When journalist Michael Hastings died in a car crash in Los Angeles last year, rumors immediately began to surface on social media suggesting his death was tied to a federal investigation into his work.
The claims attracted widespread media interest when WikiLeaks tweeted the day after the crash that Hastings had contacted the anti-secrecy group's attorney and said that the FBI was investigating him. The FBI was then bombarded by inquiries from journalists who tried to confirm or deny the allegations, and the bureau struggled to come up with a statement to debunk what it referred to as "rampant conspiracy theories."
"While we generally went with policy response of 'can't confirm or deny,' I'm not sure how we're supposed to even look into a tweet that says nothing about what he was allegedly being investigated for," Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman with the FBI's Los Angeles field office, wrote in an email to the FBI's national press office in response to their questions. "I've asked reporters why they're calling LA and they point to the car crash and fact that he appears to have lived here."
VICE News obtained dozens of internal FBI emails that provide a behind-the-scenes look at how the bureau managed the inquiries into Hastings' death and the rare steps it took to shoot down claims that he was the target of a federal probe. The documents were turned over in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit VICE News jointly filed with Ryan Shapiro, a doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who specializes in FOIA research.
Two days after Hastings died, Eimiller sent an email to Andy Neiman, her counterpart at the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), asking whether "fowl play" [sic] was suspected and whether the LAPD issued a statement.
"We're getting slammed with inquiries regarding what appear to be conspiracy theories surrounding Michael Hastings car crash," Eimiller wrote on June 20, 2013. "We're trying to rule out, if possible, any suggestion that Hastings was targeted by someone with the crash based on his alleged involvement as a witness or target of an FBI investigation. I think we're triple-checking but it doesn't appear he was under any sort of investigation."
Neiman responded to Eimiller stating, "LAPD investigators have not identified any evidence that suggests fowl play [sic] in the tragic fatal collision. The preliminary findings have lead investigators to believe that collision was a solo vehicle collision with speed being a primary factor. The investigation is ongoing. I hope that helps a little."
That day, Eimiller also sent out an email to FBI special agents across the country under the subject line "Urgent Media Issue" and linked to a New York magazine report about the growing conspiracy theories surrounding Hastings' death. She said the reports had attracted the interest of then-FBI Director Robert Mueller and the Department of Justice, and that FBI headquarters "would like to debunk growing conspiracy theory if possible (assuming that's what it is)."
"Has anyone's division been contacted in relation to an FBI investigation that may have led to foul play in the car crash death Tuesday of reporter, Michael Hastings," Eimiller wrote. "There are many reports on the Internet that Hastings was being investigated by the FBI. He died in a car accident in LA on Tuesday. Before his death, according to a tweet, he told others he worried he was the subject of an investigation. None of this is confirmed and the LAPD is reporting no foul play in car crash based on evidence. This is getting the attention of DOJ and the Director's Office."
FBI intelligence analysts were tasked with searching "all systems" to ensure there weren't any records to suggest Hastings was the subject of an investigation. FBI officials searched several of its databases and did not turn up any documents on Hastings. Additionally, the bureau's criminal division said Hastings was not on their radar.
"If all other divisions are comfortable that they have checked with the right contacts within your respective division, we'll advise HQ that we have not been contacted regarding this matter," Eimiller wrote. "We are getting ready to push out a statement to the press ruling out any investigation and want to ensure no info yet to be entered into the system surfaces after the fact."
The statement originally said, according to an email FBI headquarters spokesman Paul Bresson sent to his colleagues at the bureau and the Department of Justice, "At no time was Michael Hastings, or anything related to his work as a journalist, ever under investigation by the FBI."
Typically when the FBI is questioned about whether it is conducting an investigation, it responds by stating that it can neither "confirm nor deny."
Justice Department spokeswoman Nanda Chitre said in an email that someone else suggested the statement should be changed: "At no time was journalist Michael Hastings ever under investigation by the FBI."
The change is significant because the FBI did have one file about Hastings' work. On June 11, 2012, the FBI's Washington field office opened a file and submitted "unclassified media articles" to it in order to "memorialize controversial reporting by Rolling Stone magazine on June 7, 2012."
The articles in question included an investigative report Hastings wrote about the disappearance of US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was rescued by special forces earlier this year in exchange for five Taliban Guantanamo detainees.
The FBI located the three-page file on Hastings in a "cross-reference" file that pertained to an international terrorism investigation involving Bergdahl's disappearance. The bureau turned over the file about two months after Hastings died.
It's unclear why the document did not turn up when FBI agents and spokespeople searched the bureau's files.
The media inquiries about Hastings continued, despite the FBI's statement denying the rumors. On June 24, Eimiller sent an email to FBI headquarters:
Took a few calls over weekend using the Hastings statement. AP still asking today about it. Reporter says, "We just want to learn more about why Hastings thought FBI was talking to his close friends and associates - obviously rumor mill continues, anything to debunk rumors would be most appreciated .." I told reporter, "I'm not able to help you with credibility of rumors. The FBI has confirmed that Michael Hastings was not under investigation. Not sure I can help you further. Let me know if there is anything I can do, or stop doing, in Los Angeles. Thanks.
"Nope. I think that's perfect Laura," Bresson responded. "Just keep referring to the statement. Appreciate the job you've done on this."
Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold