Nerve Gas, Lies, and Videotape
On the first Sunday in June, amid much fanfare, the Cable News Network (CNN) launched a new prime-time, magazine-format program called Newsstand. This was a unique joint venture with Time magazine, and to emphasize its roots in the finest traditions of journalism, the program, the product of “two of the world’s leading news organizations on special assignment,” began from Manhattan’s Greeley Square. “It’s named after Horace Greeley, one of America’s great newspapermen,” explained Jeff Greenfield, the co-host. “We thought we’d come to a place that honors journalism’s past to begin a new venture of our own,” added his partner, Bernard Shaw.
As if to demonstrate the bold integrity under-girding the new endeavor, one of the three segments aired in the maiden broadcast focused on “the hypocrisy of the media.” But the lead story, touted for days in advertisements for the show, was entitled “Valley of Death” and concerned hypocrisy of far graver import. Greenfield solemnized:
Earlier this year, the United States nearly went to war with Iraq over its chemical and biological weapons. Now CNN and Time, after an eight-month investigation, report that the United States military used lethal nerve gas during the Vietnam war.
More shocking still, as Shaw elaborated, the occasion for this violation of declared U.S. policy and international law was a 1970 mission to kill American soldiers who had defected to the enemy. That mission, chimed in the show’s narrator, the veteran CNN correspondent Peter Arnett, was code-named “Tailwind,” and it was carried out by a secret, elite unit of the Special Forces with the deliberately innocuous name of “Studies and Observations Group” or “SOG.” Notwithstanding American professions of respect for the neutrality of Laos, SOG units routinely crossed into that country, where, in Arnett’s words, “the hunting and killing of American defectors was a high priority.” Tailwind, summarized Greenfield, was “a top-secret effort . . . to find and kill those defectors by virtually any means necessary.”
Knitting to gether material from interviews with a handful of Tailwind veterans—“voices the U.S. government never wanted you to hear”—“Valley of Death” told how SOG commandos approached a Laotian village where American defectors had been spotted by reconnaissance units. “During the evening,” Arnett narrated, “American planes gassed the camp with deadly sarin nerve gas.” The next morning, the SOG unit attacked. One of its members, a Lieutenant Robert Van Buskirk, appeared on camera in “Valley of Death” to recall chasing two American defectors into a “spider hole” and dropping a deadly phosphorous grenade on them.
After destroying the village, and killing most or all of its inhabitants, the team prepared to be lifted out. But then it came under attack from enemy forces. In order to cover the escape, two U.S. bombers dropped additional loads of nerve gas onto the battlefield. “Running . . . shooting . . . throwing up . . . unable to breath,” in Van Buskirk’s words, the Americans clambered over enemy bodies into their choppers and made their getaway.
Interspersed with the vivid recollections of derring-do in the CNN narrative were bits of an interview with retired Admiral Thomas Moorer. At the time of the events in question, Moorer had been serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Now, his responses to questions put to him by the CNN producer April Oliver lent oblique support to the show’s conclusions.
Those conclusions concerned not only the two key revelations about nerve gas and “hunt/kill raid[s] for American defectors,” highlighted at the beginning and end of the show, but a third element: the fact that, according to Arnett, the casualties of this devastating attack “includ[ed] women and children.” That viewers were meant to be reminded by this of the notorious incident at My Lai, where Vietnamese civilians were killed by American troops under the direction of Lieutenant William Calley, was underscored by Bernard Shaw’s breaking into a commercial pause in the middle of the Tailwind report to announce a Time “Milestone”—the death of Colonel Oran K. Henderson, “the highest ranking officer ever tried for the infamous My Lai massacre.” (Henderson had not actually been present at My Lai, but was tried—and acquitted—for failing to investigate the killings.)
By CNN’s account, indeed, the killing of women and children in operation Tailwind was not only reminiscent of My Lai, it was even more horrifying. The My Lai victims were shot; the victims of Tailwind were subjected to a more hideous death by nerve gas. The My Lai killings were carried out by a unit unnerved by the casualties inflicted on it by Vietcong guerrillas hidden among civilians; the Tailwind force, by contrast, was an elite unit on an offensive mission against a carefully chosen target, so bent on wiping out American defectors that it did not care whom else it killed in the process.
