Walter Isaacson’s official biography of Elon Musk, which has been in the works for over two years, is facing significant revisions just as it hits stores this week.
In recent excerpts shared by the biographer, including accounts of a “ruthless” leadership change at Twitter and sordid details of Musk’s fathering of twins with a Neuralink manager he employs, the most controversial revelation was an “untold story” about the billionaire’s alleged intervention to prevent a potential attack on a Russian naval base by Ukrainian forces, likened to a “mini-Pearl Harbor” scenario.
However, this revelation has cast a shadow on the author’s reputation this weekend, as he has acknowledged a significant error in the narrative just days before the book’s official release on Tuesday.
Isaacson, who was given unprecedented access to Musk during the course of the project, claimed last Thursday the SpaceX CEO had secretly ordered engineers to deactivate Starlink wireless coverage over Crimea. Previously he had only stated he would not extend coverage into Russia proper to enable Ukrainian attacks on foreign soil.
A planned drone strike on the Russian naval fleet however ended in the military hardware “washing ashore harmlessly” after losing their signal, as Isaacson described it.
Hi, Tim. Based on my conversations with Musk, I mistakenly thought the policy to not allow Starlink to be used for an attack on Crimea had been first decided on the night of the Ukrainian attempted sneak attack that night. He now says that the policy had been implemented…
— Walter Isaacson (@WalterIsaacson) September 9, 2023
Almost immediately after the first news coverage landed, Musk denied having given the order. Instead, he said late on Thursday that he merely withheld an emergency request to activate network connectivity in Russian-occupied Crimea.
This subtle but not unimportant distinction suggests it was Kyiv that sought to drag SpaceX into a change in the rules of engagement, not the other way around.
“The obvious intent being to sink most of the Russian fleet at anchor,” Musk said last week. “If I had agreed to their request, then SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation.”
On Friday, his biographer then began to walk back the version of events he had described.
First Isaacson wrote that he wanted to “clarify the Starlink issue”, claiming it was the Ukrainians who mistakenly believed Musk had enabled coverage all the way to Crimea. This aligned with Musk’s denial of having deliberately deactivated it.
On Saturday, the author then corrected the record fully and accepted responsibility for getting this crucial detail wrong.
“Based on my conversations with Musk, I mistakenly thought the policy to not allow Starlink to be used for an attack on Crimea had been first decided on the night of [Ukraine’s] attempted sneak attack that night,” he wrote on Saturday. “He now says that the policy had been implemented earlier, but the Ukrainians did not know it.”
Musk grew uneasy that a bloody regional war could further escalate
The fallout from his initial version of events proved fierce.
Musk was branded by some as a traitor and calls spread—including on Musk’s own Twitter (“X”) platform—for SpaceX and Starlink to be seized and nationalized.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken had to come to the billionaire tycoon’s defense on Sunday, stating that Starlink was a “vital tool” for Ukraine.
One of Volodymyr Zelenky’s top aides blasted the decision for a “cocktail of ignorance and big ego” and said Musk now had blood on his hands.
“By not allowing Ukrainian drones to destroy part of the Russian military fleet via Starlink interference, Elon Musk allowed this fleet to fire Kalibr missiles at Ukrainian cities,” wrote Mykhailo Podolyak. “As a result, civilians, children are being killed.”
Nationalize Starlink and SpaceX. https://t.co/3PFd1hquY6
— Michael Shurkin (@MichaelShurkin) September 8, 2023
Granting Ukraine access to Starlink at the start of the war did not come without a certain risk: Musk even suggested Putin might target him for assassination.
But the government’s very public request would have been difficult to turn down amid a groundswell of support for Ukraine, and it provided the tycoon a valuable opportunity to be hailed a hero.
Yet as the war dragged on, Musk became increasingly uneasy.
He claimed to spend nights up thinking about how he could bring peace to Ukraine, questioned whether Crimea was the line in the sand that might cause Putin to retaliate with nuclear strikes, and later suggested Russia could keep territory illegally seized in exchange for a ceasefire.
The issue of Crimea, however, is not a straightforward one.
It was occupied illegally by Putin in 2014 after a pro-western government came to power in Kyiv, ostensibly to protect the predominantly ethnic-Russian enclave from reprisals.
Ukraine’s allies have themselves debated whether a Russian defeat should entail retaking the disputed peninsula or limit itself to liberating the territory lost since the February 2022 invasion.
Isaacson’s excerpt, published by the Washington Post, has since been updated to reflect the new version of events with a warning flagged at the very top that it had been corrected.
For any author, this is embarrassing and invites reputational damage. It furthermore invariably raises questions about what other details may stand up to scrutiny.