June 22nd, 2010
04:07 PM ET
12 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. Stacie

    Does this sound like leadership material to you?

    "Did you say: Bite Me?"

    June 22, 2010 04:10 pm at 4:10 pm |
  2. Stacie

    What he said in the article was wrong, but what he did to the Tillman family is soooo much worse. My heart breaks for Mrs. Tillman. Having this man, the one who lied to her family about her son's death, still in charge of operations in Afghanistan, must just break her heart.

    June 22, 2010 04:13 pm at 4:13 pm |
  3. Victim of GOP Taliban

    Generals can and should be fired from command. People with an education that know their military history (that excludes all of the Tea Klux Klan)...understand this to be true. Churchill sacked quite a few of his generals simply for not getting results. Not only should McChrystal get fired but those whom showed disrespect to Holbrook, Biden, and the cabinet military command need to face court martial.

    June 22, 2010 04:14 pm at 4:14 pm |
  4. Dutch/Bad Newz, VA

    Gen. McCrystal, your comments were bad. As a veteran who has respect for the uniform and my chain of command, you should not be making those kinds of statements at all. You should be given a Field Grade Article XV.

    June 22, 2010 04:15 pm at 4:15 pm |
  5. ThinkAgain

    The military has strict protocols regarding criticizing their superiors – and President Obama is Commander in Chief and McChrystal's superior.

    If a lieutenant had said derogatory things about McChrystal the way McChrystal said about the President, he'd get the boot.

    All those posters out there who think it's OK what McChrystal did need to brush up on what's expected of military personnel.

    June 22, 2010 04:20 pm at 4:20 pm |
  6. ThinkAgain

    Loose lips sink ships, McChrystal.

    Way to go undermining our efforts in Afghanistan!

    June 22, 2010 04:20 pm at 4:20 pm |
  7. Why????

    Why is he being called to the White House?
    Because he spoke his opinion, spoke his mind. Unless I am wrong, 1st Amendment people?

    Just because he works for Obama, does not mean he has to be his puppet. THAT is thwe problem with this administration. As long as you agree, you will be fine. If you even try to step out of line with thier ways,,,,, lord have mercy.

    June 22, 2010 04:21 pm at 4:21 pm |
  8. GI Joe

    Ego too big – always was.

    Another one that won't work for a half-white man.

    Buhbye McChrystal.

    June 22, 2010 04:21 pm at 4:21 pm |
  9. alicia

    Stop all this wasting time and show, let this General DO his job!!

    This is a waste of time and money, Obama get off it, you should be focusing on the Gulf not the General!

    Give me a break!

    June 22, 2010 04:23 pm at 4:23 pm |
  10. MatthewDetroit


    HE IS THE ONLY ONE that is honest with the president.

    The president is a weak little man that does not have the guts to do the job. He wants to give in and is afraid to lead... He is afraid to be a leader. He is afraid of any conflict. Barack is just a wimp.

    MCHRYSTALS Mistake was voting for this limp wrist leader for president. Hillary would have been better. Anyone would have been.

    June 22, 2010 04:23 pm at 4:23 pm |
  11. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    McChrystal has fallen in with the RethugliKKKlans in breaking all rules of decorum and attempting to publicly humiliate the Obama administration....TWICE!

    Unfortunately, not only does he report to Obama, but we're at war. HE'S GOTTA GO! And quite frankly let's humiliate him on the way out the door. Strip him of his little stars and stripes, military tribunal sounds reasonable.

    In other words, I'm not much interested in this little ego-twad's previous accomplishments. You did'nt call out the most inept Commader-in-Chief in the history of the USA: George W. Bush when he took us to a war based on LIES, you should've extended this President the same respect. He's more deserving of it.


    June 22, 2010 04:24 pm at 4:24 pm |
  12. Allen in Hartwell GA

    This general should have been retired after the Tillman fiasco. While he might be good at clandestine ops he doesn't appear to be a good commander. He definitely isn't good at playing well with his civilian "superiors", since he apparently thinks that he is superior to them. It's alright to think that, but you don't say it aloud, and you don't let your troops learn how you feel.
    Retire him with a two-star downgrade.

    June 22, 2010 04:25 pm at 4:25 pm |
  13. gt

    obama was angry ? please !!!!,,,, get our troups home now,,!! the parents of the young people in afganistan deserve better than this from our commander in chief,,, and he is mad,,, please...