The gruesome story told on CNN on Sunday evening was told again in the next morning’s edition of Time, where it appeared under the joint byline of April Oliver and Peter Arnett. The one-two punch proved successful. Although the events described had occurred 28 years earlier, the allegations, involving acts so abhorrent, and reported by two news organizations so respectable, created a sensation. In the days immediately following, although Pentagon spokesmen challenged some aspects of the CNN-Time account, they were unable to offer a blanket denial, and Secretary of Defense William Cohen ordered a full-scale investigation.
Within CNN, one individual, Perry Smith, also began an investigation of his own. A retired Air Force major general, Smith had been retained as CNN’s “military adviser” since the Persian Gulf war in 1991. Oddly, however, Smith, who had flown 130 missions over Laos during the Vietnam conflict, was not consulted in the preparation of the report on Tailwind. Now undertaking his private inquiry, he concluded within a matter of days after viewing the show that the story it told was false, and he urged the network’s top executives to issue a retraction.
This they declined to do. Instead, a follow-up report appeared on the next week’s Newsstand, noting some of the criticisms of the original program but restating and strengthening its conclusions. Admiral Moorer, for example, flatly denied authorizing the use of sarin or possessing information of its use. CNN chose to construe his statement not as casting doubt on its claim that nerve gas was used but rather as opening a new mystery about who had ordered it; stringing together a couple of ambiguous sound bites, CNN’s reporter speculated that authorization might have “come from the Nixon White House.”
But even as CNN was shrugging off the protests of its own military consultant—who resigned from the network in disgust after the follow-up broadcast—further blows were in store. The first came from Newsweek, which, in a departure from the unwritten rule that major news outlets refrain from criticizing their competitors directly, raised “serious doubts” about the CNN-Time account. In particular, it seemed that Van Buskirk, the lieutenant whose story constituted the centerpiece of the show, had acknowledged having lost for 24 years any memory of killing Americans, until suddenly recalling the events during the course of an interview with the producer of “Valley of Death,” April Oliver.
Under mounting pressure, CNN executives now hired a noted civil-liberties attorney, Floyd Abrams, to conduct an investigation of the broadcast. Time did its own investigation, interviewing various veterans of Operation Tailwind who repudiated critical elements in “Valley of Death.” A week later, Abrams issued his conclusion:
[T]he central thesis of the broadcast could not be sustained at the time of the broadcast itself and cannot be sustained now. . . . CNN should retract the broadcast and apologize to the public and, in particular, the participants in Operation Tailwind.
Both CNN and Time promptly did as Abrams recommended. And other actions followed as well. Although Abrams had gone out of his way to affirm that April Oliver and her collaborator, CNN senior producer Jack Smith, believed in the truth of their allegations, both were fired. Their immediate supervisor, Pamela Hill, the vice president in charge of CNN’s investigative unit, resigned.
But the repercussions did not travel any further. Although CNN founder Ted Turner lamented that “nothing,” not even the death of his father, had “upset me more, probably, in my whole life” than this fiasco, he turned down the offer of a resignation from Tom Johnson, CNN’s chief operating officer. As for the network’s president, Richard Kaplan, whose brainchild Newsstand was, he treated himself indulgently. “Like all . . . good managers, when something happens . . . in your division . . . you want to take responsibility for it,” Kaplan said. But “I was not part of the investigation that turned out the bad . . . journalism.”
Kaplan did acknowledge having reviewed “Valley of Death” a week before it went on the air. But when pressed as to whether he should have “asked a lot tougher questions,” he replied: “I asked all the questions I knew to ask.” It later emerged that Tom Johnson, who is Kaplan’s superior, had requested that the show be vetted by the military consultant Perry Smith, but had yielded to Kaplan’s insistence that Smith be excluded lest his involvement, in the words of a senior network executive, “leak the gist of the story to the Pentagon prematurely.”
The show’s narrator, Peter Arnett, also escaped serious punishment, instead being given what Kaplan called “a very stern reprimand.” Arnett, who cultivates a swaggering image of journalistic fearlessness; who had collaborated with Oliver on a similar though less publicized Vietnam expose nine months before; and who had taken on the Tailwind assignment voluntarily, now exculpated himself in pathetic terms. Protesting that he had written “not one comma” of the script—later he would concede having offered “a few suggestions”—Arnett averred that he “was never informed that my face on the air gave me responsibility for [the] story.” “I’m a company guy,” he proclaimed. “You want me to read a script, I’ll read it.” Left unexplained was the question of how this excused him from authorial responsibility for the version that appeared in Time, co-signed by him and April Oliver.
