McChrystal’s Real Error

Politico’s Gordon Lubold has a quote from an administration official saying that Stanley McChrystal, the subject of a famous-before-published Rolling Stone profile, has been called back to Washington to “explain to the Pentagon and the commander in chief his quotes about his colleagues in the piece.”

Perhaps the anonymous White House official that uttered those words did not meant them to be taken so literally, but is what McChrystal himself said really so clearly a firing offense? Take a look.

On the Vice President:

Now, flipping through printout cards of his speech in Paris, McChrystal wonders aloud what Biden question he might get today, and how he should respond. “I never know what’s going to pop out until I’m up there, that’s the problem,” he says. Then, unable to help themselves, he and his staff imagine the general dismissing the vice president with a good one-liner. “Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” McChrystal says with a laugh. “Who’s that?”

And on Richard Holbrooke, the State Department’s main man about the region:

At one point on his trip to Paris, McChrystal checks his BlackBerry. “Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke,” he groans. “I don’t even want to open it.” He clicks on the message and reads the salutation out loud, then stuffs the BlackBerry back in his pocket, not bothering to conceal his annoyance.

And on Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, and the leak of his cables warning President Karzai was an inadequate partner.

“I like Karl, I’ve known him for years, but they’d never said anything like that to us before,” says McChrystal, who adds that he felt “betrayed” by the leak. “Here’s one that covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say, ‘I told you so.’ ”

That’s it. And maybe that’s enough to put McChrystal in jeopardy.

Everything else—a lot of which is a good deal sharper—is from aides, sometimes with their names attached, sometimes anonymous. Taken together, they illustrate that McChrystal’s shop, largely made up of rough and tumble soldiers, doesn’t get along with every other element of the administration that has some role in waging the war in Afghanistan. Considering the infighting, debate, and disagreement preceding the administration’s final policy, that’s no great surprise.

The White House might, understandably so, be upset that McChrystal let Michael Hastings, the piece’s reporter, have so much access to his staff under any circumstances, including moments like allowing Hastings to view the team rag on Holbrooke while getting drunk at an Irish bar in Paris.

But those sins—allowing too much access to a reporter, allowing your staff to be quoted by a reporter with or without their name attached—are very different than the one of not minding your own words when on the record.

Why, then, is the White House focusing on the latter? Perhaps because we—the press and the public—are used to seeing heads hang (and sometimes roll) over verbal gaffes. We don’t have a ready script for forcing an official out because they allowed an accurate, if sometimes unflattering, picture of themselves and their workplace to be reported.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.