In the early hours of June 18, Michael Hastings was found dead in the flaming wreckage of his car. The 33-year-old journalist was, perhaps, best known for the 2010 Rolling Stone cover story that ended the career of Army General Stanley McChystal.
According to initial press reports, Hastings was driving south on Los Angeles' North Highland Avenue when he "apparently lost control of [his car] near Melrose Avenue and crashed into palm trees in the median about 4:20 a.m."
The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) was unusually eager to announce that there had been no evidence of "foul play" surrounding the reporter's death. Typically, police departments withhold such judgments until after there has been an investigation -- including a coroner's report and toxicology tests, which can take days, if not weeks.
Those who knew and worked with Michael Hastings are questioning the "official story."
According to Hastings' friend, Staff Sgt. Joe Biggs, Army brass had threatened Hastings after his reporting lead to General McChrystal's resignation. "He had been told, 'If we don't like what you write, we will hunt you down and kill you," Biggs said. "For him to say something like that -- those are his own words -- that's pretty intense."
Biggs also observed that it was out-of-character for Hastings to be speeding. When it came to driving, Biggs insisted, his friend was "like a grandma."
When it came to pursuing a story, however, Hastings was a greyhound. He also was an outspoken foe of the "surveillance state." Yet, despite occasional threats, he continued to engage in a reporter's riskiest business -- probing the darkest secrets of powerful interests.
According to the Los Angeles Times, in the weeks before his death, Hastings was researching a story involving a lawsuit filed by Jill Kelley, the woman "who was involved in the scandal that brought down Gen. David Petraeus." (Hastings' distraught wife has denied this and publicly insists that her husband's death was nothing but "a tragic accident.")
In its coverage of Hastings' death, the Canada Free Press noted:
"It appears that Mr. Hastings made multiple contacts with sources directly associated with the illegal NSA domestic spying program, and either recently acquired materials and/or information about the extent of, the targets of, and the recipients of the information of domestic spying program.
"It is speculated that the latter information was of particular concern to as yet unidentified individuals holding positions of authority within the US Department of Defense and their subcontractors, as well as certain parties within the Executive branch of the United States government.
"Investigation and research suggests that Mr. Hastings might have obtained, or arranged to obtain, information pertaining to the role of a particular high-ranking officer within the US military overseeing the domestic aspects of the NSA project."
Only a few hours before his death, Hastings contacted Jennifer Robinson (a lawyer with Wikileaks, the secrets-sharing website) to report his concerns that the FBI was investigating him. (An FBI spokeswomen swiftly and emphatically denied that the bureau was investigating the reporter.)
Meanwhile, the possibility of "foul play" was bolstered by the discovery of a panicked email that Hastings sent to friends. In what proved to be his last message, Hastings wrote:
"Subject: FBI Investigation, re: NSA -Hey (redacted names) -- the Feds are interviewing my 'close friends and associates. Perhaps if the authorities arrive 'BuzzFeed GQ,' er HQ, may be wise to immediately request legal counsel before any conversations or interviews about our news gathering practices or related journalism issues. Also: I'm onto a big story, and need to go off the rada[r] for a bit.
All the best, and hope to see you all soon. Michael."
From Car-jacking to Car-hacking
In the aftermath of Hasting's bizarre death -- caught inside his burning Mercedes C250 shortly after the vehicle was videotaped speeding past a red light a Los Angeles street at 4 AM -- conspiracy theories began to proliferate: Hastings was killed by a US drone strike; Hastings was killed by an onboard bomb; Hastings was the victim of a cybernetic "car-hacking."
Wait, what was that last one again?
In a currently running TV ad, former football star Peyton Manning is shown tooling down the road in a new Buick. "I know what if feels like to be blindsided," he grins. Manning then proceeds to praise his ride for the latest computerized gizmos designed to keep him safe by raising warnings and overriding any move of the driver's part that onboard computers deem a hazard to road safety.
Buick is one of several vehicles equipped with rear-view sensors to warn drivers of unseen traffic or obstacles approaching from the rear. New safety features also take over the wheel from tired drivers if they start to drift into oncoming lanes. And some vehicles can also park themselves.
But can these autonomous systems fail? Or worse, could they be compromised by, say, a carful of teenage pranksters, road-rage-prone adults or . . . government assassins?
