Gaslight: Michael Hastings and the Age of Nervous Media
The Los Angeles Times reports that journalist Michael Hastings was working on a story related to Jill Kelley the night he died in a fiery car crash, in which his car burst into flames and the engine block was hurled a distance from the wreck. Readers may remember Kelley as one of the apexes of the Broadwell-Petraeus-Kelley triangle:
Kelley alleges that military officials and the FBI leaked her name to the media to discredit her after she reported receiving a stream of emails that were traced to Paula Broadwell, a biographer of former CIA director David H. Petraeus, according to a lawsuit filed in Federal District Court in Washington, D.C., on June 3.
Since Hasting’s death early Tuesday, wild conspiracy theories have bloomed on the Internet implying that he was murdered by powerful forces wanting to silence him.
On Wednesday night, the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks inserted itself into the story, publishing a message on Twitter that Hasting had contacted a lawyer for the organization hours before his car smashed into a tree on North Highland Avenue in Los Angeles.
The spectacular nature of his demise has led to speculation that Hastings was "Breitbarted." But was he? To set against the other side of the ledger is a story from the Hollywood Reporter saying that accidents similar to that which killed the journalist are common. There are 300,000 vehicle fires every year and it simply a fact of life that fuel in high speed crashes can lead to conflagration:
Frank Markus, technical director of Motor Trend, points out that “any impact at speeds high enough to rip the drive train out of a car is highly likely to force some object to rupture the fuel tank. There is a lot of potential chemical energy in a gas tank that's even a quarter full. Getting up to such speeds -- providing he didn't start a cold engine and floor the car into that tree -- results in a lot of red hot parts, particularly the catalytic converter and other exhaust system parts.”
"He was incredibly tense and very worried and was concerned that the government was looking in on his material," said Hastings's friend and Current TV host Cenk Uygur. "I don't know what his state of mind was at 4:30 in the morning, but I do know what his state of mind was in general, and it was a nervous wreck."
Maybe Hastings was going nuts. But Sharyl Attkisson -- her computers began behaving strangely around the time she was investigating Benghazi:
“I was sleeping, so they would come on in the middle of the night, sometimes one right after the other,” Attkisson told O’Reilly Monday night. “By the time last fall came around, they would sometimes both be starting up kind of a cacophony of computer music at night in the middle of the night.”
And then she discovered she wasn't crazy after her employer, CBS News, hired a computer security expert to go over machines. "CBS News spokeswoman Sonya McNair said that a cybersecurity firm hired by CBS News 'has determined through forensic analysis' that 'Attkisson's computer was accessed by an unauthorized, external, unknown party on multiple occasions in late 2012.'"
Whether or not the fears of omnipresent persecution are well-founded, the fear of it is very real. "Associated Press president Gary Pruitt on Wednesday slammed the Department of Justice for acting as 'judge, jury and executioner' in the seizure of the news organization’s phone records and he said some of the wire service’s longtime sources have clammed up in fear." Their fears will only be heightened by former intelligence officers' claims that anyone who is anyone is being wiretapped:
Russ Tice, a former intelligence analyst and Bush-era NSA whistleblower, claimed Wednesday that the intelligence community has ordered surveillance on a wide range of groups and individuals, including high-ranking military officials, lawmakers and diplomats.
He also made another stunning allegation. He says the NSA had ordered wiretaps on phones connected to then-Senate candidate Barack Obama back in 2004.
That can only fuel the apprehension, especially among journalists. Given this background, it is easy to see how Michael Hastings could have thought someone was out to get him. But fear itself can be a weapon, and the very panic engendered by the NSA revelations can be more disruptive than the agency's actual activities themselves. The Chinese call this "killing the chicken to scare the monkey." Voltaire's name for it was pour encourager les autres. For example, the Taliban have become so afraid of the Apache helicopter that they have come to call it the Monster:
“The Monster is here!” a Taliban lookout shrieked over the radio to fighters in a valley below a few months ago as an Apache arrived on the scene to help U.S. troops battle the insurgents. “The Monster is above my head now! Do not move or you will die!” The lookout’s breathless alarm -- intercepted and translated by U.S. forces during the battle -- was reported to Boeing by the commander of the 1st Battalion of the 101st Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division during a recent visit to the company’s Apache plant in Mesa, Ariz., company marketer Mike Burke told Breaking Defense during the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference.
Whether or not the Monster is even tasked to seek them out, the fear of being turned into hamburger by it is so great that it will shut down all the Taliban within hail. The net result in politics may be similar. Many people -- the AP's sources for example -- are convinced the NSA or the FBI are listening on the other end of the line. The paralyzing psychological effect of fear was memorably depicted in the 1944 film Gaslight, where the caddish Charles Boyer terrorizes Ingrid Bergman into submission. The film's title has come to describe an entire process of psychological warfare not unsurprisingly named gaslighting:
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Gaslighting is a form of mental abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory, perception and sanity. Instances may range simply from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim. The term "gaslighting" comes from the play Gas Light and its film adaptations. The term is now also used in clinical and research literature.
And that's exactly what's happened to sections of the press. Perhaps Hastings began to doubt his own sanity, just as Attkisson did. And that may have made them paranoid. But just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that nobody is really out to get you.
What's your opinion? Comment at the WikiLeaks/Michael Hastings Conspiracy Theory Open Thread