The FBI released a heavily redacted document on Rolling Stone journalist Michael Hastings, Monday, which revealed the law-enforcement agency is continuing to investigate what it characterized as "controversial reporting" by the journalist, who died in a late-night car crash in Los Angeles in June.
The FBI turned over the three-page document to Al Jazeera and Ryan Shapiro, a doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who specializes in FOIA research, in response to a joint-Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed against the agency.
In a declaration released with the records, Denny Argall, the FBI'S public liaison officer, wrote that after the agency searched for responsive records it located one "cross reference" file pertaining to a pending criminal investigation. The FBI would not comment further about the nature of the probe.
The papers revealed that the FBI still considers Hastings' work highly sensitive; even the title of the case file has been withheld under a FOIA exemption that claims that the information, if disclosed, could interfere with an ongoing law-enforcement investigation.
One of the excerpts in the FBI document is completely redacted and marked "S" (for "secret") and "Per Army," under an exemption aimed at protecting national security. Additional redactions were used to protect techniques and procedures for law-enforcement investigations and prosecutions.
The documents revealed that on June 11, 2012, the FBI's Washington field office opened a file and submitted "unclassified media articles" to it in order "to memorialize controversial reporting by Rolling Stone magazine on June 7, 2012."
The articles in question included a lengthy investigative report published under Hastings' byline in Rolling Stone on June 7, 2012 — "America's Last Prisoner of War" — about 27-year-old U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl's deployment to the war in Afghanistan and his capture by the Taliban in June 2009. Bergdahl is believed to still be in the custody of the Taliban.
Jeff Light, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who filed the FOIA lawsuit, suggested opening such files on reporters was not common. "It's interesting [that] the FBI memorializes controversial reporting," he said.
The FBI documents also stated that in addition to Hastings' report, the agency also submitted one copy of a "blog entry relative to the aforementioned articles" and "one copy of Emails Express Discontent," which is an article about Bergdahl published on June 7, 2012 by the Associated Press that was based on Hastings' Rolling Stone report.
The "blog entry," however, appeared to be lifted from the comments section of the Idaho Statesman newspaper. The comment was apparently written by Gary Farwell, the father of Matthew Farwell, who contributed reporting to the Rolling Stone story and is identified at the bottom of the story as "a former soldier who deployed to Afghanistan."
The undated comment says, in part: "My son, Matthew, had gathered information for three years and did the reporting on the RS story. He introduced Michael Hastings to the Bergdahl’s and they interviewed the family several months ago."
Gary Farwell was unavailable for comment and Matthew Farwell declined to comment. Will Dana, the managing editor of Rolling Stone, told Al Jazeera that he is "concerned" about the FBI documents and said he was unsure why this report by Hastings sparked the FBI’s interest.
Three days after Hastings died, the FBI issued a rare public statement denying Hastings was under investigation. "At no time was Michael Hastings under investigation by the FBI," bureau spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said on June 21.
The spokeswoman's comments followed an email Hastings sent colleagues a day before he died that read: "The Feds are interviewing my close friends and associates." But Hasting’s email was referring to the "NSA," according to the subject line -- not to his earlier reporting.
Still, the FBI appeared to have taken great interest in the article Hastings wrote about Bergdahl, whose name is redacted in the document the agency turned over to Al Jazeera and Shapiro.
A redacted passage says Hastings' report reveals private email excerpts. According to Hastings' story, Bergdahl wrote the emails. The excerpts include comments about being "ashamed to even be an American," and the threat that "if this deployment is lame, I’m just going to walk off into the mountains of Pakistan."
The FBI documents went on to describe Hastings' story on Bergdahl as having: "ignited a media frenzy, speculating about the circumstances of [redacted] capture, and whether U.S. resources and effort should continue to be expended for his recovery."
Eimiller, an FBI spokeswoman in the agency's Los Angeles office, told Al Jazeera she stands by her original comment. "Being referenced in an FBI file does not make one the subject of an FBI investigation," she added, referring to the pages the agency released Monday.
In a letter accompanying the document and explaining the exemptions the FBI invoked, the agency said: "A search of the FBI Headquarters electronic surveillance indices has been conducted, and no responsive record which indicates that Michael Hastings has ever been the target of electronic surveillance was located."