There is, in fact, ample evidence that these systems can and do fail. These "modern conveniences" can quickly turn your cyber-driving experience from an interlude with a helpful onboard guide to a face-off with an invisible evil force -- the difference between a "Siri" and a "Hal."
The ultimate expression of the hands-free motoring experience can be seen in the "driverless" Google automobile. But what would it mean if Googlemobiles -- typically touted as a major advance in assuring highway safety -- could be hacked?
The problems are already starting to surface. In late June, the National Highway Safety Administration reported it was investigating 22 complaints that 2007-2008 Honda Odyssey minivans had been "unexpected breaking . . . without the driver pressing the pedal."
In a 2010 article in Veterans Today, former Marine Gordon Duff described an assassination technique known as "Boston Brakes," whereby "drive by wire" cars -- like the Mercedes Benz -- can be remotely steered to simulate a driver-caused accident.
Former US National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism Richard Clarke has also confirmed the existence of "drive by wire" attacks. Speaking to the Huffington Post following news of the Hastings' bizarre death, Clarke agreed that a single-vehicle crash is "consistent with a car cyber attack. There is reason to believe that intelligence agencies for major powers -- including the United States -- know how to remotely seize control of a car." Clarke added: "You can do some really highly destructive things now, through hacking a car, and it's not that hard."
A Scholarly Demonstration of the Car-hacking Scenario
A sophisticated "car-hacking" plot is one of the odder theories gaining traction in Internet chat rooms. The theory posits that Hastings' Mercedes may have been "hacked" -- its braking, acceleration and steering taken over by "outside forces" -- and driven to destruction.
"Car-hacking" is not science fiction: it is established fact. Electronic controls have been infiltrating modern automobiles since the 1970s. Today, a luxury automobile may have 100 MB of binary code onboard, feeding anywhere from 50-70 Electronic Control Units (ECUs).
In addition to internal ECUs that monitor engine and driving performance, there now are ECUs that communicate with the world beyond the dashboard. These wi-fi enabled "telemetric" systems not only broadcast information to outside receivers, they also respond to instructions beamed in from neighborhood and satellite communication systems. Think OnStar; think Bluetooth.
In 2010, researchers at the University of Washington and the University of California at San Diego published a shocking piece of research describing how they had managed to override the safety features on two off-the-lot 2009 automobiles. The report, "Experimental Security Analysis of a Modern Automobile," documented an astonishing outcome:
"We have demonstrated the ability to systematically control a wide array of components including engine, brakes, heating and cooling, lights, instrument panel, radio, locks, and so on. Combining these, we have been able to mount attacks that represent potentially significant threats to personal safety.
"For example, we are able to forcibly and completely disengage the brakes while driving, making it difficult for the driver to stop. Conversely, we are able to forcibly activate the brakes, lurching the driver forward and causing the car to stop suddenly."
There are now more than 250 million passenger vehicles in the US and most of them are computer controlled to some extent. According to the researchers, our newest autos are "pervasively computerized." And, they warn, the risk of "car-hacking" is about to become much worse because Detroit is planning to introduce vehicle-to-infrastructure and vehicle-to-vehicle enhancements in the near future. The ability of one vehicle to "communicate" with another will "only broaden the attack surface further."
The research paper explains that there are two ways to seize control of a vehicle's computer systems -- by direct physical interference or by indirect interference. In the first instance, "a mechanic, a valet, a person who rents a car, an ex-friend, a disgruntled family member, or the car owner can, with even momentary access to the vehicle, insert a malicious component into a car's internal network via the ubiquitous OBD-II port (typically under the dash)."
The other approach is to rely on "numerous wireless interfaces" -- some cars have five or more digital radio interfaces that accept outside commands, "some over only a short range and others over an indefinite distance."
Remote Control of Speed, Brakes, Lights and Locks
Since 2008, all cars sold in the US come with a Control Area Network (CAN) bus used for "diagnostic" purposes. The CAN controls all the other sub-networks in today's Buicks, Fords, Hondas, BMWs, VWs and GM products.
The researchers' investigation found the CAN protocol was "extremely vulnerable to denial-of-service attacks." Furthermore, they found, "any single compromised component can be used to control all the other components."
Here's what the university investigators were able to do, once they had gained remote control over their test vehicles:
* Remotely increase the volume the radio and sound alarms, overriding the driver's ability to control the settings.
