Report on CNN Broadcast
The following is the complete text of attorney Floyd Abrams' report on his independent investigation of CNN's broadcast "Valley of Death."
"VALLEY OF DEATH"
We have completed our review of the broadcast "VALLEY OF DEATH" and submit this report to summarize our conclusions. In the course of our review, we have had access to the information relied upon by the CNN journalists in their preparation of the broadcast, including certain information about confidential sources that will not (in order to continue to protect their confidentiality) be set forth in detail in this document. Where we considered it appropriate to do so, we have ourselves interviewed sources of information used in preparing the broadcast and have consulted with present and former military and other government officials. We have reviewed published criticisms of the broadcast and have had the benefit of post-broadcast interviews conducted by Time Magazine personnel. We have also utilized the services of independent investigators retained by us.
Our central conclusion is that although the broadcast was prepared after exhaustive research, was rooted in considerable supportive data, and reflected the deeply held beliefs of the CNN journalists who prepared it, the central thesis of the broadcast could not be sustained at the time of the broadcast itself and cannot be sustained now. CNN's conclusion that United States troops used nerve gas during the Vietnamese conflict on a mission in Laos designed to kill American defectors is insupportable.
CNN should retract the story and apologize.
Over the past nine months, CNN has broadcast three reports on the activities of SOG the Studies and Observations Group an elite commando unit of the Army's Special Forces. The first report, a segment on CNN's Impact on September 14, 1997, entitled "The Secret Warriors," described general SOG activities in Southeast Asia from 1968 to 1970. A second segment, entitled "Valley of Death," was part of the inaugural broadcast of NewsStand: CNN & Time on June 7, 1998. It described a SOG mission called Operation Tailwind in which American troops engaged in the Vietnamese conflict entered Laos from September 11 to September 14, 1970. A third broadcast, aired on June 14, 1998, updated the earlier segment. This report focuses on CNN's depiction of Operation Tailwind and the conclusions about that mission that CNN offered during its June 7, 1998 report.
In that respect, we start with our assessment of the good faith of the journalistic effort involved here. After interviewing the journalists, reviewing their notes and outtakes and considering all criticism voiced of the program, we are persuaded beyond doubt that the report was rooted in extensive research done over an eight-month period and reflects the honestly held conclusions of CNN's journalists.
The broadcast reported on a secret American military mission in 1970 in Laos (a nation neither the United States nor its enemies acknowledged sending troops into). It dealt with two matters that are, by their very nature, of the highest level of confidentiality the possible use of nerve gas by the United States despite repeated statements by American presidents that this country has never used that agent and possible efforts by Americans to kill other Americans who had defected to the enemy. Both charges, whether or not true, are incendiary. Men engaging in such activities, even under orders, would be unlikely to disclose them. When those same people have been trained to participate in "black" operations and to conceal those operations long after they were concluded, the process of newsgathering about them is all the more difficult.
While we offer considerable criticism in this report of CNN's newsgathering for this broadcast, we do not believe it can reasonably be suggested that any of the information on which the broadcast was based was fabricated or nonexistent. Contemporaneous notes made by the principal producer, April Oliver, are not only consistent with typed notes that she prepared immediately after her interviews, but in almost all cases with the later recollections of the individuals interviewed. The accuracy of the notes is strongly supported, as well, by the fact that they contain many passages which suggest less than complete or definitive confirmation of the broadcast by its sources and much inconsistent information. We rely upon many of those passages as a basis for our criticism of the broadcast.
Some of the people who were interviewed for the program and with whom we spoke were disturbed at the conclusions reached in the CNN broadcast. Others were critical of CNN for presenting views consistent with its own conclusions and neglecting or minimizing contrasting views. As will be seen, we believe much of that criticism has considerable validity.
But we have found no credible evidence at all of any falsification of an intentional nature at any point in the journalistic process. The CNN journalists involved in this project believed in every word they wrote. If anything, the serious flaws in the broadcast that we identify in this report may stem from the depths of those beliefs and the degree to which the journalists discounted contrary information they received precisely because they were so firmly persuaded that what they were broadcasting was true.
THE PILLARS OF THE BROADCAST
Since this report is highly critical of the reporting on Operation Tailwind, it may be useful to set forth at the outset precisely what information CNN news management understood supported the underlying conclusions of the broadcast. This information was collected in an approximately 150 page briefing book summarizing for senior news management the research and prepared by the unit responsible for the report. Five pillars of the broadcast were said to support it. We turn separately to each.
1. Central to the broadcast was the validation offered by Admiral Thomas Moorer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1970. On camera, he had responded to questions with answers such as this:
Q: So isn't it fair to say in light of all this . . . that Tailwind proved that CBU-15, GB, (Throughout this report, sarin gas is also sometimes referred to as CBU-15 and GB.) is an effective weapon?
A: Yes, I think, but I think that was already known.
In other on and off camera statements, he was understood to have made a number of statements supporting the proposition that sarin was used in Tailwind. He was also reported to have read the entire text of the broadcast before June 7th and with the exception of a single word confirmed its truth.
2. There were three highly placed confidential sources that were understood to have confirmed both the use of sarin gas and that defectors were targeted in Operation Tailwind. One, particularly knowledgeable about chemical weaponry, was intimately familiar with nerve agents. Another was a senior intelligence source with access to records of Operation Tailwind. A third was a former high ranking officer intimately familiar with SOG. All were said to have validated the conclusions of the broadcast. Two of the three, news management was told, had reviewed the text of the broadcast before it was shown and approved it.
3. There were participants in Tailwind itself, Robert Van Buskirk, Mike Hagen, Jimmy Lucas, Craig Schmidt, Jay Graves, James Cathey, and Ike Isola.
Set forth below is a brief summary provided of each:
Robert Van Buskirk. He said he called in the gas which he described off camera as "lethal war gas." On camera he described the gas as "sleeping gas . . . [which] was a slang for nerve gas. In other words, when you got hit with sleeping gas, you were going to sleep forever." Van Buskirk also recalled an Air Force Colonel telling him before the mission, "[b]e sure you take your gas masks. This stuff can really hurt you. It can kill you." He described the effects of the gas on himself ("[q]uickly, I'm throwing up. I'm unable to breathe,") and on the enemy ("I looked down [from the helicopter] into this valley. All I see is bodies. They are not fighting anymore. They are no longer combatants").
Regarding defectors, Van Buskirk described on camera killing two individuals he believed were Americans:
Early 20s. Blonde hair. Looks like he is running off a beach in California. Needs a haircut. This is a GI. Boots on. Not a prisoner. No shackles. No chains. Nothing.
He described them going into a hole and throwing a grenade in after they refused to come out. He also recalled Montagnard fighters reporting to him "beaucoup round-eyes, many in the hootches." More broadly, Van Buskirk explained, "It was pretty well understood that if you came across a defector . . . do it under any circumstance, kill them. It wasn't about bringing them back. It was to kill them."
Mike Hagen. He described the gas used to extract the Tailwind commandos:
Nerve gas. The government don't want it called that. They want to call it incapacitating agent. Or some other form. But it was nerve gas.
