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Gen. McChrystal allies, Rolling Stone disagree over article's ground rules

By Karen DeYoung and Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 26, 2010; A01

It was 2:30 Tuesday morning in Kabul, after a busy day of travel to Kandahar and meetings with top Afghan officials, when Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal was awakened by an aide with grim news.

"There's a Rolling Stone article out," the aide told McChrystal. "It's very, very bad."

Forty hours later, McChrystal had been relieved of his command, his 34-year military career in tatters. Apart from a terse apology, McChrystal has not discussed publicly the disparaging remarks that he and his aides made about administration officials and that appeared in the article.

On Friday, however, officials close to McChrystal began trying to salvage his reputation by asserting that the author, Michael Hastings, quoted the general and his staff in conversations that he was allowed to witness but not report. The officials also challenged a statement by Rolling Stone's executive editor that the magazine had thoroughly reviewed the story with McChrystal's staff ahead of publication.

The executive editor, Eric Bates, denied that Hastings violated any ground rules when he wrote about the four weeks he spent, on and off, 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."

A senior military official insisted that "many of the sessions were off-the-record and intended to give [Hastings] a sense" of how the team operated. The command's own review of events, said the official, who was unwilling to speak on the record, found "no evidence to suggest" that any of the "salacious political quotes" in the article were made in situations in which ground rules permitted Hastings to use the material in his story.

'Clearly off the record'

A member of McChrystal's team who was present for a celebration of McChrystal's 33rd wedding anniversary at a Paris bar said it was "clearly off the record." Aides "made it very clear to Michael: 'This is private time. These are guys who don't get to see their wives a lot. This is us together. If you stay, you have to understand this is off the record,' " according to this source. In the story, the team members are portrayed as drinking heavily.

Bates said the contention that the night at the bar and other instances in which derisive comments were made about administration officials were off the record was "absolutely untrue." Hastings was traveling Friday, and an automated response from his e-mail account referred queries to Rolling Stone.

Neither McChrystal nor members of his staff have denied making any of the remarks quoted in the story, including a description of Obama as "uncomfortable and intimidated" in his first meeting with the general and a reference to national security adviser James L. Jones as a "clown."

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Thursday that the atmosphere of disrespect for civilian leaders that McChrystal apparently tolerated and participated in was grounds for dismissal regardless of the context in which the offensive comments were made or who made them.

A U.S. military spokesman in Kabul, Air Force Lt. Col. Edward T. Sholtis, acknowledged that Hastings, like other reporters who have interviewed McChrystal over the past year, was not required to sign written ground rules. "We typically manage ground rules on a verbal basis," Sholtis said. "We trust in the professionalism of the people we're working with."

McChrystal's headquarters first received a copy of the story shortly before midnight Monday from a wire service reporter seeking comment. After McChrystal read it, "he knew instantly, this was going to be very large," the source said. "But I don't think any of us realized it was going to be as large as it was."

Reaching out

The general's first action was to call his superiors. Then he began reaching out to members of the Obama administration mentioned in the article. He reached Vice President Biden -- whom one McChrystal aide referred to in the article as Vice President "Bite me" -- on an airplane as Biden was heading home from an official trip.

At the White House, copies of the article were already circulating among key West Wing officials.

"Tuesday was definitely not a normal day" in Kabul, the source said. McChrystal tried to maintain his schedule, assuming that the response to the story would be handled by the White House and the Pentagon. It was late in the day in Afghanistan when Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates called to order McChrystal home immediately for face-to-face meetings.

As events unfolded at the White House, members of McChrystal's staff in Kabul "were all heartbroken," the source said. "I've seen incredibly brave men cry this week."

Bates said it was telling that it took four days for those close to McChrystal to begin crying foul. Subjects of critical articles, he said, have many ways "after a story appears to question its veracity, [to complain] that things were taken out of context or off the record. None of those objections were raised during the critical few days in which this became a national issue," he said. "You're used to instantaneous responses from sources who feel they were abused in any way."

Sholtis said that "arguing about the merits of the article would have seemed like we were trying to protect or excuse ourselves rather than acknowledge our mistake. That may have not been the best PR strategy, but it was the approach consistent with the character of General McChrystal."

Officials also questioned Rolling Stone's fact-checking process, as described by Bates in an interview this week with Politico. "We ran everything by them in a fact-checking process as we always do," Bates said. "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."

In an interview Friday, the managing editor, Will Dana, said the reporter's notes and factual matters were exhaustively reviewed.

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

In the e-mail, a copy of which was provided to The Washington Post by a military official sympathetic to McChrystal, Boothby is asked to confirm the makeup of McChrystal's traveling staff on the Paris trip 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," the official said.

"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.

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 he noted that Boothby's appeal "isn't on accuracy or even that it was off the record," but that it was irrelevant. He said the magazine, like other news organizations, had no obligation to warn sources that they had made unwise remarks.

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