June 22nd, 2010
04:07 PM ET
13 years ago

A general's life: From clandestine missions to controversy


Stanley McChrystal has been recalled to Washington following the release of a controversial Rolling Stone profile. (PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images)

(CNN) - Shortly after President Obama tapped Stanley McChrystal in June 2009 to be the top commander in Afghanistan, CNN reported that McChrystal would never let a reporter in the room during classified morning meetings he led among senior military officers.

McChrystal was known in Washington for his discretion. He kept a low profile, briefly interrupted by two major news events.

The general was criticized for the way he handled the circumstances of U.S. soldier Pat Tillman's friendly fire death in Afghanistan in 2004. In 2006, McChrystal was lauded for the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq.

The media spotlight on McChrystal this week, however, may be the hottest in the general's storied military career.

On Tuesday, McChrystal flew from Afghanistan to Washington. His boss, President Obama, has asked the general to explain in person the derisive comments he and his aides made to a Rolling Stone reporter.

The magazine's profile on McChrystal, due out Friday, depicts an angry, snarky and foulmouthed general lambasting how the war in Afghanistan is being conducted.

McChrystal does not directly criticize Obama in the article, but reporter Michael Hastings writes that the general and Obama "failed from the outset to connect" after the president took office.

Sources familiar with their first meeting said McChrystal thought Obama looked "uncomfortable and intimidated" by the room full of top military officials, according to the article.

The journalist writes that an unnamed aide to McChrystal mocks Vice President Joe Biden.

"Are you asking about Vice President Biden?'" McChrystal says with a laugh.

"Who's that? Biden?" suggests a top adviser. "'Did you say: Bite Me?"

McChrystal hasn't denied the article's accuracy. In a statement, he called his comments "a mistake" and apologized for "poor judgment." The general has also fired a press aide over the article, two Defense Department sources told CNN.

McChrystal, a West Point graduate and former Green Beret, was a senior official on the staff of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen. Between 2003 and 2008, he was the commander of the highly clandestine Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees the military's most sensitive forces, including the Army's Delta Force.

In 2009, Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked for the resignation of Gen. David D. McKiernan, the former U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. McChrystal would have "fresh eyes on the problem" in Afghanistan, Gates said at the time.

McChrystal has pushed a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan intended to empower the civilian population so much that the insurgency will slowly be demoralized, fractured and defeated. Part of that plan means a prohibition in some areas on lethal air strikes and other attack methods so that civilian injuries and deaths can be avoided.

Some U.S. service members have been critical of the move, arguing that the rules have left them vulnerable.

In a July 2009 interview with Time, McChrystal explained his approach.

"First thing is, if you take a very small area, you have to try and figure out what is going on in that area. ... It's like knowing what is going on in your neighborhood," he said. "Not just the traffic on the road, but howmoney is made, who is running rule of law, who do they go to when they have dispute adjudication - do they go to a Taliban shadow court, a government of Afghanistan official entity?"

" ... You have to get at the attitudes of the people. And that is why I say you have to immerse yourself in it and understand it before you can confidently assess it," he told Time.

Just who the man is behind the strategy is tougher to assess.

"He's lanky, smart, tough, a sneaky stealth soldier," Maj. Gen. William Nash, a retired officer, told The New York Times in May 2009. "He's got all the Special Ops attributes, plus an intellect."

The Times reported that McChrystal thrives on a few hours of sleep a night and often eats only one meal a day. He has for years been an avid distance runner. When he did a yearlong fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, he reportedly ran 12 miles a day from his home in Brooklyn to Manhattan.

McChrystal's last public apology came during his Senate confirmation hearing for the top post in Afghanistan. He said he was sorry for his role in the way the Pentagon handled Pat Tillman's death. Tillman gave up an NFL contract to join the Army and fight in Afghanistan.

He was killed by friendly fire in 2004. A Pentagon investigation found that McChrystal was notified that the soldier was a victim of fratricide. But Tillman's family said they were led to believe he was killed by insurgents.

Tillman's mother said last year that McChrystal knew at her son's memorial service that he had died of friendly fire, but did not tell the family. She said McChrystal was "lying."