He also described the enemy's symptoms:
They had thrown up. They were in convulsions on the ground. I don't think too many of 'em got up and walked away.
Hagen says that those running the mission "made a point that we took our gas masks." He also says he "started going into convulsions," and that the gas was "tasteless, odorless, you could barely see it. . .," properties experts said were consistent with sarin, not tear gas.
Jimmy Lucas. On camera, he said, "There were rumors that there was gas, sleeping gas, stored at NKP." He also recalls the Montagnards being trained to use their gas masks and "it was unusual for the Montagnards or us to carry gas masks." He states, "It was mentioned [but not in the briefing or debriefing] that gas was used on extraction, but I don't know what kind of gas."
Craig Schmidt. Off camera, Schmidt described the use of "sleeping gas" and said it is the same thing as "GB". He said the gas used in Tailwind "probably was nerve gas" and that "oh no" it was not CS or CN which is still "easy to work in." He said, "I guarantee you it was not pepper spray. Van Buskirk is your best source." The gas was "sticky, wet" with no distinct color, properties understood to be consistent with sarin gas. It worked immediately with "profusion from eyes, nose, everything got sticky." They were not in the direct path of the gas. He also saw vomiting, not convulsions, but was at the front of the group. He said there was a "huge" emphasis on the gas preparation before they went out. Van Buskirk was the "key guy" and was "coordinating all the air support."
Schmidt also said that defectors were always a SOG target.
Jay Graves. Graves was a recon team leader in Operation Tailwind. He heard about the use of "sleeping gas" in Tailwind and later learned sleeping gas was "GB". He stated "well I heard they said it was real effective, you know, they just went in, people just went down, it was real good." He discussed the gas in these terms:
Q: Yeah, tell me that, what was the call sign for the sleeping gas used on Tailwind?
A: GB or GU, GB -- wasn't it? GB . . .GB. It was GB. Like I told everybody, GB, they we started out calling it knockout gas, and then it was GB, and then they changed it to something else ... which I can understand why they was doing it now.
Q: Why were they doing it?
A: Because they were using nerve gas in that shit and not telling anybody about it.
As to the defectors, Graves says "we saw some round-eyed people. We don't know whether they're prisoners or whatever, but they was in the bamboo the way they used to move you, so if you took off running, you couldn't run with that." He says members of his team took pictures of this, and they "guessed" there were 14 to 20 round-eyes in the camp.
Jim Cathey. Cathey claimed to have been on the ground during Tailwind directing close air support. In a total of four interviews (three off camera and one on camera) he confirmed the presence of what he believed were American defectors in the camp, but said these men also could have been Russians. He believed they were Americans because there were too many of them (10-15) to be just Russians. He was approximately two miles from the village observing through field binoculars. On camera Cathey said:
"I believe that there were American defectors in that group of people in that village because there was no sign of any kind of restraint. In retrospect, I believe that mission was to wipe out those longshadows."
Ike Isola. Isola was on a Tailwind recon team and remembers Jay Graves being there as well. Isola said he had heard there were Americans in the camp and saw pictures of them. He was informed they were POWs, and the pictures showed them tied in rope in flight coveralls.
4. A number of SOG veterans and A-1 pilots offered additional, ancillary support for nerve gas use. Comments included hearing of "sleeping gas, GB;" "GB. That was it . . . The explosive bowels, vomiting, passout gas;" and pilots stating they carried GB or CBU-15 on Search and Rescue missions.
5. Finally, experts were said to support the broadcast. They explained that the symptoms caused by and the properties of the gas as observed by some of the Tailwind veterans appeared consistent with sarin, not tear gas.
The above information was cited as supporting the two conclusions of the broadcast. Some of it did. But, as will be seen, when one reviews, in their entirety, the underlying transcripts, outtakes, notes, and other available information, much of the most important data said to support the broadcast offers far less support than had been suspected.
OUR ASSESSMENT OF THE BROADCAST
We turn next, and in the same order, to our own assessment of the sources relied upon by CNN.
1. Admiral Moorer
We start with Admiral Thomas Moorer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from July 1970 to July 1974. Unlike other former senior military or other officials relied upon by CNN, Admiral Moorer's statements were on the record and may be publicly compared to the use made of them in the broadcast. All quotations in this section of this report are either from the outtakes of the broadcast or the detailed notes taken by the producer of her off camera interviews.
We begin with Admiral Moorer, as well, because he is the single most quoted and shown senior officer on the broadcast. Admiral Moorer appears and is quoted frequently on the broadcast in support of both conclusions asserted as to the use of nerve gas and the effort to kill American defectors. He is first shown saying that he "would be willing to use any weapon and any tactic to save the lives of American soldiers." Arnett then states that Moorer "confirmed that nerve gas was used in Tailwind," followed by the following exchange:
Q. So CBU-15 was a top secret weapon?
A. When it was, it should have been. Put it that way.
Q. What's your understanding of how often it was applied during this war?
A. Well I don't have any figures to tell you how many times. I never made a point of counting that up. I'm sure you can find out from those that have used them.
Q. So isn't it fair to say that Tailwind proved that CBU-15, GB, is an effective weapon?
A. Yes, I think, but I think that was already known. Otherwise it would never have been manufactured.
After an interview with James Cathey, a former Air Force resupply master Sergeant on Tailwind, who said that he had spotted 10-15 Caucasians in the Laotian village who appeared to include American defectors, Moorer is shown saying that "I'm sure there were some defectors . . . There are always defectors." Admiral Moorer is then said by Arnett to have acknowledged that Tailwind's "target was indeed defectors" and to have indicated that "scores of U.S. military had defected during the war." At a later point in the broadcast, Admiral Moorer is said to have "told CNN that GB, sarin nerve gas, was, quote 'by and large available' for many other rescue attempts" and to have told CNN that "this is a much bigger operation than you realize."
Finally, as the broadcast is about to end, Moorer is paraphrased as saying that the "Nixon White House national security team had to approve nerve gas use," that the CIA had partial responsibility for Tailwind and that he is "speaking out now because of his respect for history."
Viewing the broadcast as a whole, Admiral Moorer thus appears as the most consistent and visible supporter of both the nerve gas and defector themes. Given his position as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1970, when Operation Tailwind was undertaken, his personal imprimatur to the broadcast's positions is of central importance.
Admiral Moorer will be 87 next month. He lives in an assisted-care retirement home. He was interviewed on four occasions for a total of over seven hours. Though a review of the outtakes of the broadcast demonstrates that his memory remains satisfactory, his responses are often cast in hypothetical terms. CNN itself ceased calling on Admiral Moorer to appear to comment on ongoing issues in the early 1990s, and CNN's Pentagon correspondent raised this credibility issue before the broadcast. Other reporters we interviewed who cover the Defense Department have also declined to rely upon him as a source for the past several years.
Given the position held by Admiral Moorer in 1970, we might be prepared to discount concerns about his age to some extent if he had been the powerful advocate for the program's central thesis that it repeatedly suggests. He was not. Viewed as a whole, Admiral Moorer simply does not come close to offering the sort of support for the conclusions offered by CNN that the program asserts that he does.