However the blame is apportioned, CNN and Time’s Tailwind story was a travesty of journalism.
In its initial defense of the broadcast, CNN referred repeatedly to the “more than 200 interviews” it had conducted with military personnel up and down the chain of command. What it did not say was that the overwhelming majority of the interviewees who had knowledge of Operation Tailwind, had repudiated the show’s thesis. For the most part, they were not put on the air or quoted in Time’s print version. And to the extent they were heard, Tailwind and SOG veterans who denied Newsstand’s claims were edited in such a way as to suggest they were dupes or perpetrators of a government cover-up. When asked later why more space had not been given to the denials, Oliver replied, “Getting into the various potential cover stories could possibly be confusing to the audience.”
As for those confirming Newsstand’s allegations, the principal source was Lieutenant Van Buskirk. But, as Newsweek would point out, the tale Van Buskirk told in “Valley of Death” was at odds with the official account of the mission he himself had given to his superiors at the time.
Because the mission commander, Captain Eugene McCarley, was seriously wounded in the mouth and unable to speak easily Van Buskirk was chosen to deliver an after-action briefing to General Creighton Abrams, the U.S. commander in Vietnam. The written text of Van Buskirk’s briefing refers to the use of tear gas, not nerve gas. (Tear gas, which can be instantly debilitating but leaves no permanent effects, was indeed used numerous times in search-and-rescue missions to extricate Americans in hostile surroundings.) Nor does Van Buskirk’s text mention American defectors. The purpose of Tail-wind, it states, was “to collect . . . intelligence and to create a diversion in support of” another covert U.S. operation in Laos. This is exactly what other Tailwind veterans have said, though Newsstand failed to quote them or put them on camera.
A second written statement of Van Buskirk’s from that time—nominating a Tailwind participant for a medal for heroism—describes the mission in similar terms. It, too, refers to tear gas, not nerve gas, and it, too, makes no mention of defectors.
Van Buskirk’s road since Vietnam has been a rocky one, including, by his own account, an arrest in Germany on the charge of running guns to the terrorist Baader-Meinhoff gang; heavy drinking; and post-traumatic stress disorder. (“I was under treatment for ten years with lithium and mind-bending drugs,” he recalls.) He now says that it was during the course of a religious vision in his German jail cell in 1974 that he repressed all memory of killing the American defectors. When April Oliver’s interview brought it back, he initially recalled his victims as Russians, only eventually coming to the belief that they were Americans. Since the controversy over “Valley of Death” broke out, Van Buskirk has told news organizations that he is uncertain about the type of gas involved or the nationality of those he killed.
The second main prop of Newsstand’s sensational revelations was Admiral Moorer’s purported confirmation of the key findings. As I have already mentioned, Moorer, who is nearing his eighty-seventh birthday, has denied saying either that nerve gas was used or that Tailwind’s purpose included the pursuit of American defectors. On the latter issue, indeed, the best that CNN could come up with was a snippet of Moorer saying, “I’m sure there were some defectors. There are always defectors.” To repair the obvious emptiness of these words, Arnett then hastened to assure viewers, “Admiral Moorer acknowledged in an off-camera interview that Tailwind’s target was, indeed, defectors.” Why he could not be induced to say this before the camera was not explained.
To bolster its nerve-gas claim, CNN offered a somewhat stronger tidbit from Moorer. On camera, Oliver asks: “So isn’t it fair to say that Tailwind proved that [sarin] is an effective weapon?” Moorer replies: “Yes, I think, but I think that was already known, otherwise it never would have been manufactured.” Moorer later complained that he had been posed a series of “trick questions,” and the show’s outtakes, examined by Floyd Abrams, sustain the complaint. Here is the exchange that was left in the cutting room:
Oliver: The reason we’re interested in Tail-wind is that we’ve been told by a lot of people now that it was the first time that . . . the U.S. ever used what’s known as a lethal nerve gas in combat. . . . How much awareness do you have of this?
