Within weeks of this expose hitting newstands, CNN and Time retracted the "Tailwind" story in its entirety

 

CNN AND TIME'S POISONOUS SMEAR

No, the U.S. Did Not Drop Nerve Gas on a Laotian Village

 

By ERIC FELTEN
June, 1998

Two weeks ago, some of the biggest guns in American journalism made a horrifying accusation: A U.S. Special Forces unit in September 1970 had cold-bloodedly dropped lethal nerve gas on civilians in Laos while on a mission to assassinate American defectors thought to be in the village. This blockbuster story kicked off a new program called "NewsStand: CNN & Time", a joint venture of the cable network and the newsweekly, which are corporate siblings in Ted Turner's media empire. CNN's Bernard Shaw and Jeff Greenfield anchored the broadcast, and the story was simultaneously published in Time magazine, under the bylines of CNN's Peter Arnett and April Oliver, who had done the reporting.

 

All of these parties, it is now clear, bear some responsibility for maligning the reputations of the U.S. military and of the soldiers who took part in the commando raid into Laos known as "Operation Tailwind." There is in fact no plausible evidence to support the allegation of nerve-gas use -- which Oliver has called a possible "war crime."

 

CNN's longtime top military expert, Air Force major general Perry Smith, quit the network, after a follow-up broadcast of NewsStand: CNN & Time on June 14 stood behind the original reporting. Smith called the story "sleazy journalism." Editors and reporters at Time have been speaking off the record about their unhappiness at having published the article.

 

It's not hard to see why they would be unhappy. There was an Operation Tailwind in Laos, but it was not an assassination mission. It was a diversion intended to distract North Vietnamese troops from a CIA operation miles away. The mission did involve dropping gas on enemy soldiers, but it was garden-variety CS tear gas, not deadly sarin nerve gas. Oliver and Arnett should have known this. They gathered evidence during their reporting that the story wasn't plausible -- and that their main witness wasn't reliable. When the Washington bureau of Time read the article that was about to be published, they were mortified, according to one Time reporter, because of the obvious holes in the story. But the only concession they extracted from the magazine's top editors in New York was a headline with a question mark, "Did the U.S. Drop Nerve Gas?" The answer, it turns out, is no.

 

NewsStand: CNN & Time brags that its report, "Valley of Death," was based on an eight-month investigation in which everyone from the soldiers on the ground to the top brass was interviewed -- 200 sources in all. What it hasn't done is break down those numbers and tell how many of those sources believe the tale that was broadcast. Here are accounts of how the CNN reporters supposedly got "confirmation" from key sources.

 

* Adm. Thomas Moorer. The highest-ranking military source named was Moorer, who had been chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1970. According to Arnett, "Moorer confirmed that nerve gas was used in Tailwind," but he didn't say so on camera. On the air, Moorer's clearest statement was, "I would be willing to use any weapon and any tactic to save the lives of American soldiers." After the broadcast, Moorer told Reuters and Newsweek that he had never confirmed the use of sarin to CNN and had no knowledge that nerve gas was ever used during the Vietnam war. For its June 14 follow-up, NewsStand: CNN & Time reinterviewed Moorer and was unable to get the "confirmation" it once claimed. Moorer said he had no knowledge of sarin use, although later, "in general discussions," he had heard "verbal statements indicating the use of sarin on the Tailwind mission." (This is a vague enough assertion to encompass his interviews with CNN, during which he no doubt heard precisely such "verbal statements.") A friend of Moorer's says of the original broadcast, "The admiral got mixed up. He's 87 years old; he's in a nursing home; they interrogated him for hours."

 

* Eugene McCarley. Moorer was only the first source to back down from the allegations attributed to him. Eugene McCarley, the Army captain who led Operation Tailwind on the ground, is livid at the way his quotes were cut and pasted by CNN to make him appear to say things that are the exact opposite of what he said. "I don't know how the newspeople get away with it," he says. "April Oliver called me and said that she wanted to do a story on Tailwind because she had learned about the amazing heroism of the men, their great bravery and the miraculous escape," McCarley says. "But when she showed up it was all gas, gas, gas." McCarley says he sat through an on-camera interview that lasted for six hours. "I told her a thousand times that poison gas was not used. I told them over and over that it's just preposterous." Frustrated that McCarley kept denying any gas had been used, Oliver asked how he could possibly know that nerve gas had never been used in Vietnam. McCarley told Oliver that for all he knew "they might have had some of these gases available," a reasonable caveat. Then he went on to repeat that whether or not a nerve agent was in the Air Force arsenal somewhere, he had not used it in Tailwind or any other mission -- and would never have even thought to ask for it.

 

Here's how the interview with the captain was played by NewsStand: CNN & Time: McCarley "suggested that lethal gas was always an option," said Arnett. Then came a snippet from McCarley: "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 ordnance in their arsenal."