Investigations by the Army's Criminal Investigation Division and the Defense Department's inspector general concluded that officers in Tillman's chain of command knew almost immediately that he had been killed by fire from his own platoon.

That information, however, was withheld from his family for more than a month, in violation of Army regulations. McChrystal told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he helped expedite the Silver Star award for Tillman before confirming that Tillman was killed by friendly fire.

The Army did not take action against McChrystal.

Filed under: Stanley McChrystal
soundoff (45 Responses)
  1. Bob in PA

    What happened to dissent is the greastest form of flattery ?

    June 22, 2010 04:56 pm at 4:56 pm |
  2. 8 years of the Bush Error = How many years of recession and unemployment?

    "Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct".

    It would appear that by any definition of the above military manifesto, the good general better resign as opposed to the alternative.

    June 22, 2010 04:59 pm at 4:59 pm |
  3. Donna from Colorado Springs

    Most generals of his rank have an arrogance that allows them to believe that they are invincible. What he forgot was that when giving an interview about your boss, you keep your opinions to yourself and tread very lightly around booby traps! This isn't the first time that he's been called to the principals office, and he quite evidentally didn't learn anything from the first go round! I think he should get canned ASAP.

    June 22, 2010 05:03 pm at 5:03 pm |
  4. Rick in OP

    My neighbor's son (George) is a Navy SEAL. When he was in Iraq, Gen. McChrystal was the head of the special operations forces. George has told me stories about when they were operating in Iraq, Gen. McChrystal would spend a lot of time with them and other special operation units in an effort to get a better feel for the situation and to help bolster the morale of the operators. His impression was that McChrystal was an outstanding leader.

    June 22, 2010 05:03 pm at 5:03 pm |
  5. All the news that is fit to omit

    I have more respect for this hero than the never worked or served a day in his life coward Oweblamo.

    Oweblamo "thought" about serving but lack the courage, like the good General here, I proudly volunteered and served.

    By the way sheep, HE'S RIGHT.

    Wrong forum but right message and the TROOPS agree with him.

    June 22, 2010 05:05 pm at 5:05 pm |
  6. DOG1

    Maybe he just wants to get relieved of duty because he knows he's incapable of winning this war and doesn't to quit. This way he can blame Administration for his own shortfalls. And after the Tillman cover-up can we really trust the validity of any successes he's claimed for himself? He's shown that he's willing to "create" a hero.

    June 22, 2010 05:07 pm at 5:07 pm |

    I am a 30 year war veteran two tours in Nam and Desert Storm. I do not want to make comments about a fellow soldier not knowing the circumstances of Tillman's death. But, I will say that we had deaths from friendly fire. You always have friendly fire deaths. This does not justify them but I guarantee you that over 90% of the deaths could have been prevented by communication. Most of the slain never identify themselves as crossing into another units line of defensive positions. Some could not even authenticate who they were must less why they were there. In combat you do not have time to go out an identify the people as to whether they're friend or foe. I am not saying this happened in Tillman's case but I would be willing to bet that it was. Some soldiers are so gung-ho they think they do not have to tell anyone else what they are doing. RESULT IS A QUICK DEATH. To blame a man's supreme Commander is taking it one step too far up the ladder. It is up to the individual who is crossing friendly territory to call in and authenticate they're location so the defensive positions will not react in a hostile manner. Common sense applies in these unfortunate situations. I regret what happened to Tillman as it did to so many others before him. Sad to say, he will not be the last. Pat Tillman was a honorable soldier and died an honorable death. A mistake was made be it him or someone too dang nervous on an automatic weapon. My prays are with Pat's family. But this General is not to blame. OBAMA IS HUNGRY TO DESTROY THE MILITARY AND WILL IF GIVING HALF A CHANCE.

    June 22, 2010 05:07 pm at 5:07 pm |
  8. Kelby from Houston, Texas

    Don't care about his life. He should have known better. He should be fired.

    June 22, 2010 05:07 pm at 5:07 pm |
  9. vet in tx

    Thanks for your service General.

    He's lucky, under UCMJ he should be put in jail, an active officer in the US military cannot openly criticize a government official. It is a jailable offense.

    June 22, 2010 05:08 pm at 5:08 pm |
  10. 8 years of the Bush Error = How many years of recession and unemployment?