The first time Admiral Moorer was asked about Operation Tailwind in his interview, a lengthy exchange occurred which we quote in full because it is illustrative of their exchanges both the questions asked and answers provided thereafter. Particularly relevant passages are underscored.
Q. Well, let me ask you, I mean, because the mission we're most interested in is an operation a few months prior to that, and it was called Operation Tailwind. Now, you are familiar with this mission?
A. In general, but I mostly you are now talking about an operation conducted by the CIA. It was not unlike the Bay of Pigs situation, which was also conducted by the CIA, planned and conducted by the CIA. And the operation in Laos by the CIA -- they had aircraft and so on, operating primarily out of Cambodia, and in Laos too. Now, generally they did not refer their specific tactical plans to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Generally we would know about the plan, but at the same time, it's the responsibility of the CIA to notify the White House about everything they do. And as a matter of fact, they are required to brief the President every day, 365 days a year, whether there's a war going on or not.
Q. So it's correct to cast Tailwind as a White House CIA operation?
A. Well, I don't think that let me put it this way, I don't think that this White House necessarily instigated it, or planned that. But I think that they would have been aware of it, if the CIA was discharging their responsibilities. You know, sometimes you can say, "Well, I wasn't told about this," which this can be true. But you have an operation like that is, you've got to realize how different it is from straightforward military operations, where the chain of command is absolutely clear, pop, pop, pop, right on down. And the CIA operates as a sub rosa characteristic that are different from a military operation.
Q. Well, why was this mission so special, and why were some I mean, you yourself used the word Bay of Pigs. That has a very strong resonance with the American people of a mission that went terribly awry. Why was this mission so different? What was at stake here? And did it go awry?
A. Well, you've got to go back to the beginning. In this case, and of course to a degree in case of the Bay of Pigs, Mr. Johnson said several things when he was President. He said, "We seek no greater war." So, you see, what he was trying to do was dispel all the idea advanced by the media that this was going to generate the domino theory, and so we were going to capture Vietnam and then Laos, and then Thailand, and then Indonesia and so on. And so for that reason any kind of an operation that had connotations of disputing what the President had said, the same thing (obtained?) with he said, "We will not cross the DMZ." And we didn't.
Q. We weren't the US was not supposed to be in Laos?
A. Yeah. The US was not going to capture Laos. And but nevertheless the North Vietnamese didn't have any concern about what they did to Laos, and so they were using it as, you might say, a tool of strength for their infiltration, which was what it was all about, it was subduing South Vietnam; that's what the Vietnam War was all about.
Q. Okay, so what was the mission in Tailwind? You're generally aware of it, but not responsible for it, but if you're generally aware of it, you had to have been had a sense of what the mission was. What was the point? I mean, this is the largest incursion by the United States into Laos, that is I mean, I know it's not large by conventional forces go, but by non-conventional forces, it was a company sized operation supported by as many as 80 aircraft. That is big. And suppose you know, in this sort of neutral territory here, I mean, what was the mission, what was its
A. Well, the fundamental mission, of course, was to deny it to the North Vietnamese, this utilization of Laos for their infiltration. I mean, you've still got to come back to what the ultimate mission was, was to get the North Vietnamese out of South Vietnam and get the help the South Vietnamese develop their independence. And so as long as the North Vietnamese had access to Laos, and the Laotian government didn't have the capability, I don't think, to put a stop to it, and there may have been all kind of underwater deals, you know how they do things down there. So the purpose of any operation such as the one you mentioned was to, in effect, get the Laotian government and get the all of the factors involved united to deny Laos to the North Vietnamese is what it amounted to.
And associated with that, of course, to -- you've got as a matter of intelligence, well you could get the Laotians, the -- (inaudible) -- to count the trucks as they're coming down the trail and all kinds of things like that. So it was a matter of getting information, a matter of putting a stop to the North Vietnamese access to Laos touse for such operations as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Q. Okay. So but back to Tailwind. Someone has actually told me that President Nixon actually named Tailwind as the mission, that Nixon was a great big sailor, and that he personally took a very great interest in things that went on inside Laos, and that he gave the name to the mission. Is that possible, do you think, or have you ever heard that before?
A. Well, I'd say it in this way, since I don't have the slightest idea, but he is either telling the truth or lying. You take your pick. I mean, I can't help you on that one.
When asked if there was anything historically significant about Operation Tailwind, Admiral Moorer then responded that he did not think that it was "historically significant." When asked directly about the use of sarin gas on Operation Tailwind, the exchange was as follows:
Q. Now, of course, the reason we're interested in Tailwind is that we've been told by a lot of people now that it was the first time that the US whether it was the CIA or the Air Force or the SOG guys I'm not entirely clear but it was the first time that the US ever used what's known as a lethal nerve gas in combat. Are you how much awareness do you have of this?
A. None. And what you should do, when you make a statement like that, is get you said you've been told by people, so get all those people in front of this camera
Q. We have.
A. and let them tell you that that was the case.
Q. We have gotten that
A. But I don't have the information to confirm what they said.
Q. However, it would not surprise you?
A. Well, I would expect them to use whatever was necessary to achieve their mission in an emergency.
As the interview progressed, the following exchange occurred:
Q. And, if, as I believe I can prove, CBU-15 [sarin gas] was used in Tailwind, what would be the next step? I mean, would CBU-15 be used again?
A. Well, that's more of a political decision than it is a military decision. All these weapons are in our system. Every release of a weapon of that nature has to come from the commander-in-chief. And no field commander is going to smuggle a few of these new terrible weapons out and say, I'm going to run out here and try them on these guys and see how they work.
The following exchange then transpired:
Q. Okay, but back to CBU-15, I mean, our understanding you've said earlier that you would not deny any American soldier any weapon that could save his life. I mean, any weapon that protected American forces you support and would make available to them in theater. Now, obviously one of the things, one of the pieces of this puzzle here is, okay, we know all these weapons were in Okinawa, and we've been told that this particular weapon was stored at NKP, the Special Forces airbase. Because how I mean, how else could you make it available to them unless it was at an airbase someplace close by.
Now, wouldn't it be logical that the weapon would be close by and at hand if they were to be available to these men on a special mission?
A. Not necessarily, because when the mission was planned, with our air level capability, and its in the middle of Kansas, it had been and it was going to be used by authority granted, the fact that it was in Kansas at the moment doesn't mean it's not going to be in Laos tomorrow. So I don't quite follow your
Q. Well, we've been told by four different SOG men that the weapon was based at NKP, and that they were loaded onto A1-E's and flown in support of Tailwind. Would that would you would that jibe with what your understanding was in this situation?
A. Well, I wasn't there, but they undoubtedly had authority to do that. I'm just telling you that young men out as far away as Laos are not going to accumulate some weapon of that nature and use it without being authorized right from the originator of the idea of the operation.
Q. And who would that be?
A. Well, that would be, depending on the degree of the sensitivity of the weapon. I mean
Q. And we're talking about a fairly sensitive weapon here. In mean, this is CBU-15 is GB. And, you know, it it is a fairly powerful gas that not always not always, but can have lethal side effects.
