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June 23, 2010

STEPHANIE SALTER: Accident report: On-the-record remarks can wreck a career

TERRE HAUTE — In David Simon’s incomparable television series, “The Wire,” a couple of episodes dealt with a radical self-rescue practice debated by two aging and disheartened cops on the Baltimore police force.

Not close enough to retirement to wait out unbearable, dead-end assignments, one cop, recently injured, advises the other, a heavy drinker, to screw up his courage and throw himself down a flight of stairs. That way he can “accidentally” get hurt just badly enough to leave early with a disability increase in his pension.

Yet-to-be revealed information may prove otherwise, but it’s hard not to wonder if Gen. Stanley McChrystal just performed the U.S. Army version of the cop throw. Profuse apologies notwithstanding, McChrystal’s cooperation in the Rolling Stone profile of him has many signs of a guy at the end of his rope with no perceived choices but an “accident.”

Live microphones that are assumed to be off are one thing. So are secretly leaked e-mails or inner-office memos. But, according to Rolling Stone editor Eric Bates, the now ex-commander in Afghanistan knew what was coming in Michael Hastings’ profile, “The Runaway General.”

From the Joe “Bite Me” zinger by an aide about Vice President Biden to McChrystal’s disdain of e-mails from security envoy Richard Holbrooke, Bates said, the general and his staff knew about the story’s content from fact-checking calls made to them before publication.

McChrystal’s immediate public apology — to the president and half of Washington —  affirmed that knowledge. No “I misspoke” or “my remarks were taken out of context” for McChrystal. He owned up to the career-ending revelations like the stand-up soldier he’s always been.

“It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and it should never have happened,” he stated. “Throughout my career I have lived by the principles of personal honor and professional integrity. What is reflected in this article falls far short of that standard.”

Wednesday, President Obama agreed with that assessment and accepted McChrystal’s resignation.

Granted, the worst of the comments in Hastings’ story are attributed to the general’s staff members, many unnamed. Scenes of marathon boozing and an impromptu Irish-Afghan dance by McChrystal’s aides in a Paris bar only add to the aura of disconnect with Washington.

But McChrystal, himself, obviously said enough to Hastings about his commander in chief and the administration’s minions in Afghanistan to force Obama’s hand.

Hastings has covered the Iraq War for Newsweek and written for the Washington Post among other news organizations. In a telephone interview Tuesday from Kandahar (where he is embedded with U.S. troops), he told National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” that an assignment he thought would last two days in Paris turned into a month with McChrystal in several venues — thanks, mostly, to the volcano in Iceland.

Hastings told NPR he was surprised at the “candid comments” made in front of him by the general and his aides, especially given that “I had a tape recorder in one hand and a notebook in the other.” He said he did not use information that was specified as “off the record.”

The Rolling Stone piece was not McChrystal’s first time in hot water with the Obama administration. Last year, in a speech in London, he denounced critics of his Afghanistan war strategy — more troops and major focus on counterinsurgency — as people who have “no clue of the complexity of the situation.”

The most visible person among such critics was thought to be Biden.

As many news analyses have emphasized in the wake of McChrystal’s spectacular fall, the war in Afghanistan does not appear to be going so well. June has been the bloodiest month for NATO troops since the war was launched shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. McChrystal’s admirable (and wise) insistence on protecting Afghan civilians in combat zones reportedly is seen by some of his over-taxed troops as a hindrance to their mission and their own safety.

In the profile, Hastings described the general as an intense, funny, brilliant military man. He sleeps only four hours a day, eats only one meal and runs seven miles. Hastings also told NPR that McChrystal wanted “a one-on-one, eyeball-to-eyeball relationship” with President Obama and never got it.

Jeopardizing his future prospects even further, McChrystal let it be known — and Hastings wrote — that he felt betrayed, not supported, by Karl Eikenberry, the current U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan.

Maybe this brilliant tactician, who has never been able to get the funding or the number of troops he’s wanted — this general who knows the incongruities of Afghan society and is committed to winning hearts and minds there as well as battles — unthinkingly screwed up and let a reporter with a tape recorder chronicle his and his staff’s every word.

Maybe McChrystal heard the summarized content of Hastings’ story during the fact-checking phase and wasn’t sufficiently alarmed at how bad it would all sound in print.

Or maybe Gen. McChrystal surveyed the past, present and future, gauged little or no chance for positive change, and — consciously or unconsciously — determined there was really only one way out. An accident.

Yes, it hurts like hell for awhile, but if you do it right and manage not to kill or paralyze yourself, even a lifelong limp might be worth it for the escape.

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or

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    March 12, 2010