The peculiar circumstances of journalist Michael Hastings' death in Los Angeles last week have unleashed a wave of conspiracy theories.
Now there's another theory to contribute to the paranoia: According to a prominent security analyst, technology exists that could've allowed someone to hack his car. Former U.S. National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism Richard Clarke told The Huffington Post that what is known about the single-vehicle crash is "consistent with a car cyber attack."
Clarke said, "There is reason to believe that intelligence agencies for major powers" -- including the United States -- know how to remotely seize control of a car.
"What has been revealed as a result of some research at universities is that it's relatively easy to hack your way into the control system of a car, and to do such things as cause acceleration when the driver doesn't want acceleration, to throw on the brakes when the driver doesn't want the brakes on, to launch an air bag," Clarke told The Huffington Post. "You can do some really highly destructive things now, through hacking a car, and it's not that hard."
"So if there were a cyber attack on the car -- and I'm not saying there was," Clarke added, "I think whoever did it would probably get away with it."
Authorities have said that it may take weeks to determine a cause of death for Hastings, but that no foul play is suspected.
Hastings was driving a 2013 Mercedes C250 coupe when he crashed into a tree on Highland Ave. in Los Angeles at approximately 4:30 am on June 18. Video posted online showed the car in flames, and one neighbor told a local news crew she heard a sound like an explosion. Another eyewitness said the car's engine had been thrown 50 to 60 yards from the car. There were no other vehicles involved in the accident.
The fire was so all-consuming that it took the Los Angeles County coroner's office two days to identify Hastings' body, but Clarke said a cyber attack on the vehicle would have been nearly impossible to trace "even if the dozen or so computers on board hadn't melted."
Hastings practiced a brand of no-holds-barred journalism that tended to anger powerful people. His 2010 profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, published in Rolling Stone, was so damaging that it ostensibly prompted President Barack Obama to fire the general (the president denied that the article had a role in his decision).
In the days before his death, Hastings was reportedly working on a story about a lawsuit filed by Jill Kelley, who was involved in the scandal that brought down Gen. David Petraeus, according to the LA Times. KTLA reported that Hastings told colleagues at the news site BuzzFeed that he feared the FBI was investigating him. On June 20, the FBI denied that any investigation was under way.
"I believe the FBI when they say they weren't investigating him," said Clarke. "That was very unusual, and I'm sure they checked very carefully before they said that."
Clarke worked for the State Department under President Ronald Reagan and headed up counterterrorism efforts under Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He also served as a special adviser on cyberterrorism to the younger Bush and published a book on the topic, Cyber War, in 2010.
"I'm not a conspiracy guy. In fact, I've spent most of my life knocking down conspiracy theories," said Clarke, who ran afoul of the second Bush administration when he criticized the decision to invade Iraq after 9/11. "But my rule has always been you don't knock down a conspiracy theory until you can prove it [wrong]. And in the case of Michael Hastings, what evidence is available publicly is consistent with a car cyber attack. And the problem with that is you can't prove it."
Clarke said the Los Angeles Police Department likely wouldn't have the expertise to trace such an attack. "I think you'd probably need the very best of the U.S. government intelligence or law enforcement officials to discover it."