Commentary Magazine

Operation Tailwind

To the Editor:

Joshua Muravchik’s article, “Nerve Gas, Lies, and Videotape” [September], professes to analyze the accuracy and impact of CNN’s “Valley of Death,” the report that I co-produced on Operation Tailwind during the Vietnam war. Mr. Muravchik cavalierly casts me and my fellow CNN producer, Jack Smith, as liars whose work lacks basic fairness, balance, and perspective. He himself, however, fails in this regard, ignoring the first tenet of journalism, which is to speak with a source you are writing about. Mr. Muravchik never contacted me or Jack Smith to allow us even the pretense of defending ourselves against the false charges.

In addition, Mr. Muravchik attacks our segment without having had access either to the thousands of pages of reporting or to the confidential sources that buttress it. Nor does he try to fill in the gaps. He simply echoes the line of the cursory report by Floyd Abrams and David Kohler, failing to note its superficialities or that Kohler, CNN’s general counsel, had cleared the “Valley of Death” Tailwind segment in the first place. It would seem obvious to any objective, disinterested analyst that the Abrams-Kohler “investigation,” conducted by a hired gun and a company executive, was meant to clear CNN corporate management of responsibility, hanging the lower-level producers out to dry.

Besides being tilted itself, Mr. Muravchik’s analysis contains numerous errors. Among them:

• Mr. Muravchik asserts that “Admiral [Thomas] Moorer, for example, flatly denied authorizing the use of sarin or possessing information of its use.” On the contrary, Admiral Moorer read the script and the Time magazine article before our show was aired and gave it his explicit approval. After the broadcast, he reaffirmed three times, in the presence of both Jack Smith and myself, that he was aware that sarin had been used in Tailwind. He gave the producers a written statement clarifying that he learned of sarin’s use after the mission, to underscore the point that it was not he who was personally responsible. Documents released by the Pentagon in July, however, prove that Admiral Moorer was regularly briefed on the progress of the Tailwind mission as it transpired. It should be noted that former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird told the Associated Press the week after the Tailwind broadcast that a small amount of sarin had indeed been shipped into the Vietnam theater in 1967.

Mr. Muravchik commits a flagrant error by relying on the following exchange in the Abrams-Kohler report. “Producer: ‘So you are aware sarin was used?’ Moorer: ‘I am not confirming for you it was used. You have told me that.’ ” What Mr. Muravchik fails to mention is that this exchange comes from my very first meeting with Admiral Moorer, prior to the oncamera interview Mr. Muravchik quotes earlier in the article, distorting its significance enormously. During that initial meeting, Admiral Moorer had not decided how much to cooperate with CNN, although even then it must be stressed that he never flatly denied the use of sarin. His hard confirmations came explicitly in the second, third, and fourth meetings.

• Contrary to Mr. Muravchik’s assertions, Admiral Moorer explicitly told CNN on-camera that the objective of Tailwind was to find American defectors. In fact, he was the first source to admit this to CNN On the record.

In his initial on-camera interview, Admiral Moorer said, “I think one of the missions [of Tailwind] probably was to locate these people, evaluate the scope of their activity, and who is supporting them.” He added that the objective was to locate the defectors but not necessarily to kill them. In the ensuing months of reporting, several sources asserted that Americans were not merely observed during Tailwind but killed, so we went back to Admiral Moorer. In an off-camera interview, he confirmed that defectors were indeed killed in Tailwind and that it was not the only mission of its kind. He justified Tailwind by saying that the group of defectors was so large that it would have risked too many American lives to try capturing them all.

• Despite Mr. Muravchik’s statements, Lieutenant Robert Van Buskirk, a member of the Special Forces’ “Studies and Observations Group” (SOG) and one of our on-camera sources, never said the words “repressed memory” to CNN producers. Newsweek reporter Evan Thomas has freely admitted that it was he who used those words, not Van Buskirk.

Starting with the first cold call from CNN, Van Buskirk repeated his account of killing a Caucasian in a village base camp during Tailwind. Under further inquiry, he revealed that the Caucasian was an American, not a Russian. He made this admission only after we had found four other reconnaissance personnel who told us they were sent into the area to scout for Americans.