A. Well, you should ask Mr. Helms this question, because it's his responsibility to or whoever has his position, at the time, to get authorization or to feel that he may not need authorization, and in some cases he already has authority.
Q. But you would support, given what you've told me in our conversation before, you would support, in theory, the use of this?
A. Yeah. Yes, sure. If under the circumstances where the men in the unit were in serious danger, being, let's say, eliminated, of course I would.
After Admiral Moorer asserted, in response to a different question, that "there's no way that [soldiers] can get their hands on [a weapon such as nerve gas] unless it's authorized," the producer continued as follows:
Q. Well, that's what these men say. These men say that this was a White House mission, they were aware that it had clearance right from the top, and the implication of everything that you're saying would point directly at the White House.
A. Well, I mean, they may have known that or they may not. But any way you look at it, the President is the commander-in-chief. And so you have to conclude that either he knew about it or someone that he delegated the authority to know about it, I would think, a use of a weapon or a tactic or an invasion or whatever."
Shortly afterwards, this exchange occurred:
Q. How effective a weapon is CBU-15? I mean, what can you tell me about its battlefield usefulness?
A. Well, if you have a it depends on the nature of the target, you see. This matter of weapon selection is a decision that's made on the spot; whether you you asked the question, how do I load this airplane, what kind of bombs do I put on it, what kind of rockets do I put on it, what kind of machine gun bullets do I put on it. If you're going to dogfight, you're going to do one thing; if you're going to bomb over here, you'll do another. And so the weapons selection has to be made in the field after the intelligence and so on has properly described the nature of the target. So you can't necessarily decide in, say, factor in St. Louis what kind of a weapon you're going to use six months from now somewhere on the such and such river someplace. I mean, the people that are doing the fighting have to select the weapon.
Q. So, but it would be safe to say, then, from everything that you're saying, that when CBU-15 was applied, it was done so very selectively and only with the most senior clearance from the White House?
A. Well, now, I don't know whether I'd make the specific point that the White House authorized that particular use. They could have said, "If you find yourself in a situation, and as such and such, then you're authorized to use it." So then it's up to the commander on the spot to decide if he's in that situation. You can't have the White House directing every step you take twelve time hours around the world.
Q. But wouldn't there be great interest after its use?
A. Be what?
Q. Wouldn't there be great interest among all parties after a weapon like this had been used to see how well it worked? I mean, wouldn't people want to know and want to be briefed and study it very hard?
A. Well, people always want to know and want to be briefed, and that's one of the problems. You know, you the value of the weapon in many cases is proportional to how secret it is. If you're going to tell everybody about it, you know, that gives any potential enemy a target, a means of doing one or two things, either developing a defense against it or building a lot of them for himself.
Q. So, in a situation like this, to keep the strategic and tactical advantage, it would necessarily have to be top secret?
Q. So, CBU-15 was a top secret weapon?
A. Yes, it is; I don't know whether it is now or not, since I've been retired 20 years, but it was when it was, it should have been; let me put it that way.
Q. And what was your understanding, I mean, at the time of how effective it could be?
A. Well, it was clearly an effective weapon, and otherwise we wouldn't have ever built the thing.
Q. And what's your understanding of how often it was applied during this war?
A. Well, I don't have any figures to tell you how many times. I've never made a point of counting that up. I'm sure that you can find out that from those who have used them. I think it would be circumstances come up where it would be effective, and depend on sometimes you have to use a weapon that's not the best weapon, because you simply won't have it, and it's not available at the airfield or with the troops or so on. But I think that it should be used when it's facing a target that it's best for.
Q. But it would be fair to say that CBU-15, this top secret weapon at the time, GB, was used more than once?
A. I don't know whether it was used more than once or not. I don't see any reason why it shouldn't be.
The interview proceeded as follows:
Q. But isn't it also true, I mean, that you yourself earlier said that CBU-15 is a top secret weapon, and that if you start spreading the word out there among lots and lots of people, this is a large operation, after all, that the US has a special new weapon and you'd better watch out, I mean, doesn't that compromise security?
A. Yes. But I didn't say that that should have been announced. I just say this individual you're quoting said that he wasn't briefed properly. You know, it's like a man getting in an airplane and flying and crashing it, and he said, "Well, my instructor didn't tell me that if I did this, the airplane would spin or whatever," when, in fact, he should have had enough curiosity when you're dealing with dangerous items, in the interest of preserving your own life, it's your responsibility to find out everything about it, not somebody else's responsibility to tell you about it.
Q. So isn't it fair to say in light of all of this, everything we've talked about, that Tailwind proved that CBU-15 GB is an effective weapon?
A. Yes, I think, but I think that was already known. Otherwise it never would have been manufactured.
Q. And it was used again?
A. Well, that's what you say; I'm not sure it was used again. I think that it's highly possible that it was used again, but I'm not aware of exactly where it was used.
Taken as a whole, these passages cannot be said to constitute confirmation of the CNN broadcast. The same is true of the remainder of the on camera portions of the interview. Off camera (as reflected in the producer's notes), the following exchange occurred:
Q. What was your understanding of the mission? You were aware of it, you told me that before . . .
A. Yes, I was well aware of it at the JCS. I understood that these SOG patrol were primarily to get up to date information on how strong the opposition was in Laos. Of course the opposition was also in the form of Laotians, and not just North Vietnamese.
Q. Yes, my understanding is that the first lesson in Special Ops school is that a villager, anything that breathes, that can farm or drive, must be considered an enemy . . .
A. Well, that's right. There's no such thing as a neutral party, including in Laos.
Q. We think there must have been an extremely top notch target to put this amount of man and firepower in, this was no little recon team, after all. Could it have been a senior NVA general, a hit?
A. Well you really have to look at it from a profit and loss standpoint. Would it be worth putting all the firepower and manpower in for just one general wandering around Laos? After all, that general can't do much without an Army. You don't put in that size operation to go wandering around looking for one guy. He's not a threat without troops. You have to use your common sense.
Q. What about these Marine defectors . . . It would explain the heavy Marine component . . . Could it have been a hunt for Salt and Pepper?
A. It could have been. But if it was, it was not discussed in the general intelligence circuits. When you get into these heavily classified operations, you don't put a lot of this stuff down. Now I want you to understand that I really didn't get heavily involved in this, I did not have operational control over it. It did not go thru JCS.
Q. Who did it go thru?
A. Well SOG after all was conceived by agents of the CIA. The CIA briefed the President daily. The CIA and the White House would know about this before the JCS.
The White House was extremely involved in Laos issues because the sovereignty issue was so important. Remember we were taking heavy criticism during the Vietnam War at home. A strong effort was made to keep the CIA operations quiet and secret. But the CIA couldn't conduct an operation of this size and magnitude without it going thru the White House. And if they didn't know, they should have known.
Shortly afterwards, the following exchange occurred:
Q. The core of our story is the use of chemicals in extraction, this miracle weapon that got 16 Americans out alive.
These men we have put on camera say nerve gas was used. They were given NBC gas masks, and they were given atropine. They say the gas put the enemy on the ground convulsing within two minutes. There is only one gas weaponized in cluster bombs in the U.S. arsenal that could have done that, and that is GB . . . We plan to report that, we have that information already. What I am asking you, if this weapon is so good, why not use it again?