    June 22, 2010 04:26 pm at 4:26 pm |
  14. Rod Shipley

    What I see is a general, that is a warrior by nature, has become frustrated with the aspect that once again, we are using politicians deciding our war time policy through diplomacy. Up until our politicians with their "diplomacy" mentality, thinking one can end and win a war or conflict. This started with President Truman and the Korean war. We ended up not winning that conflict, nor did we win in southeast asia in the 60's, nor did we win in the first Gulf war, the second Gulf War or in Afghanistan. All we have done with diplomacy is accomplish nothing but get our heros killed or injured. I commend the General for airing his frustration. Remember, the first Gulf War could have ended with victory in a couple of months. We brought the Taliban to their knees in a couple of months and let them off the hook because. of diplomacy. Every time we accomplished victory military wise, the politicians step in and screw up the process. France, who cares about France. You know the country that would let us use their air space when we went into Libya. The same country that had their nae on just about everything that linked them to Iraq, when the world had sanction on Iraq. Just for oil for France. Forget them, let warriors fight our wars not politicians.

    June 22, 2010 04:26 pm at 4:26 pm |
  15. Becky Montgomery

    Even an assistant high school coach would know better than to say those things about those above him.

    He needs to go. If he has any honor he will resign and quietly go away.

    June 22, 2010 04:30 pm at 4:30 pm |
  16. Eric

    I read the RS piece and found nothing remotely hostile to the WH. In fact, the RS sub-headline of the piece is entirely manufactured drama by the RS writer.

    I do agree with those who disagree with the policy McChrystal is pushing re "don't fire." It seems counterintuitive.

    However, that said, McChrystal is the shizznit. Obama calling him back for a wimpy tongue lashing is only going to make McChrystal look even more like "the man."

    Be careful Barry Dunham, you may be meeting with your 2012 challenger and this guy is no freaking wimpy John McCain. We could only hope.

    June 22, 2010 04:32 pm at 4:32 pm |
  17. Ron in California.

    He's got a boss who is a rookie, a congress that is hostile, an Afghan leader who is corrupt, no wonder he's frustrated. Like Viet Nam the politocs dictates the war effort. Let' him go win it and get out..

    June 22, 2010 04:33 pm at 4:33 pm |
  18. may be the hottest in the general's storied military career

    how about you leave the general alone?

    has he done something that we all don't agree with

    the afgans are a joke

    get off the general's back

    June 22, 2010 04:35 pm at 4:35 pm |
  19. Linda C

    Gen. McChristal is only speaking the truth re Obama's incompetence as President.

    June 22, 2010 04:37 pm at 4:37 pm |
  20. Greer

    The military lives by a different standard than the rest of society. Unfortunately McChrystal broke a standard that you never speak poorly of the Commander in Chief. Even though I am sure most of his staff agree with what was said he erred and must be fired. Next life he can be a politician and speak without consequences.

    June 22, 2010 04:37 pm at 4:37 pm |
  21. Newton Lightfoot

    Section2,Article2 of the constitution lays out the relationship between the military and executive. I (Marine Corps 1963-1967) took an oath to defend this constitution. I heard a commentator say(Cut Him Some Slack), I guess if that happened obama would promptly be labeled as weak. If Obama "owns" the oil spill, how is this general not responsible for what his staff is saying unless he's not in control. That would bring up a whole new set of questions.,

    June 22, 2010 04:37 pm at 4:37 pm |
  22. LacrosseMom(the real one)

    McChrystal needs to resign, NO general should disrespect his Commander in Chief, when our Nation is at war. McChrystal is out of line!

    The fact that McChrystal LIED and attempted to make Tillman a "hero" figure lying about the way the poor man died, tells you exactly what his real character is!



    June 22, 2010 04:50 pm at 4:50 pm |
  23. mj

    He should not have made his comments public. The problem is much deeper. The frustration of losing the war in Afghanistan, the massive amount of American Soldiers coming home in body bags, no real leadership from Obama; is the heart of this story. Obama needs to focus on problems here and abroad. Stop all this campaigning, elaborate Star-Studded performances at the White House, legal disputes that will go no where, and listen to the American people. His smug attitude is disgusting. I'm sure there are a lot of people who would like to play golf on the weekend. Flying Air Force 1 for less than a 1 hour stop to get back in time to attend a ball game. Unfortunately, it is expensive to partake in this recreation and most of us have a better use for the money. Not in touch with America at all. We are all in deep trouble with this President.

    June 22, 2010 04:51 pm at 4:51 pm |
  24. lois mellott


    He should undoubtedly be fired!!
    This guy lied about how the football player was killed, so how many
    more lies has this guy got under his belt?

    I don't care who is President of this country, no one in the military or a civilian has the right to degrade the President. That goes for Congress too.

    Do the guys a favor in Afaganistan, FIRE MCCHRYSTAL NOW.. The guy is worthless. He thinks He is God and no one can touch him.

    June 22, 2010 04:52 pm at 4:52 pm |
  25. greenfish

    If the comments attributed to him are true, he needs to go.

    June 22, 2010 04:53 pm at 4:53 pm |
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