Moorer: None. And what you should do, when you make a statement like that, is . . . get all those people in front of this camera. . .
Oliver: We have.
Moorer: . . . and let them tell you that was the case.
Oliver: We have gotten that.
Moorer: But I don’t have the information to confirm what they said.
After much discussion of how nerve gas works, Oliver then smuggles in her question about whether Tailwind proved sarin’s effectiveness. She tries to nail down her point by asking, “So you are aware sarin was used?” But Moorer’s response clearly sent her back to the cutting machine: “I am not confirming for you that it was used. You have told me that.”
In addition to its interviews with Van Buskirk and Moorer, Newsstand aired several minor snippets meant to reinforce its claim that the target of the mission was American defectors. In one of these, a veteran named Jay Graves was introduced as a “SOG reconnaissance-team leader, dropped into Laos several days before the Tailwind commando team.” On air, Graves says: “We saw some round-eyed people. We don’t know whether they’re prisoners or whatever.” Floyd Abrams faulted the broadcast for omitting Graves’s clarifying comment that by “we” he meant members of his team: “I didn’t ever see any of them,” he admitted. But the facts are worse than Abrams knew. There was no such team, and Graves has since signed a statement conceding that he “did not participate in Operation Tailwind as an advanced recon or in any other way.”
Jim Cathey, the other veteran who appeared on the program in this connection, was a no less problematic choice. Military records show that he was nowhere near the mission, and participants in Tail-wind say not only that they never met Cathey but that he was never a member of SOG. Cathey, who held an Air Force desk job in Vietnam, claims to have been mysteriously and abruptly tapped for the secret mission while on a week’s furlough in Saigon. SOG veterans find this preposterous: SOG undertook some of America’s most secret and taxing work, and admittance into the unit required careful screening and a long period of training. The only Tailwind veteran who does know Cathey, Van Buskirk, says he met him first in the United States about ten years ago. (He also claims to have recognized Cathey’s voice from the field radio during Operation Tailwind.) Apparently it was Van Buskirk who led Oliver to Cathey.
Jay Graves, the reconnaissance-team leader who was not there, was also brought on by CNN to confirm the use of nerve gas. So was a SOG veteran named Michael Hagen. Hagen suffers today from numbness below the knees, and is seeking a full disability pension from the government. Although the onset of his ailment does not date back to Vietnam, he believes—as do, mutatis mutandis, many veterans of the Gulf war—that it derives from the aftereffects of exposure to nerve gas. If he is correct, his would be a novel case: sarin is known not for subtle, delayed effects but for powerful and immediate ones. In any event, in its version of the Tailwind story, Time mentioned Hagen’s condition but not the compromising fact that he is looking for compensation; CNN mentioned neither.
Still another witness cited by Time, Tailwind veteran Craig Schmidt, has protested that his words were twisted into the opposite of what he actually said. (His remarks did not appear on CNN because they were not on tape but came from Oliver’s notes.) “It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest bit that it was nerve gas,” Schmidt is quoted in Time. But, he has since asserted, “I believe my exact [words were], ‘I would be surprised if it was nerve gas.’ ”
Finally, both CNN and Time referred to the encampment overrun by the Tailwind force as a “Village” or as a “Village base camp.” No evidence has ever been offered for this assertion. According to veterans of Tailwind, the site was a military base on the Ho Chi Minh trail, the main route for North Vietnamese forces and supplies flowing south; since the trail was a prime target of U.S. bombers, Laotian villagers would have long since fled the area.
Indeed, Newsstand was apparently unable to find anyone who would state that women and children were killed in the operation. Arnett simply asserted this himself, buttressing his claim with a quotation from Hagen: “the majority of the people there were not combat personnel. The few infantry people they had we overran immediately. We basically destroyed everything there.” But as Floyd Abrams pointed out, this quotation had been edited to drop a crucial sentence. After the words “combat personnel,” Hagen added, “they were more of a transportation unit”—just what one would expect to find along the Ho Chi Minh trail.
Since their firing, April Oliver and Jack Smith have adamantly defended the program, even releasing an 80-page rebuttal to Floyd Abrams. Calling Abrams’s report “a corporate whitewash,” they charge that CNN has succumbed to irresistible pressure from the Pentagon and to the fear that veterans’ groups will boycott CNN advertisers. They also warn that their sources, and even their sources’ children, have come under death threats. All this, they suggest, is in the service of covering up a story even bigger than the one revealed on Newsstand. They claim to have a new witness, replete with supporting documents, who journeyed from camp to camp inside Cambodia, zapping U.S. defectors with nerve gas.