* Remotely lock and unlock car doors, jam the door locks, pop the trunk, honk the horn, activate and deactivate headlights and turn signals, disable and enable window controls and windshield wipers.
* Remotely release and lock the brakes, even at high speeds.
* They were able to disable the key lock relays, thereby locking the key in the ignition. On the other hand, they were able to restart the car remotely, even after the ignition key had been removed.
* The researchers also discovered they could remotely rev the engine, cause the motor to fail at highway speeds and even disable the engine so the vehicle could not be restarted.
Forbes magazine recently invited two car-hackers to demonstrate their prowess by taking over the controls of a Ford Escape being driven by a Forbes reporter. The hackers found the driver's shocked reactions hugely amusing but the fact is, car-hacking is no laughing matter.
The potential for deadly interventions is profound. The researchers reported: "We were able to release the brakes and actually prevent our driver from braking: no amount of pressure on the brake pedal was able to activate the brakes. . . . . With another [computer control] packet, we were able to instantaneously lock the brakes unevenly."
The experiment included the creation of a "Self-destruct" scenario, in which the researchers were able to take control of the targeted auto and display a "60-second countdown" on the dashboard, complete with ticking time-bomb sound effects and "horn honks in the last few seconds." The demo "culminated with killing the engine and activating the door-lock relay (preventing the occupant from using the electronic door unlock button)."
Combined with the ability to remotely race the engine and disable the car's brakes and lights, this gave the "controllers" a potentially deadly power over the targeted vehicle. All of this "required less than 200 lines of code."
There is another reason car-hacking provides a special attraction for criminals and terrorists -- the attacks leave behind little evidence. As the researchers discovered: "the attack code on the telematics unit could perform some action (such as locking the brakes after detecting a speed of over 80 MPH). The attack code could then erase any evidence of its existence."
A Reporter's Death: The Video Evidence
Against all odds, the last minutes of Hastings' life and the immediate aftermath of his fiery death were captured in real-time by a professional news cameraman. A reporter with LoudLabs News happened to be in the neighborhood trying to track down what turned out to be a false report of a Justin Bieber crash on Sunset Blvd. While parked at a local gas station, the reporter's dash-cam caught Hastings' Mercedes Benz as it barreled through a red light travelling at a high rate of speed south on Highland.
In a second video, the LoudLabs cameraman sets off down the street following reports of a crash. Within four minutes, he arrives at the crash site where Hastings' car is completely engulfed in flames.
The first video raises the question: Why was Hastings speeding? One early assumption was that he was being pursued but the LoudLabs video clearly shows his vehicle was traveling alone.
Another question: Why would Hastings -- or any other sane driver -- risk his life by plowing through an intersection against a red light.
These two questions suggest a terrifying possibility. If Hastings was, in fact, the target of a car-hack, he may have found himself trapped inside a speeding vehicle without the ability to control acceleration or braking. His only control may have been limited to trying to steer the vehicle as it hurtled down the highway.
Clearly, a car-hacking scenario would constitute a "cleaner" form of attack, leading to a crash that would likely look "accidental." So why would an assassin risk using explosives that would likely leave evidence signaling a plot? One thought comes to mind: To "send a message" to Hastings' friends and followers, those who had an interest in looking behind the presentations of the "official story."
See the videos below:
Mounting Evidence of an Assassination and a Cover-up
As Hasting's colleagues -- and a growing online community of skeptics -- sifted through the evidence, there seemed to be increasing reason to doubt the "official story" -- i.e., that Hasting's speeding car had caught fire after swerving and crashing into a palm tree in the median of the divided suburban roadway.
There were just too many troubling inconsistencies. There were no skid marks. Local residents reported hearing one or more loud explosions.
The vehicle was engulfed in an extremely fierce torch-like inferno that some critics claimed was unlike a gasoline-fed fire -- and more like the kind of blaze associated with burning thermite or plastic explosives.
The bomb scenario would certainly explain how the car's engine came to be blasted out of the vehicle and wound up down the road, 100 feet from the flaming wreckage.
Furthermore, the damage to the car was inconsistent with a simple crash. There was a debris field that covered a good part of the block. Instead of splaying out around the palm tree, metal and plastic parts from the Mercedes were scattered down the roadway -- a great distance past the point where the auto struck the tree.
