Sources close to General Stanley McChrystal are pushing back heavily against last month's Rolling Stone article that resulted in the general being relieved of his command over US forces in Afghanistan.
Reporter Michael Hastings's story was replete with quotes from the banter among McChrystal and his "traveling staff of 10." He described, for example, McChrystal making a laughing reference to Vice President Joe Biden and a "top adviser" firing back, "Biden? Did you say: Bite Me?"
A story in Thursday's Army Times, however, calls into question Hasting's description of the speaker as a "top adviser." A McChrystal staff member who was along on the trip told the paper that "the impolitic comments that torpedoed Gen. Stan McChrystalÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s career were 'almost all' made by his most junior staff -- men who 'make tea, keep the principal on time and carry bags' -- who had no reason to believe their words would end up in print."
Two anonymous sources, along with McChrystal's personal spokesman, Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis also insisted "the quotes that appeared in a Rolling Stone article that got McChrystal in trouble were made in 'off-the-record' settings." They charged that Hastings had violated verbal ground rules by publishing them.
The counterattack by McChrystal's allies began as early as June 25, just two days after McChrystal resigned, when, according to the Washington Post, "officials close to McChrystal began trying to salvage his reputation by asserting that the author, Michael Hastings, quoted the general and his staff in conversations that he was allowed to witness but not report. The officials also challenged a statement by Rolling Stone's executive editor that the magazine had thoroughly reviewed the story with McChrystal's staff ahead of publication."
The Army Times article revives both these assertions while adding a new level of detail. "Ground rules varied as appropriate, but significant portions of the time were considered to be off the record or on background," Sholtis told the paper. He added, "I'm confident that Gen. McChrystal and his staff believed they were off the record."
The paper's sources acknowledged, however, that Hastings had not been required to sign a document confirming his understanding of the ground rules, which "left the rules open to differing interpretations, or at least to have left McChrystalÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s people with no hard evidence that Hastings broke them."
This admission appears to undercut CBS correspondent Lara Logan's implication that Hastings might be lying because McChrystal and his people "never let their guard down like that."
At the time of the Post story, Rolling Stone Executive Editor Eric Bates rejected the claim that the comments were off the record as "absolutely untrue." Bates also insisted during a June 22 appearance on MSNBC's Morning Joe, "We ran everything by them in our fact-checking process, as we always do, so I think they had a sense of what was coming."
Sholtis, however, told the Army Times that McChrystal's team had no knowledge of the "sensitive content" in the article until advance copies were leaked a few days prior to publication, and he and the other sources "accused Rolling Stone of publicly misrepresenting its communications with McChrystalÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s headquarters."
Copies of emails between Rolling Stone and the McChrystal assistant who was in charge of the project do confirm that -- as previously reported by the Washington Post, -- "The questions contained no hint of what became the controversial portions of the story."