Such accusations may help make Oliver and Smith a laughingstock among their colleagues in broadcast news, but in truth they are hardly more far-fetched than the original Tailwind tale. The Pentagon knows of only two defectors—as distinct from deserters—during the entire Vietnam war. If there were others, they would hardly have been encamped with transportation units along the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos rather than, say, settled in Hanoi where they could provide intelligence and propaganda.
As for sarin gas, which was indeed in the U.S. arsenal, none ever got closer to Indochina than Okinawa. The need would have had to be overwhelming before the U.S. would even contemplate using such a weapon, as no one should know better than Peter Arnett. It was he, after all, who first exposed the use of tear gas in Vietnam in 1965; though the substance was hardly lethal, the fact that gas had been used at all created such a scandal that Arnett won a Pulitzer prize for his reporting, thus launching his way into press stardom.
Besides, if nerve gas had been used, everyone in the “village” on which it was sprayed, including the alleged defectors jumping into a “spider hole,” would have been dead, and so too would the Americans on the mission. Sarin is toxic through the skin, even more toxic if inhaled. U.S. military training manuals prescribe a wait of 32 days before an area contaminated by nerve gas can be safely occupied. Yet, according to Newsstand, sarin was employed as a prelude to the next morning’s assault. As one SOG veteran put it: “Had anybody tried to suggest such a harebrained tactical solution [as the use of nerve gas] for any of our missions, the SOG troopers I knew would have shot him, once they stopped laughing long enough to take aim.”
How, then, did such a harebrained story get on prime-time television and into the pages of Time?
The answer begins with the team that produced it, of which Jack Smith was the senior member and April Oliver decidedly the leader. The deceptive editing done in their cutting room constituted only the finishing touches to an entire unscrupulous process by which they put the piece together.
While secretly intending to make them out as war criminals, Smith and Oliver wormed their way into the living rooms of Tailwind veterans by promising at last to tell their heroic story. When, over and over again, the men failed to supply the answers required of them, the producers claimed to be in possession of documents or authoritative witnesses confirming their charges. Just as Admiral Moorer was told misleadingly that there were witnesses on tape attesting to the use of nerve gas during Tailwind, so subsequent interviewees were informed that no lesser a personage than Admiral Moorer himself, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, had confirmed this same “fact.” Even Van Buskirk and Hagen, the two flawed witnesses who were the only veterans of Tailwind to suggest that nerve gas had been used, have since said that they heard it first from Oliver.
But if the answer begins with Oliver and Smith, it hardly ends there. The two of them worked under the aegis of Richard Kaplan, a “prominent news showman” (in the words of the New Yorker) who had been hired away from ABC “in the hope of acquiring some of the stylishness and polish of the big broadcast networks.” When Kaplan decided to keep Perry Smith in the dark, for fear the story would leak to the Pentagon, what exactly was he afraid of? It seems unlikely he could have guessed the whole story would turn out to be fictitious. The probability is that he was worried lest contradictory information be brought to bear that would introduce ambiguity into Oliver and Smith’s showman-like clarity.
Here we come close to one heart of the matter. The transformation of the news business into show business, a tendency most pronounced on television but touching the print media as well, is by now a much remarked-upon phenomenon. Earlier this year, when scandals involving made-up stories or breaches of ethics rocked the New Republic, the Boston Globe, and the Cincinnati Inquirer, the explanation most frequently proffered was that journalists today labor under a new pressure: the quest for celebrity.
Ironically enough, this, too, is a legacy of the Vietnam war. For it was in the reporting of that war that the journalists who covered it replaced the soldiers who fought it as heroes of the American media. No one better symbolizes this process than the other major culprit in the Tailwind affair, Peter Arnett. And Arnett also embodies another large part of the answer to how this fiasco occurred: a reflexive adversarialism toward established American institutions, foremost among them the military.
