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Volcanic Eruption Helped Reporter Gain Access to McChrystal

The magazine article that led to the commander of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan being fired was written by a freelance journalist who was able to spend a lot of time with Army General Stanley McChrystal and his closest aides because they were stranded by a volcanic ash cloud over Europe.

The journalist who wrote the McChrystal profile for Rolling Stone magazine spent time with the general in April. At the time, the commander was in Europe where the airspace was closed due to a volcanic eruption in Iceland.

McChrystal and his staff had to travel by bus from Paris to Berlin, where they spent a week waiting for the cloud to dissipate.

The reporter for Rolling Stone, Michael Hastings, was with them during much of this time. He says it did not take long for them to share their critical views of the political leadership in Washington with him.

"I think they say these things all the time and I think they say all these things in private," he said. "And I was just able to see how they acted in private and this wasn't after a long period of time."

Hastings's article is called The Runaway General. In it, sources are quoted as saying that McChrystal thought President Barack Obama seemed to be 'intimidated' by military officers. The members of the general's inner circle are also quoted making insults about several other administration figures, including Vice President Joe Biden.

The question many analysts are asking is why the general would have given such free access to a reporter for a magazine that is best known for its coverage of music and popular culture.

Frances Townsend was Homeland Security advisor to former President George W. Bush. She says that there is a big push at the Pentagon for commanders to have accounts on Internet social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, and to appear in popular publications.

"They reach out across a broad spectrum of media outlets," said Townsend. "Young people read Rolling Stone, so you can understand that if you're looking to recruit and attract young people into the United States military, you've got to be in publications that they're reading."

Townsend describes McChrystal as a distinguished soldier who led the special operations forces that captured Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. But she notes that generals often are under a great amount of pressure and become frustrated with the demands placed on them by political leaders back home.
In the White House Rose Garden, President Obama said he had accepted McChrystal's resignation because the general's comments undermined civilian control of the military.

Still, Townsend says something good might come out of the Rolling Stone article. "What it will engender is a very fulsome public debate, public policy debate, about the conterinsurgency strategy versus the counterterrorism strategy and where we are in terms of the president's goal to be able to begin a drawdown in July of 2011," she said.

Analysts also point out that McChrystal and his team's criticism was not about strategy. But it comes at a time of rising casualties and falling public support in the United States for the nine-year-long war in Afghanistan.