 

* Art Bishop. The Air Force pilot who actually dropped the gas in question, Art Bishop, was interviewed for more than an hour by Oliver. He told her repeatedly that it was tear gas that he dropped on the landing zone. Bishop kept a journal while in Vietnam, in which he described that day's mission -- even down to the detail that his plane was loaded with tear-gas cluster bombs. Bishop showed Oliver the journal -- but she was unimpressed. "She told me, 'We have a document saying nerve gas was used,'" Bishop says. But Bishop refused to change his story. CNN didn't use any of Bishop's interview on the air. Instead, Arnett used the fact of Bishop's denial as an indication of a conspiracy to keep the use of nerve gas secret. "Even a pilot who dropped gas to get the commandos out said he was briefed it was just tear gas," Arnett said darkly. Tom Marzullo, another Special Forces veteran who was interviewed but whose comments were not used in the final story, describes an experience like Bishop's: "April Oliver told me she had documents that absolutely proved that nerve gas was used in Laos." When Marzullo asked to see the documents, Oliver changed the subject, he says. Oliver's insistence that she had documentary proof may explain why several other soldiers said on camera that they are now convinced nerve gas was used. According to a spokesman, CNN won't release these documents or unaired interviews, which it considers "work product" and would therefore never divulge.

 

* Gen. John Singlaub. According to Arnett and Oliver, no less a figure than retired major general John Singlaub, a commander of the Special Forces in Vietnam, confirmed the mission to kill American defectors. Singlaub is quoted in a way that makes it appear he is discussing Operation Tailwind. But Singlaub was never interviewed by Oliver or Arnett for the Tailwind story. Oliver interviewed Singlaub a year ago for a different CNN broadcast involving different accusations of nefarious commando actions. Arnett and Oliver took quotes from that story and pasted them into the "Valley of Death" story.

 

* Robert Van Buskirk. The key source for the NewsStand: CNN & Time allegations is Robert Van Buskirk, a lieutenant who led one of three platoons in the Tailwind mission. It is Van Buskirk who claims to have killed two Caucasians he believed to be deserters; it is Van Buskirk who says Laotian mercenaries found "beaucoup roundeyes" in the tunnels of the camp they destroyed; it is Van Buskirk who says it was "pretty well understood that if you came across a defector . . . under any circumstances, kill them." It is Van Buskirk who claims to have personally ordered the air strike with "sleeping gas" (which Van Buskirk says "was slang for nerve gas"); and it is Van Buskirk who describes seeing North Vietnamese troops wiped out by that gas. Without Van Buskirk, NewsStand: CNN & Time would not have had its story -- and that's not just because his claims are the backbone of CNN's report. Had it not been for a book written by Van Buskirk, titled Tailwind: A True Story, April Oliver likely wouldn't have been working on the story in the first place.

 

"Oh, I'd say about seven months ago I got a call one day from April Oliver," says Van Buskirk, reached at his farm on the Broad River in North Carolina. "I wrote the book Tailwind in '83, and somebody got her a copy of the book." Van Buskirk's memoir was published by a small, evangelical Christian imprint, Word Books. It is the story not only of the mission in Laos, but also of Van Buskirk's epiphany. After leaving Vietnam, Van Buskirk was assigned to an Army base in Germany, where he was arrested for trafficking in guns with terrorists. It was the end of Van Buskirk's Army career, but the beginning of a new life: He had an Easter Sunday vision of Christ in a German jail cell in 1974.

 

The book Tailwind may have been the starting point for Oliver and Arnett's sarin-gas opus, but strangely it was never mentioned in the CNN broadcast. Actually, it's not strange at all: CNN never mentioned Van Buskirk's book because the author's written version of the facts contradicts his on-camera claims. And Oliver and Arnett needed those on-camera claims -- without them, they would have had no grounds to claim that nerve gas was used. So, for the purposes of the "Valley of Death" broadcast, Arnett and Oliver ignored the account in Van Buskirk's book.

 

In Time's version of the nerve-gas story, (which includes material not in the CNN broadcast), Arnett and Oliver describe how Van Buskirk killed two American defectors while attacking a Vietnamese base camp: Suddenly Van Buskirk spotted two "longshadows," a name for taller Caucasians. One was sliding down a "spider hole" into the underground-tunnel system beneath the camp. The other was running toward it. "Early 20s. Blond hair. Looks like he was running off a beach in California," remembers Van Buskirk. "Needs a haircut. This is a G.I. Boots on. Not a prisoner. No shackles. Nothing." The lieutenant gave chase but just missed the blond man as he slipped into the tunnel. He shouted down the hole, identifying himself and offering to take the man home. "F -- you," came the reply. "No, it's f -- you," answered Van Buskirk as he dropped in a white phosphorus grenade, presumably killing both longshadows.

 

It's a vivid tale -- and it appeared nowhere in Van Buskirk's book. Writing in 1983, he described in detail the attack on a North Vietnamese base camp in Laos. He described the carnage as he ran out from the jungle and into the enemy officers' mess hut, spraying them with machine-gun fire while they ate. He even described tearing the star-studded insignia off the dead regimental commander, which he took as a trophy and put on his jungle hat (this can be seen in the picture of Van Buskirk that accompanied the Time story). But he has nothing to say about any Americans or Caucasians in the camp, let alone anything about burning them alive with a white-phosphorus grenade.