A. People in charge want to save lives if they can. I would not be restricted by some international agreement. When you are in combat, the action area can get awfully small. We want to be in a situation where we can protect our own people as much as possible.
Q. Are you saying it was used again, if so, how much?
A. There would be many considerations. How much is available, where it is, what effect it has on our own people . . . Then you have to think also about the friendlies, and what happens to them. The Mantagnards were very helpful to us.
After one other question, the producer and Admiral Moorer had the following exchange:
Q. You did not object to anything I have said so far . . .
A. No, I did not. Now I am not absolutely confirming it for you either. I was aware of the operation but not controlling it. Laos had been a problem and we wanted to fix it.
Q. Okay, but isn't that a bit of plausible deniability in action . . . . How could a joint operation of this size go on and you not be controlling it? After all, SOG gets turned over to the JCS in 1965. The CIA gives it up . . . .
A. Well it's not that huge an operation really.
Q. But in a technically neutral country, the largest deepest raid, in a joint operation . . . you had to be aware of it.
A. Well let's just say I had a lot of things cross my desk and some things I chose not to look at as carefully. You know, like Mr. Clinton says when he says he was not really aware of something done . . . I had lots and lots of responsibilities . . . .
Q. But the White House knew?
A. Nixon undoubtedly knew.
Q. Did the JCS brief him on that?
A. Let's just say I would be very surprised if he didn't know. I assume that he knew. You have to understand the command structure in 1970. I know how it worked. I would go over there almost daily on some days and Kissinger would be in to see him about five times a day. I would be most surprised if Nixon didn't know.
When Admiral Moorer asked why he was being asked about these matters, this exchange followed:
Q. I think there are some historic issues at play here. If the U.S. used nerve gas in combat in Vietnam, it is worthy to report. And it has some important policy implications for today, with the debate over the chemical weapons convention.
A. Treaties will never stop people from using this weapon. But you have said the important word history. And that I can respect.
You have to use every resource in your command to win. The U.S. is the garden spot of the world and people here don't understand how others live, or what it can take to win.
I would have used any weapon, any tactic, and any move to defend the security of the United States.
Q. So that would include GB, weaponized in the US arsenal. We know there was four million pounds of it manufactured . . ., and that it was stored at NKP.
A. (Nods affirmatively).
Almost immediately afterwards, the following exchange occurred:
Q. My question to you then is, how much was it used?
A. You can't have a blanket rule on that. You can't say, okay, we used it once in an extreme situation, we know it works, now we can never use it again. You have to look at each situation. The key word is survivability. You have to survive at all costs. Treaty or no treaty. I guarantee no damn treaty would have stopped me.
Q. So you are aware sarin was used?
A. I am not confirming for you that it was used. You have told me that. But let me put it this way, it does not surprise me. In an operation of this kind, you must make certain that your men are as well equipped for defensive purposes as possible. I don't care if that treaty is ratified or not.
Q. So nerve gas was used in Vietnam, and in all likelihood used more than once . . .
A. [No response; producer interprets this as no objection].
In another exchange, after the producer advises Moorer that CNN had learned that at a village base in Laos there were "round-eyes" or Caucasians seen walking about unfettered, he replied that for a mission to be conducted against such a base one would have to have "absolutely accurate intelligence." When the producer then asked whether "killing these defectors" was the mission, Moorer replied that he "had no doubt about that. Now I was not looking through the field glasses. But I assume the information was corroborated somewhere and that the recon teams saw what they saw." A moment later, Moorer states that "once again I do not remember the specifics of this action" but was "aware of the fact that there was this objective in Laos."
To all this must be added a final potential confirmation. Before the broadcast was aired, Admiral Moorer was provided with the draft text of the broadcast and of the Time essay asserting the same thesis which was published at about the same time. Moorer proposed only a single change in the text which, according to the two CNN journalists who spoke with him, he spent thirty minutes reading. (Moorer now claims he had it in his hands "for about five minutes I thumbed through it, but I didn't read it.")
After the broadcast (and the storm of criticism it provoked) Moorer issued two statements. The first (drafted with Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon) asserted that he had not authorized the use of sarin gas during Operation Tailwind and then stated that "[a]s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, I had no documents, operational orders, after-action reports of knowledge of the use of sarin. I later learned of the operation in general terms, including rumors of the use of nerve gas."
CNN producers Oliver and Smith went to Moorer's house that evening, reminded him that he had never spoken of "rumors" to them (he agreed) and together drafted a new statement which Moorer issued which concluded with the sentence stating that "later in general discussions I learned of the operation, including verbal statements indicating the use of sarin on the Tailwind mission." (Moorer, in turn, later complained to Time reporters that he had been pressured to sign the amended statement; Smith and Oliver deny this.)
From all this, what can one make of the broadcast's repeated use of Moorer as having confirmed both elements of the story? Although both the review by Moorer of the text of the broadcast and Moorer's post broadcast statement that he had learned of "verbal statements indicating the use of sarin on the Tailwind mission" must be given some weight, primary focus must be placed on Moorer's statements both on and off camera. They are in some instances, broadly supportive of CNN's thesis but only in an attenuated and inconclusive fashion. None is a flat statement of agreement; none is sufficiently clear to be relied upon as a true confirmation or anything like it. Moorer never provided sufficient support for the broadcast to justify treating him as a confirming source.
Our conclusion, therefore, is that the substance of Admiral Moorer's interviews do not confirm "that nerve gas was used in Tailwind" or that the Tailwind "target was indeed defectors".
2. The Confidential Sources
Three confidential sources confirmed, to one degree or another, the validity of CNN's broadcast. Taken together, they provided CNN's journalists and news management with a good deal of comfort with respect to the accuracy of the broadcast. While that assessment was warranted to some degree, when the complete record is examined, the degree of reliance was perilous.
One source, who has been highly placed for many years, was frequently consulted as the story progressed and provided advice and guidance. The source, after many discussions, told CNN that a previous conclusion the source had offered that the gas used in Operation Tailwind was BZ (a gas with different properties) was incorrect and that the source "realized now" that BZ must have been a cover story and that "it had to be a nerve agent used." When the source was told that Admiral Moorer had said that offensive use of CBU-15 was justifiable because it saved American lives , the source responded that "that is probably true." (As noted earlier, Admiral Moorer said that he believed that chemical weapons should be available for use in wartime, not that CBU-15 had been used.) The source was shown the script of the broadcast, read it in the presence of a CNN journalist, gave a "thumbs up" sign as the source read the passages about the use of CBU-15 and said that the only thing in the story that did not "pass the common sense test" related to a passage not otherwise relevant here.
We have no doubt that the encouragement of this source properly gave all at CNN a sense of solidity about the story. This is particularly so since the source read the text of the broadcast in the presence of the producer and indicated specific approval of the references to CBU-15. There are serious weaknesses in this confirmation, however.