Van Buskirk claims that in his original after-action report he wrote that he had killed an American, but that his colonel, Dan Shungle, destroyed that report, and told him to say the man was a Russian. It was common practice for the paper trail on these secret missions to be thoroughly sterilized so that the U.S. government would not later face any potential embarrassment Even these soldiers’ Silver Star citations say that the action took place in South Vietnam, not Laos.

Much has been made of Van Buskirk’s character. For the record, Van Buskirk is an ordained Baptist minister who spends time as a volunteer preaching to inmates. He never tried to hide his earlier incarceration in Germany, for which all charges were dropped.

• Mr. Muravchik claims that it is a “fact” that SOG reconnaissance man Jay Graves was never on the Tailwind mission. But we checked Graves’s presence on Tailwind with another SOG “recon” team leader, who placed him there. In addition, Graves gave CNN four hours of off-camera testimony and then another two hours of on-camera testimony, explicitly describing nearly every aspect of the Tailwind mission.

As with so many of our sources, Graves came under severe pressure after the broadcast for breaking his secrecy oath about this sensitive mission. He even received a death threat. He has now retreated into “plausible deniability.”

  • Mr. Muravchik also naively states that Tailwind veteran Jim Cathey could not have been on the mission because he was not a member of SOG. CNN’s report states not that Cathey was in SOG but, as his records show, in the Air Force. Mr. Muravchik fails to explain that Tailwind was not a SOG mission but a combined mission of the Army, Air Force, and Marines. In addition, none of the veterans’ service records suggests they were in Laos at the time, since the U.S. did not admit to fighting a war there.
  • Mr. Muravchik appears not to have done his scientific homework. He flatly declares that “[s]arin is toxic through the skin” and implies that it kills anyone who comes into contact with it. Contrary to much of the disinformation about sarin, however, it is not deadly through the skin at temperatures in Laos. Gas masks like those the SOG team was equipped with are all that is needed for protection. Sarin is also a nonpersistent gas, and can evaporate very quickly, leaving no trace. Mr. Muravchik appears to have mixed sarin up with the deadlier and more persistent nerve agent, VX.
  • According to Mr. Muravchik, Jack Smith and I

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.

In fact, CNN has publicly confirmed the existence of the tape and transcript of this source, who was not in SOG but in another elite unit. The interview was conducted and produced not by Jack Smith and me but by a senior CNN investigative reporter and another producer. They spent hours with the source and have confirmed various elements of his story.

These and many other serious errors in Mr. Muravchik’s article might not have been made had he researched the subject more carefully. Perhaps his unprofessional and one-sided disquisition will endear him to his military and ex-CIA sources. But it serves ultimately to expose his own gaps as a journalist.

Since the broadcast in June, attackers like Mr. Muravchik have sought to cast me as a Left-leaning producer driven by ideology to attack the military. Allow me to state that my one experience in politics was as a personal assistant to Lee Atwater during the Reagan-Bush campaign. I have worked for fifteen years in broadcasting, primarily at PBS and CNN, and have won some of broadcast journalism’s highest awards, but have never been involved in a high-profile controversy. My extensive writings as a print journalist have been mostly about the birth of democracy and human rights in developing countries. I have never fabricated stories, or lied to obtain information, and am shocked to be accused of such things. I feel strongly that the Vietnam veterans I met during our research are extraordinarily brave, and fought courageously to defend America’s freedoms. But the pursuit of truth is also a patriotic undertaking. I am still certain that in America the truth in its fullness will eventually and always be told.

April Oliver
Washington, D.C.



To the Editor:

Congratulations on the very thoughtful and well-researched article on the CNN nerve-gas story. Joshua Muravchik catches some absolutely fundamental points. The “Valley of Death” special report was not just sloppy journalism; it was much more egregious than that. Moreover, this was the third in a series of strongly biased, dishonest CNN reports on the military. CNN has a lot of work to do if it ever expects to regain a cordial and trusting relationship with the military.

The following is from a letter I sent to Tom Johnson, the CEO of CNN, six days after the “Valley of Death” special was aired and one day before I resigned from the network, having been its military analyst since 1991. It reflects my concerns then and my concerns today:

I think it is important to remind you, Tom, that there were two very special types of Air Force personnel in Southeast Asia. Their primary mission was to save lives of downed crewmen or of infiltration teams in great distress. They often took very great risks; many were shot down and killed. These two groups were the A-1 Sandies and Spads and the Jolly Greens. The only time I wept with joy during my 180 combat missions was the moment that the Jollies and the Sandies rescued my leader who was shot down and badly wounded over Laos. The sergeant who went down on the jungle penetrator to recover him almost dropped him on the way back up—he was so slippery since he was soaked in blood.