    "Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct".

    It would appear that by any definition of the above military manifesto, the good general better resign as opposed to the alternative.

    Also, the "frat boy" atmosphere the general condones among his aides shows NO discipline. Giving magazine interviews? Folks, are dying while these clowns are sucking up to Rolling Stone.

    He should resign and if not, President Obama should fire him, but I would not take it to the court martial level.

    June 22, 2010 05:22 pm at 5:22 pm |
  11. JFS

    This is a situation where politics becomes more important to a soldier than his responsibility to his ..and our...Commander in Chief. McArthur had issues with Truman resulting in a firing ...Lincoln had issues with his Generals etc. Nothing new here...just that the current opposition Party and the Media have done such a number on this young President that I fear the very foundations of our Republic and Americans respect for our Country's leadership has reached an all time low. May God forgive all of the nasty people in politics and the media. You folks are creating a monster that will not just stop with President Obama but will continue to grow as a virus and could ultimately "Hurt "all of America.

    June 22, 2010 05:24 pm at 5:24 pm |
  12. Dennis

    He needs to remember who he is working for. He should be fired NOW. And we should be out of Afganistan NOW. Apparently, he couldn't get the job done.

    June 22, 2010 05:37 pm at 5:37 pm |
  13. Darth Vadik, CA


    You're right, and Obama is coming to get you to put you in a government run farm where you will work as a laborer until you retire at the age of 62, you will also be required to sing patriotic socialist/communist songs all day long while you work.

    You will be issued gray government clothes, workboots, and a sickle.

    You will live in government housing, and you will not be allowed to own a car, you can however use the government buses to get around.

    YOU MORON, why don't you check your closet too, maybe the bogeyman is hiding in there, or more likely Pat Robertson or Ted Haggerd.

    Reagan was the one who denied veteran benefits to the Vietnam veterans, you jacka55

    June 22, 2010 05:37 pm at 5:37 pm |
  14. W l Jones

    As for as I recall we haven had only two general president there a reason for that they not only head the arm force but head a Democratic system of government ... with varies committed and advisor the general public never heard of under our system. A gain we all should becarful what we say in public on any job.

    June 22, 2010 05:38 pm at 5:38 pm |
  15. JonDie

    The real story and the real disgrace is that from 2002 to 2008, Bush and McCain and the GOP left our troops in Afghanistan with no mission, no leadership and no strategy...to the point where we were on the verge of losing...and NO ONE complained and the media didn't ever report on this.

    June 22, 2010 05:40 pm at 5:40 pm |
  16. KM

    Some of you people on here that thinks it is okay for an active military member to critize his superiors has no idea how the military is much different from the civilian world. For those of you who keeps saying, what about Free Speech, there is no such thing as being able to say anything you want about your superiors whether you are right or wrong.

    As the old military saying goes, "We preserve Democracy, we don't practice it." If you want it your way, you should go to Burger King.

    June 22, 2010 05:45 pm at 5:45 pm |
  17. tcaros

    He's a Bush era criminal and hold-over.
    Involved in both Abu Ghraib disgrace and Pat Tillman's covered up murder.

    June 22, 2010 05:49 pm at 5:49 pm |
  18. Gotta Luv It

    Ooooo....Obama is "angry"...

    The General must be shaking in his shoes. (The last time Obama got "angry" at someone, they were off racing yachts the next weekend!)

    McChrystal should probably lose his job over this (as it is blatant insubordination)...But it sure speaks volume about Obama and his administration!

    ...No respect from the boot on the ground usually spells bad news for the disrespected leader...

    June 22, 2010 05:50 pm at 5:50 pm |
  19. tcaros

    He's a Bush era criminal and hold-over. Just like Halliburton (Cheney's former company) rigged the oil rig to explode, this guy is trying to hurt this adminstration. The writing was probably already on the wall- he took his parting shot.. and it missed with Americans. Bye bye.

    June 22, 2010 05:50 pm at 5:50 pm |
  20. Matt

    Obama may be 'higher in command', but he's also incompetent. I'd rather have McChrystal leading our troops to victory than Obama wasting their time and lives.... and only showing up for a photo op.

    June 22, 2010 05:53 pm at 5:53 pm |
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