The source, during the meeting, appeared to be reasoning to the conclusion that "it had to be nerve agent used," not basing his support on actual knowledge. This should have been seen as at least a blinking yellow light that the source may not have been sure of that conclusion. And the reference to Admiral Moorer's interview (which we have concluded cannot be viewed as constituting confirmation) itself may be said to have tainted the source's ability to view the matter with the same distance that might otherwise have been the case. At the very least, the degree of actual knowledge possessed by the source should have been probed in more depth.
A second source also offered validation to the broadcast. A highly placed intelligence source provided the CNN producer, through a third party, with information confirming that CBU-15 was used. This source reviewed certain documents and assured the intermediary (who passed the information on) of the accuracy of the broadcast. The source also reviewed the entire broadcast prior to it being shown and agreed with its conclusions.
As noted above, the source did not provide information directly to the producer (they did meet, however) and there is thus no way for us to assess the precise questions asked of and answered by the source. Based on our interview of the intermediary, however, we believe that the statements of the source were properly viewed by CNN as lending considerable support to the broadcast.
A third confidential source was a former senior military officer who provided CNN with information, on background, which provided a level of support for the truth of the broadcast. We have reviewed notes of what was said by the source. It is doubtless supportive of the broadcast but with some of the same problems we have seen elsewhere a producer overstating her case to the source and a source responding positively but with ambiguity to the producer.
In one exchange, for example, the producer told the source that she had a letter from the Defense Department that said "that the men on the ground in Tailwind say that CBU-15 was accurate and effective every time" it was used in the Tailwind mission. In response to that, the source said:
Well, I guess that's right. It does sound like multiple delivery. It could have been on more than one airplane. It means more than one aircraft were used on that particular mission.
This exchange then followed:
Q. So we know that CBU-15, GB, sarin nerve gas, was used on extraction.
A. Yes. Uh, hum.
Q. And we know that the base camp where the defectors were was prepped with it before the hatchet team went it.
A. Yes. Uh, hum.
Q. I am trying to be historically accurate. So we know that CBU-15 was used the two times, on the base camp and the extraction.
Q. But was it used multiple times during the course of this operation?
A. I do not know. I do not know of this except by you. You've brought it up. Tailwind was only a name. I did not know the exact nature of the operation.
At this point, the producer, concerned that the source was engaging in an effort at deniability, reminded the source that he had previously given a good deal of information indicating that he knew a good deal about Tailwind. She stated that he had already told her "that you understood CBU-15 to be used two times in Tailwind, the two times we discussed." She then stated that she understood that he was "steering me away from a third time, is that correct" to which the source said, "Yes, it would be wrong to assume that."
The above passage does constitute a form of confirmation. It is so replete, however, with backing and filling by the source that it is difficult to assess how much reliance can be placed on the confirmation. More troubling still, the reference to the Air Force letter may itself have misled the source. The letter says precisely what the producer represented it said except that it is illegible in its reference to which CBU number was used. It may say, as the producer said, "CBU-15". Then again, it may say "CBU-25" not a form of gas at all but an explosive device. (We retained a document expert about this who was unable to resolve the issue in light of the faded and illegible quality of the Xeroxed copy. We have asked the Defense Department to provide us with the correct response. They have not done so to this date.) We now believe (based on other information we have viewed that was written around the same time) that it is more likely than not that the correct number is CBU-25 (but we cannot be sure).
Our point is not that the producer was deliberately misleading the source by the reference to the document. It is that it was impossible to know at the time she told the source that it said "CBU-15," whether or not it did. If, as we now believe likely, it did not say CBU-15, the reference to it in an exchange with the source may well have affected the source's view of the matter.
In a later discussion during the same conversation, the source comes closer still to confirming the use of CBU-15. The exchange was as follows:
Q. Was Tailwind unique in the large number of lives that CBU-15 saved?
A. It was unique because of the agents used. I don't think you can say it was unique because of the large number of lives saved. It would not have been used unless it had given us a significant advantage.
Q. And when you mean agent, you mean CBU-15, GB, right?
A. Remember it was a major decision to escalate to decide use of that agent. It was not risk free. But it was felt that it was unlikely that the NVA would complain. They were not supposed to be in Laos. They were unlikely to come to the United Nations and complain about the weapon.
Q. Because it would expose them being in Laos. That's interesting. I have been scratching my head about that, about why they didn't say something about this.
A. Well the NVA said the only troops they had in Laos were the Vietcong. We frequently complained about how Sihanouk and others were in fact giving sanctuary to the NVA.
Q. Again we are on background here. So it was decided then that the agent CBU-15/GB could be used because the Vietnamese were unlikely to complain.
A. Yes, in a covert operation in Laos.
Q. Moorer has told us on camera that he never made a point of counting up the number of times CBU-15 was used. What do you make of that statement?
A. That it was used on missions at other times than on Tailwind is what I would interpret that as meaning.
Q. Do you know how many times?
A. Nope. I don't know of anyone who would know that accurately.
Q. He has told us that the weapon was by and large available for search and rescues . . . was the weapon commonly available for SARs. Is that your understanding?
A. [Intentionally omitted].
Q. Well I tried to pin Moorer down on dates. We have talked to about thirty A1 pilots at this point and they talk about using it from 1969 to early 1971. Were you aware of it being used on SAR missions at this time?
A. No I do not know of any use of it.
Here again, the source is tantalizingly close to providing confirmation. But the source is always a half step away from doing so with clarity. On the one hand, the source does state that CBU-15 was used "in a covert operation in Laos." On the other, the source may be responding in a hypothetical fashion. Then again, the source's general refusal to answer questions directly may reflect nothing more than the special care used by people trained in "plausible deniability" never to put themselves in a position where they can be damaged by the attribution of views to them.
The problem is that the source's responses, although supportive, are ambiguous. They are, possibly deliberately, blurry. Such responses are not irrelevant. We repeat that they may properly be viewed as a whole as being supportive of the broadcast, but they are sufficiently ambiguous that they cannot be said to provide the full scale support for the broadcast that should have been demanded before it aired.
3. The Men of Operation Tailwind
We turn next to the use made by CNN of (or its failure to use) significant participants in Operation Tailwind.
Captain Eugene McCarley and Others Who Disagreed Captain Eugene McCarley led the SOG Operation in Laos. In the broadcast he is quoted as saying a number of things of a general sort that what was dropped from the air "was a decision way above my level," that in operations on Laos, his unit would, "destroy anything we came upon" and the like and a few very important ones. Arnett states that McCarley told CNN off camera that the use of nerve gas on Tailwind was, "very possible" and that on camera, later, he said, "I never ever considered the use of lethal gas, not on any of my operations." He is also shown saying that "they might have had some of these other gases available or standing by with the Air Force. But as I understand it, these gases, these lethal gases, are an Air Force ordinance, in their arsenal."
In an interview with us (and in numerous other interviews since the broadcast) McCarley has denounced his treatment on the broadcast. He states that after saying that the use of the nerve gas "was possible," he then said that it had never been used by any of his troops, in fact, was not in the Vietnamese Theater at all. He said, as well, that the mission had nothing to do with killing American defectors.
McCarley is obviously a particularly important figure in Operation Tailwind. As the ground leader of the operation, his views were entitled to significant weight (although, of course, CNN was not obliged to accept his statements over those of others).