The car's front left wheel somehow wound up nearly 100 feet away from the wrecked car -- on a sidewalk on the other side of the street. The car's engine and transmission had been hurled into the sky and wound up 200 feet down the roadway.
And, inexplicably, the vehicle's hood (which should have born the brunt of the head-on impact) could be seen resting near the far side of the palm, intact and uncrumpled. It appeared as though the hood had separated from the Mercedes before the impact and landed, relatively unscathed, alongside the tree.
The more one examines the video and next-day photos of the wrecked car, the more it appears that the vehicle was destroyed, not by a front-end impact but from a powerful explosion that occurred beneath the vehicle. The front of the car is missing and the roof is torn open like a sardine can. The rear of the car (which would not have been damaged in a front-end collision) also shows extensive damage.
One of the most disturbing photos was taken hours after accident. It shows a team of police gathered around the crime scene in full sunshine. The police are guarding a tarp draped over the vehicle. But Hastings' charred body had been removed from the burned-out car hours. So what are the police hiding? The tarp is covering the front half of the car -- effectively shielding it from view by the public and the press. If the tarp were removed, it would have revealed the extensive damage sustained by the Mercedes -- the kind of horrific explosive mangling that could only be created by a bomb, not a palm.
The Mercedes is a well-built car. It is known for not exploding -- even in high-speed crashes on Germany's autobahn. In an odd piece of public relations, Mercedes-Benz officials withheld comment, choosing instead to defer to the LAPD.
There was another oddity about the crash scene. A small geyser of water could be seen near the burning car. At first, it was assumed the car had clipped a fire hydrant. But that would have caused a much higher plume of water. On closer inspection, the water could be seen springing from the ground near the cement caps of a water-access point. But the cement caps were undamaged. Something had apparently caused a portion of the buried waterlines to rupture underground.
What might cause such unusual damage? Only two explanations come to mind: (1) an earthquake or (2) a powerful blast violently shaking the ground.
Where Is the Autopsy Report?
Kimberly Dvorak, an investigative journalist with San Diego's News 6 television has been following the Hastings story. On July 14, she reported:
"Despite the LAPD's categorization of the Hasting fatal accident as a 'no (evidence of) foul play,' LAPD continues to ignore . . . requests made by San Diego 6 News for the police report, 9/11 call, autopsy, bomb squad and toxicology reports, or make the Mercedes available for inspection."
Adding to the macabre nature of the case, the LAPD apparently authorized the precipitous cremation of the reporter's remains. The ashes, stuffed into an urn, were delivered to Hastings' grieving family in Vermont. According to press reports, the family was not consulted about the decision to cremate the reporter's body.
Even though the body had been cremated, LA Coroner Captain John Kades insisted that the results of the autopsy tests would take another four to six weeks to complete.
A New Video Surfaces
A day after the crash, another video surfaced. This one came from a surveillance camera mounted on a popular neighborhood restaurant called Pizzaria Mozza. It captured the last seconds of Michael Hastings' life.
In the grainy video, the reporter's car can be seen racing down the empty street at a high rate of speed. There is a quick flash of light that appears to burst just beneath the car. At this point, all the lights in the car appear to go out. A spreading glow erupts out of the briefly darkened road, followed by a small explosion, quickly followed by a massive blast that illuminates the neighborhood.
The video appears to show all the explosions occurring in the street, not off to the left inside the median strip.
After reviewing the coverage of Hastings' death, Jonathan Turley, a nationally recognized legal scholar who specializes in constitutional law, wrote: "In a world where American Presidents openly arrogate to themselves the right to kill people deemed enemies of the United States, all things suddenly become possible. When the basic right of habeas corpus can be denied to American citizens, based upon unproven allegations of their being threats to this country, isn’t it possible for those with the power to detain and to eliminate individuals, to make decisions as to someone’s existence doing harm to this country? Finally, doesn’t this unconstitutional expansion of powers give individuals with government connections the leeway to take revenge on those who expose them?"
It has now been seven weeks since the death of Michael Hastings. The LAPD has yet to issue a report on its investigation of the crash. The Los Angeles Coroner's office has yet to issue an autopsy report.
Gar Smith, an award-winning investigative reporter, is the co-founder of Environmentalist Against War (www.envirosagainstwar.org) and author of Nuclear Roulette -- recently named one of Ralph Nader's Top Ten books for summertime reading.