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.

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