What McCarley said to the CNN producer and she to him is a matter of credibility about which we are unable to pass judgment. This is one of the few cases in which the producer's notes which totally support her version of what was said to her off camera are flatly inconsistent with what an individual who has been interviewed claimed he said.
What we can judge, however, is the unacceptability of minimizing McCarley's views on the broadcast. Given the fact that he led the mission, we do not believe that McCarley's views, even if rejected by CNN, were given sufficient prominence. In an 18 minute segment (the producer had asked for an hour) dealing with complicated matters, it is always difficult to provide "enough" time for everyone's views. But McCarley was the leader of the unit being described and had flatly denied the thrust of the broadcast. His views were entitled to more prominent treatment.
The same is true of others who repeatedly rejected the notion that nerve gas had been used. Both Don Feld and Art Bishop, the two pilots who flew the A-1s that dropped the gas in question, denied that they dropped nerve gas. Bishop even found a journal notation he had written the day after Tailwind's conclusion that stated his plane was stocked with CBU-30 tear gas on the Tailwind drop. The sole reference to this in the broadcast is Arnett's statement that "even a pilot who dropped gas to get the commandos out said he was briefed it was just tear gas," suggesting implicitly that the pilots themselves had been misled. While some other pilots had told the producer that pilots might not necessarily have known what weapons they were flying, Feld and Bishop strongly disputed this, and their views were supported by others including Admiral Moorer. The minimizing of the pilots' statements appears also to have been based on an erroneous assumption concerning the available weaponry. A manual in CNN's possession suggested that the CBU-30 dispenser was experimental and possibly unavailable in the arsenal. This was never confirmed, however, but it was, in our view, a belief used to discount Bishop's reference. In fact, as we understand from information provided by others, CBU-30 was available and in use at the time of Operation Tailwind and thus was an entirely plausible possibility.
The failure to use Gary Michael "Doc" Rose, the medic awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (and nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor) for his participation in Tailwind is also troubling. Rose told a CNN producer on three occasions that the gas used in Tailwind was not GB nerve gas. Subsequent to the report, the medic stated that "[i]t burned like CS (tear gas) in the eyes, my throat felt like CS, and my skin felt like CS . . . once you are exposed to it, there is no question in your mind what it is." Moreover, given his role, one might fairly have expected Rose to be in the best position to know the signs of sarin gas and to have been cognizant of its use.
Once again, we acknowledge that it is all-too-easy to second-guess editorial decisions after scrutiny is directed at a broadcast. But once again, we conclude that the two pilots who flew the planes that dropped whatever gas was used and the medic on the ground all opponents of the broadcast's claims -- deserved greater prominence.
Lieutenant Van Buskirk
The on-the-ground figure who dominated the CNN broadcast was Robert Van Buskirk. The first participant in Operation Tailwind to appear on the program, the single individual most shown in it. Van Buskirk was second in command of Operation Tailwind (to Captain McCarley). In the broadcast, Van Buskirk is used to support both themes of the broadcast. As regards the use of nerve gas, he is shown saying that "sleeping gas" was slang for "nerve gas"; then seen telling a story about how he was warned to take his gas mask before participating in Tailwind because "this stuff...can kill you"; then shown describing his call for gas to protect his men and himself ("I said I want the bad of the bad."); then shown describing his symptoms ("I am running, I am shooting. And quickly. I am throwing up. I am unable to breathe"); and finally seen describing the carnage caused by the gas. As regards the mission of Tailwind, he is shown describing his own killing of two Caucasians -- one described by him as a blond-haired, English speaking GI -- found in the enemy base camp in Laos. He also describes hearing of about a dozen to fifteen bodies that looked like Americans who were killed in Tailwind's assault on the base camp.
Of all the participants in the program, Van Buskirk has become the most controversial. Since the broadcast (and after the sustained criticism of him by SOG veterans) he has asserted he was not a source for sarin. He has acknowledged he was a source with respect to "possible defectors." And he has, in spectacularly self-destructive fashion, stated that he had repressed memory syndrome which he only overcame while speaking with Oliver.
As to some significant matters, Van Buskirk has been consistent since he first spoke with Oliver. In the first call she made to him in April 1998, he told her that the United States has used "lethal war gas" in Operation Tailwind. During that same call, he told her that his book Tailwind (published in 1983) did not disclose use of the gas "because it was still top secret." And in the same call, he mentioned killing a Caucasian, a Russian advisor, and bragged about having a Russian ring.
There are a number of problems both pre and post broadcast with placing so much reliance on Van Buskirk as a source. First, there is the fact that his book (p. 54) describes his actions in Tailwind without mentioning either the use of poison gas (gas is mentioned, arguably in terms inconsistent with sarin) or his killing of Americans or Russians resident in Laos.
Second, the use of such an unqualified soundbite concerning the availability of nerve gas ("sleeping gas . . . was slang for nerve gas") overstates the certainty of Van Buskirk's knowledge. In early off and on camera interviews, Van Buskirk repeatedly refers to the gas as CBU-19 which, as he acknowledges, was a tear gas weapon. While in later interviews he appears to become more certain of the lethal nature of the gas used, his certainty may well have been colored by some of the questioning of him. For example, at one point there is a reference to the previously discussed illegible document as referring to CBU-15.
Third, Van Buskirk himself disclosed in an October 1997 on camera interview that he had been prescribed drugs for a "nervous disorder" for ten years, and which he finally stopped taking, a fact recently reported in more detail in the June 28 edition of the New York Times (stating he was under treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder with "mind-bending drugs.") (Also worth noting is that he told CNN he had been classified as 20% disabled; apparently he told the New York Times he was 60% disabled.)
Fourth, in early interviews Van Buskirk described the killing of the Caucasian as involving a Russian, not an American. Moreover recent reports that he attributes to repressed memory his previous failure to recall the encounter with defectors as he now describes it makes continued reliance upon him all the more problematic.
Finally, every interview he has given since the broadcast has made him seem still less reliable.
To be sure, Van Buskirk provided relevant information, and there are other indications that are in favor of using him as a source. He won a Silver Star for his participation in Tailwind, personally briefed General Abrams on that mission, is articulate and by virtue of his involvement a knowledgeable source for information about Tailwind. When taken together, however, it was unacceptable to ignore his medical history, the inconsistency between his book and what he said on air, and the ambiguity in his recollections of the gas. Whatever can be said for using him before June 7, the added weight of evidence uncovered since the broadcast seriously diminishes any further reasonable reliance on him. In short, Van Buskirk played so central a role in the broadcast that these overriding questions put into issue not only what he said but the bona fides of the broadcast as a whole.
Graves was an important on the ground source of information for both the use of sarin gas and the presence of American defectors. There are, however, several problems with the quality of Graves' information and how it was used in the telecast.
As to defectors, the broadcast quotes Graves' saying,
"We saw some round-eyed people. We don't know whether they're prisoners or whatever."
Omitted was Graves' statement, "I didn't ever see any of them," and that it was someone else on his team who saw the round-eyed people. Also, Graves said during his interview that "I don't think there's any real way you can really tell [that the people in the camp were Americans]." These omissions made it appear that Graves' recollections were more certain than they actually were.
