Nevermind the fiery car crash that killed Michael Hastings. Forget about remotely controlled cars careening out of control at the command of insideous government spooks, remains cremated against the will of the family, and withheld accident reports involving Hastings’ death.

None of that is particularly important, really.*

What is important is the story journalist Michael Hastings was researching prior to his death. That would be the story that prompted Hastings to write an email to collegues at BuzzFeed warning that the FBI was snooping around asking questions of his close friends and associates. Hastings advised his colleagues that any conversations with the FBI about his news gathering and journalism practices should be done after first consulting with an attorney. Hastings was on to a big story, and needed to go “off the radar” for a while.

So what was Hastings researching? The last article Michael Hastings published looked into how major players in the Democratic Party have responded to the leaks exposing the NSA’s secret spying program called PRISM. Far from expressing outrage at the intelligence community’s widespread domestic spying programs, the Obama administration had been ruthless against those exposing illegal government surveillance, particularly journalists.

Transparency supporters, whistleblowers, and investigative reporters, especially those writers who have aggressively pursued the connections between the corporate defense industry and federal and local authorities involved in domestic surveillance, have been viciously attacked by the Obama administration and its allies in the FBI and DOJ. [Emphasis Added]

Michael Hastings was interested in how private contractors and government were working together to stop journalists from publishing details of illegal government surveillance.

Julian Assange, Glenn Greenwald and Barrett Brown have been government targets, among others. Those three are important. The stories of Julian Assange and Glenn Greenwald are well known and thoroughly documented by now and include a campaign of smears, threats, international legal contortions, and general hyperventilation from government, corporate America, and talking heads around the globe.

Less known is journalist Barrett Brown. Unofficial spokesman for Anonymous–although he denied holding that title–Barrett Brown’s work has focused on the secretive world of contract spies. Through Project PM, “a crowd-sourced research effort to expose government intelligence contractors,” Barrett Brown uncovered a strategy concocted by a consortium of private contractors called Team Themis to discredit activist groups opposing the contractors’ big-name clients, namely Bank of America and the US Chamber of Commerce. Strategies of Team Themis included Persona Management, which created false social media accounts to infiltrate and discredit progressive groups like Wikileaks and anti-Chamber group Chamber Watch.

A similar program was developed by the US military for international use and has been compared to attempts by the Chinese government to control and restrict its domestic population’s free speech on the internet.

Critics are likely to complain that it [the American military's program] will allow the US military to create a false consensus in online conversations, crowd out unwelcome opinions and smother commentaries or reports that do not correspond with its own objectives.

Bank of America was introduced to Team Themis through–wait for it–the Department of Justice, and BofA ultimately hired Themis in an effort to discredit Wikileaks after Assange obliquely threatened to bring down a major bank. Secret leaked bank documents were sitting in a security file to be released in the event of Assange’s capture or death. Prior to that, DOJ referred the US Chamber of Commerce to Team Themis when the Chamber sought to create a damage control campaign to immunize itself against opponents and their advocates, notably Glenn Greenwald.

Rather than winning accolades for exposing a nefarious public/private partnership to damage the credibility of journalists, Barrett Brown won indictments on charges that could result in over 100 years in jail. One obviously spurious charge was for cutting and pasting a link onto a discussion board. Some believe that Brown was targeted because he got dangerously close to discovering PRISM before Edward Snowden leaked top secret documents detailing the program.

But the toxic mix of big business, private intelligence and government was not all that interested Hastings. A February 2011 article for Rolling Stone outlined one General’s use of an army Psycological Operations unit to manipulate the opinions of US Senators visiting Afghanistan.

“My job in psy-ops is to play with people’s heads, to get the enemy to behave the way we want them to behave,” says Lt. Colonel Michael Holmes, the leader of the IO unit, who received an official reprimand after bucking orders.

The psyops operation was used to help secure additional funding for military operations in Afghanistan in the midst of an unpopular and unsuccessful operation. The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 pevents the use of military psyops against American citizens. Holmes continued,

“I’m prohibited from doing that to our own people. When you ask me to try to use these skills on senators and congressman, you’re crossing a line.”

Meanwhile, an obscure provision of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) went into effect this month repealing the Smith-Mundt Act’s ban on the US government using psyops propaganda on a domestic American audience. The sockpuppet army of Team Themis is legally loosed and Americans can be legally manipulated by psyops to behave in ways amenable to the government.

Michael Hastings was a personal friend of Barrett Brown’s and contributed to Project PM. Hastings suspected that his conversations with Brown were being recorded and monitored. In a letter of condolence to supporters of Hastings, Barrett Brown announced that Hastings had scheduled an interview with Brown from the prison where Brown is incarcerated awaiting trial. Hastings was killed before the interview took place.

What were Michael Hastings and Barrett Brown planning to discuss during the interview that never happened? Website freebarrettbrown.org’s Kevin Gallagher has some ideas.

Hastings saw Barrett’s case in the context of the government’s war on the press, basically, and uh, a lot of the things he reported about the like psyops on US Senators to get them to support the war ties into the Persona Management stuff and the stuff that Barrett was researching, so there is a lot of overlap between the two.

Whatever Hastings found, he thought it was important. Apparently so did the FBI. As Hastings tweeted about his story on Barrett Brown, “Get ready for your mind to get blown.”

In his last published piece Hastings wrote, “Perhaps more information will soon be forthcoming” about the Obama Administration’s war on journalism. Sadly, it will not come from Michael Hastings.

*Okay, it’s important, really important, but its not the topic of this post and is a totally separate issue deserving a separate discussion.