McChrystal. In fact, it's President Obama. He's the one who is commander in chief who accepted their judgment. He basically overruled Vice President Biden and others on his staff. And so nobody wants to be at war for ten years. But, on the other hand, nobody wants to have our country struck again. This is the difficulty of being commander in chief in the age of terror.

I think the president has got it right. I think he's doing it the right way. I hope he continues doing it that way. I think he's doing it right. KING: Pete Hegseth, how about the thought that the Afghanistans (sic) are awfully tough people to fight? You're in their territory. You're on their rocks.

HEGSETH: It's definitely a tough fight. Listen, it's going to be long. It's going to be tough. But it's interesting to hear Jon say what he said. Has he not learned the lesson we learned in Iraq? Clearly, President Obama, who opposed the Iraq surge, learned it. Petraeus helped us win the war in Iraq. Now we've got an opportunity to apply those same principles to Afghanistan. To say that a lighter footprint is going to help our operations there, that's exactly what those who said the surge couldn't work said in 2007.

Instead, we upped our footprint. We committed to protecting our population. And we did it right.

Now, Jon is right in that a time line completely undercuts that. So if the Obama administration's going to main that this time line of when we're going to withdraw, then counter-insurgency is not going to work. But if they're willing to be flexible on it -- the one guy that could question them on that time line is General Petraeus, because he has that credibility. So they've kicked the can down the road on that decision. Petraeus will put his input at the end of this year. We may see that deadline pushed. If that happens, then we can create the conditions in Afghanistan where an Afghani government can stand up. But that will not happen with a time line. It is a much tougher problem set than Iraq.

So we'll see. But we need to learn the lessons of the Iraq surge. Petraeus is the man to make it happen, if it can happen.

KING: Michael, we're running out of time. First, I salute you, as everyone agrees. It's a brilliantly written article, very well done. How long you going to stay there?

HASTINGS: I'm probably going to be heading out pretty soon after this trip. But thanks very much for your kind words.

KING: What's your next article about?

HASTINGS: I have an article coming up about helicopter pilots. And I also have an article that will be upcoming about what we won or didn't win in Iraq. I spent a number of months in Iraq as well recently.

KING: Thank you so much, Michael Hastings. The article will be out Friday. And Ari Fleischer, Pete Hegseth, Peter Beinart and Jon Soltz, we thank them all.


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