About “Valley of Death,” Newsweek put the case bluntly: “The fact that no regular staffer at CNN challenged [Oliver's] overall thesis until after it was proved wrong says much about the casual (and usually false) assumption that the U.S. military routinely ordered atrocities in the Vietnam war.” Evidence that this assumption was at work at CNN can be found in another program that was broadcast during the previous year.
In September 1997, CNN viewers were introduced to SOG on Impact, a magazine-style precursor to Newsstand. That segment, too, was the fruit of collaboration between producer Oliver and narrator Arnett. It charged that SOG teams were armed with a (nonlethal) incapacitating gas. According to CNN, members of these teams, when captured, were deliberately killed in B-52 strikes to prevent them from falling into enemy hands.
In a sense, this show was even more sensational than the Tailwind story to come. If the alleged targeting of defectors is a scandal, how much more so is the targeting of our own men as they faithfully go about their missions? Yet CNN aired this story on prime time with nothing more to support it than a single source who claimed as his authority other, anonymous sources, plus a few of those suggestive but ambiguous snippets of sound that are April Oliver’s trademark.
If the casual assumption of American wrongdoing began in Vietnam, it hardly ended there, and it has hardly been limited to coverage of Vietnam itself. Thus, to confine ourselves to recent episodes on CNN, still another dubious report was broadcast in July 1997, produced and narrated by a wholly different team. It “exposed” a cover-up of wrongful deaths and ecological damage from the reckless burning of hazardous waste at a secret Air Force testing ground in Nevada. The fact that these charges had been thoroughly investigated by the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency—and found baseless—was not mentioned. The show provoked Perry Smith, who had been excluded from its preparation just as he would later be excluded from “Valley of Death,” to send Tom Johnson a note of protest calling it “yellow journalism at its worst.”
Then there is the post-Vietnam career of Peter Arnett himself. During Operation Desert Storm, he found further stardom when he became the one major U.S. correspondent whom the government of Iraq allowed to stay in Baghdad to report the war. When U.S. bombs destroyed a bunker resulting in civilian casualties, Arnett not only reported the event but went out of his way to contest the arguments of U.S. officials that the facility had been identified as a military command post. Similarly, when American air strikes demolished what U.S. intelligence had reported to be a biological-weapons facility, Arnett backed Baghdad’s (unlikely) claim that the site actually housed an infant-formula factory.
Bust just as it would be wrong to focus on one producer or one journalist, so it would be wrong to focus on one network. All the major culprits in the Tailwind episode had enjoyed successful careers at other news organizations before joining CNN: Arnett at AP, Oliver at PBS, Jack Smith at CBS, and Richard Kaplan and Pamela Hill at ABC. CNN’s fabricated tale was, moreover, less an aberration than an extreme case, the hypertrophic manifestation of tendencies and prejudices that pervade the world of American journalism, and have done so for decades.
The good news is that, within that same world, certain hopeful signs have lately emerged, one of them being the reaction to “Valley of Death” itself. By bringing in Floyd Abrams, CNN, prodded by skeptical analyses in Newsweek, on the Fox network, and elsewhere, did belatedly seek the truth. Following Abrams’s report, furthermore, CNN correspondents like Christiane Amanpour and Jamie Mclntyre vented bitter anger at Arnett, Oliver, and Smith for the disgrace that, by association, had spilled over onto them as well. Similar sentiments have been reported among the staff at Time. Even beyond the two news organizations directly involved, journalists seem well aware of the extent to which this episode has further damaged the collective credibility of the media in the eyes of a public already deeply suspicious of their objectivity and trustworthiness.
Whether anything will come of all this is another question. In venting his embarrassment after the Abrams report, Ted Turner declared that he “would take my shirt off and beat myself bloody,” or that he and his colleagues would “commit mass suicide,” if that would make up for what they had done. CNN has since embarked on a more practical course: offering cash settlements to those misrepresented on the program, so as to forestall lawsuits. In this way, the network may pay off the private debts it has incurred to the men it maligned.
But there will remain a public debt to the nation and its armed forces. CNN might begin to pay this debt by telling the true story of SOG and Tailwind, or some of the other heroic missions undertaken by the slandered American military in Vietnam. And why not let Floyd Abrams or some other objective outsider take a look at others of CNN’s dubious programs, and see how they stand up? Does the fact that it has not occurred to anyone in the media to ask for such an inquiry suggest, perhaps, where the real cover-up still lies?