Regarding the use of nerve gas, the telecast quotes Graves as confirming that the "call sign" for the gas used in Tailwind was "GB". As GB is indisputably the call sign for sarin nerve gas, this is an important statement to establish "sleeping" or "knockout" gas as sarin. There are two problems. First, it should have been (but was not) disclosed to the viewer that Graves' knowledge here was likely based on hearsay, what he heard, not what he knew or saw. From where his recon team was hidden as the extraction of the commandos was taking place, he said, "we couldn't really see too much because we was looking through lenses at a lot of it, and you're only limited to a couple of -- what you could see between the trees and stuff." He further stated in reference to the gas, "after it was all over with we heard all these stories. Well we said, 'They wouldn't do that.' And until recently, I didn't even -- you know. I could not believe it." Second, it appears from the interview that it was much later on that Graves heard the call sign "GB" used to describe "knockout gas". The telecast gives the impression that he knew this at the time of the extraction.
The Significance of M-17 Gas Masks
In support of the conclusion that the gas was sarin, the broadcast references McCarley saying he "equipped his men with special gas masks -- called M-17s designed to protect against lethal gas." The problem here is that it was far from clear that that presence of these masks is particularly significant. Many of those interviewed, including one of the key confidential sources and Van Buskirk himself, explained that the M-17 gas mask was standard issue to SOG teams. Clearly others (Van Buskirk, Hagen) made a point that gas masks were emphasized on the particular mission, but the failure to disclose the standard nature of these masks to the viewer gave McCarley's remarks more supportive weight than was justified.
The Reference to Women and Children
The report touches on the possibility of noncombatants -- women and children -- being killed. This statement was juxtaposed with and thus implicitly supported by a statement by Hagen that "the majority of the people that were there [in the base camp] were not combat personnel." Hagen's full answer was:
"The majority of the people there that were there were not combat personnel. They were more of a transportation unit."
The full context here clearly gives a different impression from the broadcast.
Defectors, POWs or Russians?
The sources supporting the notion of Caucasians in the base camp did not always tell consistent stories. Graves and Isola referred initially to POWs, noting bamboo or rope restraints. Cathey referred to the absence of restraints and that possibly they were Russians. Van Buskirk referred initially to Russians and then said he believed they were Americans. Perhaps because the confidential sources discussed defectors, the broadcast largely assumes the sightings were of American defectors (with a brief reference and a question concerning the possibility of them being POWs). The possibility of Russians was not mentioned. We believe it would have been better to have made more clear the conflict here as it bears on the credibility of the eyewitness accounts.
4. Other Corroborative Information
As noted earlier, there was other corroborative information supporting the broadcast. This information, however, played a secondary role. Moreover, it was often ambiguous or conflicting. While it certainly provided some ancillary support for the broadcast, its weight does not cure the deficiencies discussed previously.
5. The Expert Support
Lastly, we turn to the use of experts to identify the gas dropped by the symptoms observed by those on the ground below. The broadcast concludes both that the symptoms observed were "not consistent" with tear gas and that they were "associate[d] with exposure to a nerve agent." It goes on to quote Amy Smithson of the Henry L. Stimson Center to the same effect. While there was supportive expert opinion, in our view the broadcast oversimplified the complex nature of this inquiry and, again, ignored certain important inconsistencies.
Expert opinions are worth no more than the facts upon which they are based. In this instance the experts were primarily asked to address the symptoms of "vomiting, convulsing, and falling quickly to the ground." First, this is not a complete representation of the symptoms encountered it conveys not only a homogeneity of symptoms unjustified by the information collected but also only the most severe symptoms observed by a relatively few individuals. Sources recounted a variety of symptoms ranging from those previously described to dry heaves, burning skin, diarrhea, dermatitis, choking, spitting, and mucous or water discharge from eyes and mouth. Second, with this kind of exercise, one needs carefully to consider the quality of the information. Would an exhausted, wounded commando, after days of fighting, intent primarily on extricating himself from a potentially lethal situation, be in a position to describe accurately the physical symptoms with the precision necessary to make a definitive diagnosis?
Additionally, the experts CNN interviewed were not entirely consistent. Bill Dee stated that tear gas used outdoors would not "provoke serious reactions," but that it could cause those exposed to "writhe." Nerve gas, by contrast, is linked to vomiting he said. Colonel Frederick Sidell, a medical doctor and chemical weapons expert, stated that vomiting could be a sign of tear gas exposure. Julian Robinson stated that CBU-15, not tear gas, "would produce the kind of symptoms [CNN] described to me," but he appears to support the notion on the basis that there was clear, consistent evidence of "vomiting, diarrhea, and convulsions."
There is apparent unanimity among the experts that tear gas has an offensive odor and looks like a white fog while sarin is clear and odorless. With regard to the former, Hagen is quoted as saying the gas was odorless in the broadcast, but he goes on to explain it as not being "any different from the smoke from gun fire." Schmidt also said that the gas was colorless. Rose, who stated it smelled like tear gas, was not used. Others characterized what they saw as a fog, smog, or mist of some type, but it does not appear that definite conclusions can be drawn from this.
In summary, while there was supportive information provided by the experts, the relatively oversimplified manner in which the symptoms were described raises doubt about the strength of the conclusions that can safely be drawn from these interviews.
We hesitate to draw broad lessons from a single example of journalistic overkill. We are lawyers, not journalists, and it must rest with journalists to determine how best to avoid in the future the pitfalls illustrated by this broadcast. We do offer the following thoughts that have occurred to us as we reviewed the broadcast.
First, it should go without saying that fairness must come first. The CNN broadcast was not fair. Information that was inconsistent with the underlying conclusions reached by CNN was ignored or minimized. The views of some of the individuals best placed to know what happened the two A-1 pilots who dropped the gas, the officer who commanded the operation, and the medic on the ground were unduly discounted. Statements of sources that were vague, ambiguous or qualified were relied upon as if they were clear, focused and unambiguous.
Second, journalistic errors led inexorably to more errors. The determination that Admiral Moorer had confirmed themes of their story when he had not led the producers to assert to a significant confidential source that Moorer backed the story. The result is that we cannot know to what degree the source was influenced in his own answers by the reference to Moorer. Similarly, the reference by the producer in her discussion with another confidential source that a Defense Department document concluded that CBU-15 was "accurate and effective" in its use in Operation Tailwind was itself based on a probable misreading of the letter. The impact on the source cannot be known to us. What we must conclude, however, is that anything the source said thereafter of a confirming nature must be significantly discounted.
Finally, the degree of confidence approaching certainty of the CNN journalists who prepared the broadcast of the conclusions offered in it contributed greatly to the journalistic flaws identified in this report. As we have observed, this was not a broadcast that was lacking in substantial supportive materials. Those materials, while justifying serious continued investigation, were far too inconclusive to justify the conclusions reached.
A decision was made by CNN to broadcast accusations of the gravest sort without sufficient justification and in the face of substantial persuasive information to the contrary. CNN should retract the broadcast and apologize to the public and, in particular, the participants in Operation Tailwind.
Back to the top
© 2000 Cable News Network. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.