. . . CNN has accused the most heroic of the heroic of using lethal gas to kill fellow Americans. The only analogy I can think of would be if CNN accused two Medal of Honor winners of extreme cowardice—it is that bad, Tom.

The most admired man in America [Colin Powell] has told you in strong terms how he feels. . . . Norman Schwarzkopf, [General Andrew] Goodpaster, and many other distinguished Americans have given me a similar message—the story is wrong in all dimensions. . . . I am hearing from many people both within and without CNN the word “shameful” when people express their outrage about this shabby work.

Watching a great organization self-destruct is sad indeed. It is not too late to turn this whole situation around but time is running out fast.

This past August the Special Forces Association declared its official position on this matter, and I fully endorse it. First, a total retraction of the “Valley of Death” story must be made by both CNN and Time. They must state categorically that “No American defectors were targeted, no women and children were killed, and nerve gas was not used.” Second, both CNN President Richard Kaplan and CNN correspondent Peter Arnett must be dismissed from employment by Time Warner. Finally, equal air time must be provided by CNN to clear the Special Forces’ name and all persons involved in the operation.

Perry M. Smith
Major General
U.S. Army (retired)
Augusta, Georgia



To the Editor:

It is heartening to discover that voices in the media are finally delving into the details of the deception that took place in the construction of the CNN-Time “Valley of Death” story. Joshua Muravchik correctly states that “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 story.” It goes further than that, however.

April Oliver initially contacted me for an interview for the September 1997 Impact segment that Mr. Muravchik mentions. She indicated that she was going through John Plaster’s recent book, SOG: The Secret Wars of America’s Commandos in Vietnam, and had been encouraged by Mr. Plaster to read my book, Hazardous Duty: An American Soldier in the Twentieth Century, to gain additional background. I was led to believe that her intent was to tell the American people about the extraordinary role that the men of SOG played in the Vietnam war. The members of SOG were all volunteers who underwent intensive extra training, endured great sacrifices and suffering, and undertook great risks. In the interest of finally being able to tell their heroic story, I agreed to be interviewed by Miss Oliver and encouraged other SOG veterans to cooperate as well.

The resulting shows on CNN’s Impact and News-stand were a shocking betrayal of what had been April Oliver’s stated intent. Mr. Muravchik correctly points out that such a debacle is the result of the media’s seeking celebrity through sensationalism. What is appalling is how casually and cavalierly some members of the press are capable of maligning true heroes in the pursuit of casting themselves in that role.

Mr. Muravchik states that the press has become reflexively adversarial toward American institutions, particularly the U.S. military. But an adversarial system implies an informed presentation of all available information so that citizens can make intelligent judgments about the leadership of their country. A truer description of the press in this instance is that it became prosecutorial, projecting a distorted, maliciously false view while ignoring or maligning all contrary evidence no matter how valid or overwhelming.

CNN’s retraction and Ted Turner’s dramatic exercise in self-pity couched as an apology, do not go nearly far enough in remedying the situation. “Valley of Death” portrayed true heroes as craven war criminals. What is needed is for the true SOG story to be told.

John K. Singlaub
Major General
U.S. Army (retired)
Arlington, Virginia



To the Editor:

“Nerve Gas, Lies, and Videotape” should be required reading for all those professing to be news reporters or commentators. It clearly shows the level to which a supposedly reputable news service can stoop in order to gain an audience, truth being a secondary consideration.

Of particular interest to me was Mr. Muravchik’s mention of a September 1997 segment on CNN’s Impact that, like “Valley of Death,” was narrated by Peter Arnett. This “expose” charged that if SOG teams were captured, they were deliberately killed in B-52 strikes to keep them from falling into enemy hands. In fact, SOG and its supporting air elements frequently—and sometimes at the cost of lives—used all their resources to recover teams that were in contact with the enemy or in danger of being overrun. SOG teams were occasionally used in Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA), which involved inserting them into areas recently bombed by B-52’s. Arnett, or his writers, saw fit to twist this to imply that the teams themselves were the targets of these strikes.

