Treachery works both ways: The life of Edward Snowden and the death of Michael Hastings

At a time when one man is accused of treason for revealing secrets of the American state, I want to consider another form of treachery, i.e., political assassination (‘death by treacherous violence’) by that very same state.

I allude here to the contrasting fates of two young American men, Edward Snowden, and Michael Hastings. The first revealed American state secrets and is in exile, hunted by the very forces he revealed; the second, a journalist, had seriously embarrassed the U.S. military and is now dead, a casualty of a mysterious car crash.

Might these two events be connected?

Political assassinations—death by secret service—happen. Fortunately for us, they happen only in countries other than our own. An African head of state’s plane crashes for no obvious reason. What do you expect? A Russian dissident dies of a mysterious illness in London. Communists! Benazir Bhutto is blown to smithereens in front of her supporters. Savages.

But we would never do such a thing. ‘It’s not who we are.’ All the same, just for curiosity’s sake you understand, let’s pause to reflect on the life and death of this young man, Michael Hastings.

We know of him largely because his indiscrete 2010 article in Rolling Stone‘The Runaway General’, led to the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. This was followed by ‘The Sins of General David Petraeus‘ in December 2012 (‘Petraeus seduced America. We should never have trusted him.’) Then there was his book  The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan. But there was more to him than that; he got his hands dirty reporting on the American occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

This time he was the news.

On June 18th, around 4:30 a.m. he was driving his new Mercedes C250 in the vicinity of Hancock Park, Los Angeles; travelling south from Santa Monica Boulevard along Melrose. According to a police witness, he ran a red light at the junction of Melrose and Highland (caught on a police car’s dash cam) at a high rate of speed.

An eye witness reports that the car then accelerated to what seemed like its maximum velocity, before veering sharp left and hitting a tree at right-angles.

The Mercedes immediately burst into flames. The violence of the impact was such that the engine and gear box of the Mercedes were thrown an extraordinary distance from the rest of the car. (See second image below.)

Hastings was incinerated.


Distance between Mercedes and its engine and gearbox.

Distance between Mercedes and its engine and gearbox.

Almost immediately, the innocence of this accident was doubted, and not just by his friends. Friends and colleagues received emails from him not a day before informing all that he was on to a big story, feared that he was being followed, and suspected that he was under investigation by the FBI. There was the motive. That his car ran a red light and accelerated madly suggests to some that Hastings lost control of his vehicle because it was hacked. There was the means.

The LAPD do not suspect foul play. They are there and we are not. Who are we to question them?

Perhaps he was fiddling with his cell phone when he should have been paying attention to the road ahead. That happens a lot you know. Maybe he was impaired through drink or drugs. That’s an occupational hazard for journalists, and he was under pressure. Could be that he was suicidal. He’s only human. What was he doing out at that time of the morning anyway, when decent people are in bed?

And yet …

Being free people in possession of all our faculties, let’s explore this matter for ourselves.

Here are some video reports of what happened. If you care about journalism you’ll watch them. The first shows Hastings’ Mercedes running the red light at speed (from the dash cam of a police car). The second shows the immediate aftermath of the car crash. The third is a most informative interview with a man who witnessed the whole thing.

In that part of LA it’s all straight lines and right angles: a grid. Even the trees are planted in straight lines, just like the one he crashed into. Highland Avenue stretched before him like a straight line, for as far as he could see. It’s a residential area; just a few lights to navigate; no obvious hazards.

So why would he have speeded through a red light and put his foot to the floor like that? Well, perhaps he didn’t. Perhaps someone did it for him. If you think this is science fiction, think again. It is entirely possible for a remote adversary with malicious motives to seize digital control of today’s highly computerized car. This is beyond doubt.

Consider, for example, the findings of Koscher et al’s

Experimental Security Analysis of a Modern Automobile, published in the proceedings of the 201
0 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Symposium on Security and Privacy. Here is the problem they address:

Taken together, ubiquitous computer control, distributed internal connectivity, and telematics interfaces increasingly combine to provide an application software platform with external network access. There are thus ample reasons to reconsider the state of vehicular computer security.

So how much resilience does a typical automobile have against a digital attack? ‘Our findings suggest that, unfortunately, the answer is “little”’.

We demonstrate that an attacker who is able to infiltrate virtually any Electronic Control Unit (ECU) can leverage this ability to completely circumvent a broad array of safety-critical systems. Over a range of experiments, both in the lab and in road tests, we demonstrate the ability to adversarially control a wide range of automotive functions and completely ignore driver input — including disabling the brakes, selectively braking individual wheels on demand, stopping the engine, and so on. We find that it is possible to bypass rudimentary network security protections within the car, such as maliciously bridging between our car’s two internal subnets. We also present composite attacks that leverage individual weaknesses, including an attack that embeds malicious code in a car’s telematics unit and that will completely erase any evidence of its presence after a crash. (my emphasis)

In this research study, the experimented-on car was controlled via a laptop running CARSHARK and connected to the CAN bus via the OBD-II port. A fairly unsophisticated set up. If a handful of university researchers are able to achieve this degree of remote control over a car, one wonders what professional assassins are capable of achieving. Well, perhaps now we know.

It had to be at a time when the roads would be empty of innocent bystanders. An invitation to a rendezvous. ‘Take the Santa Monica Boulevard. Turn onto North Highland Avenue and keep heading south’. Just before the junction with Melrose the safety-laden Mercedes (‘For the collision-prone, the C-class is now offered with the brand’s latest safety equipment’) speeds up just when he wants to slow down and stop at the red light. The car keeps accelerating as if it’s got a life of its own, as if he’s put the pedal to the metal. Desperately he jumps on the brakes, but they don’t respond. This is terror. He tries to turn off the ignition, but it’s stuck. It’s too late anyway. Suddenly the car brakes, violently and unevenly as if the left front locked, and the Mercedes slams into the tree. A life ended.

Incidentally, did America’s Supreme Leader and Narrator-in-Chief offer any words on the death of this fine young man? He’s quite fond of that sort of thing.

I think there are reasonable grounds for believing that Michael Hastings was assassinated by agents of the American state, but not for the obvious reasons. These emailed claims of being under surveillance because he was ‘on to something big’ sound a little too convenient for my liking. E-mail can be faked and if he was that worried he’d pick up the phone.

It’s the old question of knowing the difference between deception and an authentic act. In an age of simulation—he was killed a stone’s throw from Hollywood—it’s becoming a rare skill.

Michael Hastings was not a threat to the American state. At most he was an irritant. He was simply a good journalist, which is to say he spoke the truth and defended it. That should be a good enough epitaph for any journalist. But Hastings was well known and his death would be widely reported. If he was assassinated it was as a warning to those who are a threat to the American state, for what they already know rather than what they might yet learn. Few of these are likely to be in any doubt about how Hastings died.

Edward Snowden’s revelations were first disclosed on June 10th. Something had to be done, before others dared to come forward. Michael Hastings was killed a little over a week later, on June 18th, as a warning to would-be dissidents and whistleblowers, to silence them with fear.

Treachery works both ways.

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