After WikiLeaks inserted itself into the death of journalist Michael Hastings by announcing that he asked them for help with an FBI investigation "hours before he died," many saw the leaking group's tweet as not just inappropriate but as the latest in a series of cries for attention — and others jumped on conspiracy theories concerning the car accident that killed an innocent, talented 33-year-old reporter. But now the FBI is coming out in favor of the Julian Assange publicity-stunt theory: "At no time was journalist Michael Hastings ever under investigation by the FBI," the agency's L.A. field office spokesperson told Hastings's hometown paper in Vermont on Thursday.
Here's the tweet in question:
Michael Hastings contacted WikiLeaks lawyer Jennifer Robinson just a few hours before he died, saying that the FBI was investigating him.— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) June 19, 2013
So, 1.8 million followers later and you have people starting to throw out the idea that the FBI may have had something to do with Hastings's death. Because, you know, he was a good reporter who didn't shy away from state secrets. Officially, the LAPD had announced on Thursday that there was no foul play involved in the car crash that killed him, and they identified Hastings's body, and officials reiterated that they believe he may have been speeding before the wreck. The cops also insist that it will take weeks before the results of toxicology reports come back, so they haven't ruled out alcohol or drug use. None of that, though, has squashed the theories riled up by WikiLeaks.
Part of the conspiracy theory involves a story Hastings wrote for Buzzfeed this month, entitled "Why Democrats Love To Spy On Americans," which, in the wake of the NSA leaks, some suggested might give the government reason enough to be frustrated with Hastings — again. (He notoriously brought down Gen. Stanley McChrystal after a Rolling Stone story.) And Hastings was, according to The Los Angeles Times, researching a story on Love Pentagon scandalabra Jill Kelley before he died — yet another reason why stupid people thought intelligence people might be mad at someone for doing his job. (Though weren't there plenty of op-eds about government spying and plenty on Jill Kelley?)
The other half of the conspiracy theory equation lies in the circumstances surrounding Hastings's death. Even though the LAPD are sticking with the speeding story, a couple of witnesses told KTLA that they saw or heard something unusual. "I was just coming northbound on Highland and I seen a car going really fast, and all of a sudden I seen it jackknife," said one witness, while another drew comparisons to an explosion: "It sounded like a bomb went off in the middle of the night. My house shook. The windows were rattling." And as LA Weekly noted, conspiracy theorists are linking Hastings to a technique called "Boston Brakes," wherein the electronic management of a car, specifically a Mercedes, can be hijacked remotely. (Hastings was driving a Mercedes at the time of the accident.)
So that's quite a rabbit hole to go down after the untimely death of a brilliant young man. And, yes, WikiLeaks's FBI insinuation fits into those theories nicely. The group's announcement surfaced on Wednesday, and the organization pushed further on Thursday, stating in another tweet that "It is not acceptable that the FBI was investigating yet another national security journalist, this time Michael Hastings." That tweet no longer exists.
So who are we to believe? The FBI or WikiLeaks? Yes, there's plenty of reasons not to trust the FBI (see: Todashev, Ibragim) or the intelligence community right now (see: Agency, National Security). But there's also the increasing likelihood that WikiLeaks is trying to parlay Hastings's death into an attention grab. On the same day the organization announced that Hastings allegedly called up one of Assange's attorneys asking for help, Assange told reporters WikiLeaks was trying to help Edward Snowden seek asylum in Iceland. That claim was played down by journalist Glen Greenwald, who has been the NSA leaker's closest ally in the media. "I'm not aware that WikiLeaks has any substantive involvement at all with Snowden, though I know they've previously offered to help," Greenwald told Buzzfeed's Rosie Gray.
Grabbing attention from the mass attention surrounding the Snowden and Hastings stories wouldn't exactly be out of character for an organization that's faded out of the spotlight. Their last major leak, the so-called "Kissinger Cables," was sort of a bust. Nothing the organization has done has topped their original "Cablegate" leak in 2010-2011. That's bad news for a man who loves attention as much as founder Julian Assange, who welcomes press opportunities as he's squatting in an embassy to avoid sexual assault charges.