As one who was privileged to command SOG for two years during the Vietnam war, I would hope that CNN would profit by its mistakes and focus its efforts on portraying the heroism and dedication of our people in uniform instead of attempting to reflect discredit upon them. CNN acted properly in firing many of those responsible for the nerve-gas story but fell short by retaining Peter Arnett. He should at least publicly apologize to the members of SOG whom he so readily maligned and to those members of the media who seek to do their jobs honestly and without bias.

Stephen E. Cavanaugh
Colonel, U.S. Army (retired)
San Diego, California



To the Editor:

The Special Forces Association is extremely appreciative of the excellent article by Joshua Muravchik. Having conducted our own investigation of “Valley of Death,” we have hard evidence to support Mr. Muravchik’s conclusion that the CNN program was a lie. For example, we have the verbatim debriefing report from Operation Tailwind, a declassified top-secret report on the mission, and statements from the Cobra gunship pilots, the A-1 Sky Raider pilots, CH-53 Sky Stallion helicopter pilots, a dozen members of Tailwind itself, Admiral Moorer, General Singlaub, Jay Graves, Robert Van Buskirk, and many others.

With respect to CNN’s handling of “Valley of Death,” we believe that the primary reason the network hired Floyd Abrams was not to investigate the flawed reporting but to soften the liability of CNN-Time for presenting such a lie. By emphasizing that the reporters truly believed what they were writing, Mr. Abrams’s report sounds like a defense against libel. This strategy will be tested in court, since three lawsuits have already been initiated by Tailwind participants and several more will follow in the near future.

We thank COMMENTARY and Mr. Muravchik for giving the American people an excellent example of objective reporting.

Jimmy Dean
Special Forces Association
Fayetteville, North Carolina



To the Editor:

In analyzing the Tailwind fiasco in his meticulous “Nerve Gas, Lies, and Videotape,” Joshua Muravchik touches upon an equally significant theme: “a reflexive adversarialism toward established American institutions, foremost among them the military.” He is unquestionably right, and right again in concluding that “There will remain a public debt to the nation and its armed forces.”

During almost four years as U.S. ambassador to Hungary, I learned that America’s best-kept secret is the quality and patriotism of its military. Whether advising a new generation of former Warsaw Pact political and military leaders or managing in spectacular fashion the largest transfer of U.S. forces in Europe since 1945, our military personnel were consistently intelligent, patriotic, highly professional, and fully observant of the paramount principle of civilian control. I always found their attitude, dedication, and performance wholly admirable. The American public, including our journalists, owe our armed forces respect and appreciation.

Donald Blinken
New York City



Joshua Muravchik writes:

April Oliver is herself mistaken about the “tenets” of journalism. In an article of the kind I was preparing, in which I was not reporting allegations about her but comparing something she had written with discoverable facts, I was under no more obligation to interview her than I would have been to interview Oliver Stone in a review of his movie, JFK. The only source commenting on her work (as distinct from furnishing facts about events) that I invoked was CNN’s Abrams report, which I used only for out-takes from interviews Miss Oliver had conducted that illustrated how she had cut and pasted the video to misrepresent her interviewees. I note that she does not challenge the accuracy of any of the transcripts contained in the Abrams report.

Far from not getting April Oliver’s side of the story, I was up to my ears in it. I had on hand transcripts of her various appearances on television talk shows after the controversy had broken, her article in the Washington Post’s “Outlook” section, and the 80-page rebuttal to the Abrams report that she and Jack Smith had written. I also listened to the press conference at which they presented their rebuttal. None of this material began to explain why statements made by people she had interviewed that directly contradicted the construction the broadcast put on them were left on the cutting-room floor.

The canons of journalism exist for a reason. Since facts are often disputed or difficult to come by, there have to be accepted standards for verifying them. How do I know that something is true? And if I believe something is true, what kind of evidence need I present to demonstrate it? Miss Oliver does not seem to grasp these questions.

Take, for example, the explanation she has offered for the fact that she and Jack Smith now stand virtually alone in defending “Valley of Death.” Her version is that CNN broadcast, and Time published, a perfectly solid exposé of crimes committed by the U.S. military in Vietnam. Then, however, these news organizations felt so intimidated by pressure from the military community that each mendaciously decided to repudiate its story, besmirch its own reputation, and even (in the case of CNN) enter into out-of-court libel settlements with the soldiers named in the broadcast. If this tale of manipulation of the news media by the military-industrial complex were true, it would be a scandal even bigger than the one Miss Oliver claims to have exposed in her broadcast.

Or consider her argument that I have no standing to criticize her story because I do not have access to her “confidential sources.” Ah, well, there’s a foolproof defense. But Floyd Abrams did have access to these individuals, and he found that they did not convincingly sustain her tale. At their press conference, Oliver and Smith were asked whether, now that their careers and reputations were at stake, they had appealed to these confidential sources to come forward. They said they had not. Indeed, they acted as if the idea had never occurred to them.

This same inability to understand standards of proof reappears in myriad specifics. Miss Oliver tells us that Admiral Moorer repeatedly affirmed to her and Smith the accuracy of their report. Why then has he denied it to everyone else, and why has CNN paid him a settlement of $200,000? She says that Moorer confirmed the killing of defectors off-camera; if so, why could she not get him to say it on-camera? Now she claims that Moorer also confirmed on-camera that Tailwind’s mission was to find defectors; if so, why did she not show it? On the program, he said only that “I’m sure there were some defectors. There are always defectors.” Now she says that Moorer offered “hard confirmations” of the use of sarin in three different interviews; if so, why could she not get a single one on-camera? The sole oblique confirmation that she put on the air was in response to what Moorer later called a trick question.

Now Miss Oliver asserts that she checked Jay Graves’s participation in Tailwind with “another SOG ‘recon’ team leader,” but—and here comes another anonymous source—she does not name this leader. So why is it that the Tailwind veterans with whom everyone else has spoken are unanimous in denying Graves’s participation? Graves himself has also denied it—in a signed statement.

As for the tape of the new witness who reportedly killed American defectors with nerve gas at locations around Cambodia, CNN spokesmen, who agree that such a tape exists, point out (as Miss Oliver does not) that the image on the film is pixilated so as to hide the identity of this individual. Yet another conveniently unverifiable witness. Miss Oliver would have us believe that in its terror of the military-industrial complex, CNN is repressing this blockbuster, but of course she is free (and motivated, one would think, now that she is at sword’s point with CNN) to take the story to another news organization. So far, none has broken it.

A word about Lieutenant Van Buskirk. In light of his own testimony about his imprisonment, his heavy drinking, and his long-term treatment with “mind-bending drugs,” plus the fact that his story has changed, no journalists other than the Oliver-Smith-Arnett team have treated him as a credible witness.

Miss Oliver has made much of the fact that it was not Van Buskirk himself but a reporter who applied the term “repressed memory” to his recollections of killing a Caucasian during Tailwind. But if the term is in dispute, the essential facts are not. Van Buskirk has made clear to various journalists that, call it what you will, he lost the recollection of these events for 24 years until he spoke to April Oliver, at which point he first said that the Caucasian was a Russian and only later that he was an American.

In her present letter, Miss Oliver makes an interesting inadvertent admission. She says that Van Buskirk “admi[tted]” that his purported victim was an American “only . . . after we [i.e., Oliver and Smith] had found four other reconnaissance personnel who told us they were sent into the area to scout for Americans.” Aside from the fact that four more anonymous sources have suddenly turned up, this tells us that it was Miss Oliver who gave Van Buskirk the idea that his victim was an American.

Her other points are not worth dwelling on, but they are all wrong. Sarin is of course lethal through the skin, depending on the quantity used. Apart from his pal and neighbor Van Buskirk, nobody involved in Tailwind believes that Jim Cathey was there, and his story of how he got there is preposterous. Whatever AP report Miss Oliver is alluding to, Melvin Laird and all other relevant past and present military officials deny that sarin was ever used in Vietnam. And so on.

Finally, I did not attribute Miss Oliver’s Tailwind concoction to ideological motives; I assumed that the motive was blind ambition. Perhaps she did work for Lee Atwater in her tender years—the man is not here to tell us. But when she boasts of her “extensive writings,” she conveniently omits one detail that casts her in a different light. Nearly all these writings have appeared in magazines with a distinct political valence, ranging from the liberal National Catholic Reporter to the leftist In These Times and the Nation. Thus, even in describing her own ideological affinities, April Oliver has once again, so to speak, left something on the cutting-room floor.

I am grateful to General Smith, General Singlaub, Colonel Cavanaugh, Jimmy Dean, and Ambassador Blinken for writing and for their kind words.


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