 

Van Buskirk has an explanation for the discrepancy -- actually, two explanations. "When I wrote the book, I wanted women and children to read the book without being grossed out," he says. (Never mind that at the front of his book, Van Buskirk provided this guarantee: "Because the last thing I wanted to do was hurt or embarrass anyone, I decided to change some names. That is the one liberty I took with the facts. Otherwise, this book is, to the best of my memory, a true account of what took place.") Then he offers this rather more trendy explanation: "I had pretty well suppressed the memory." He says he was haunted for years. "I saw the blond guy's face every night." It was only when Van Buskirk converted to Christianity that the nightmares went away: "I saw a new face." Van Buskirk says he didn't remember a thing about killing the defectors until he was talking to CNN, when the interviews helped him recover the memory.

 

Until the CNN interviews, Van Buskirk had also forgotten about the nerve-gas attack, though his book offered an intricately detailed account in all other respects. And it contradicts CNN's and Time's version of events.

 

Arnett and Oliver write that, while trying to get to the rice paddy where the helicopters were landing to pick them up, the Special Forces team was nearly cut off by advancing enemy troops. According to their account, Van Buskirk's "only recourse was to call for help from the air. He radioed an Air Force controller above to call in two waiting A-1 Skyraiders to drop the 'bad of the bad.'" In other words, a trapped Van Buskirk called in a nerve-gas air strike.

 

That isn't how Van Buskirk described it in his book. "We called for air support, but the request soon had to be withdrawn because we [and the enemy] were literally at each other's throats," Van Buskirk wrote. "Then somebody upstairs had a bright idea -- drop gas. We were equipped with gas masks, he must have reasoned, and the gas would keep everyone busy until we were lifted out." What kind of gas was it? It all depends whether you listen to Van Buskirk now, or read his book.

 

Here is how Arnett and Oliver tell it:

 

Within seconds, the Skyraiders swooped over the advancing enemy and dropped gas canisters, scoring a direct hit. The G.I.s heard the canisters exploding and saw a wet for envelop the Vietnamese soldiers as they dropped to the ground, vomiting and convulsing. As the rescue choppers lifted his unit off, Van Buskirk manned a machine gun, scanning the elephant grass for targets, but there were none. "All I see is bodies," he recalls. "They are not fighting anymore. They are just lying, some on their sides, some on their backs. They are no longer combatants."

 

This description of events is the heart of CNN's claim that deadly sarin nerve gas was used that day. The Vietnamese were hit with an invisible gas that made them vomit, fall to the ground convulsing, and then die -- unmistakable symptoms, according to CNN, of exposure to sarin nerve gas. Without this description of the enemy's symptoms, Arnett and Oliver had no story. Which is probably why they didn't present Van Buskirk's written account of what happened when the planes dropped their gas bombs:

 

What confusion! About half of our guys, I'd estimate, had thrown theirs [gas masks] away or were carrying faulty masks. Mine was punctured by bullet holes or shrapnel which rendered it worthless. At first I tried to put it on while running, but it didn't do any good so I tossed it aside. Whereupon I immediately became sick. The gas was a nauseous kind, and I soon found myself wandering among dozens of other vomiting soldiers. They were friend and foe. When one is bent over sick, it's hard to distinguish one from the other. Finally, the sound of the first chopper could be heard to my left. I couldn't see it for the gas fog and the tears that filled my eyes.

 

Then, according to his book, Van Buskirk and his men made it to the helicopter:

 

"Okay, go!" I shouted, and with that we lifted off. Once airborne we took fire from every direction. The effects of the gas were wearing off, and the enemy opened fire on the rising choppers. Big 50-caliber machine gun bullets were chasing us, and many rounds tore into the birds. A young Marine door gunner standing next to me answered with his machine gun until he took a bullet in the neck. He grabbed his wound and fell backwards into the laps of our guys. While they tended to him, I moved forward and began squeezing off rounds in his place, firing wildly into the elephant grass below. I couldn't see who was shooting at us, but there was someone down there.

 

Let's compare. First, those aspects of the story that are shared by both accounts: In the CNN broadcast and in his book, Van Buskirk describes breathing enough gas that he was throwing up. In the CNN broadcast and in the book the soldiers get on helicopters and escape. Otherwise, the stories are radically different. Van Buskirk's book said the gas was so thick and opaque that he couldn't see where the helicopters were coming from; Arnett and Oliver report that the gas was nearly invisible. Van Buskirk wrote that the gas wore off, the Vietnamese recovered, and the helicopters came under heavy fire; CNN reports that Van Buskirk flew out in an eerie quiet, the Vietnamese guns silenced because the troops were all lying dead in the field. The two versions can't possibly both be true.

 

If it is Van Buskirk's written version that is true, the symptoms described -- vomiting, choking, and tearing -- are perfectly consistent with exposure to CS tear gas. Arnett and Oliver made much ado about the vomiting reported by Van Buskirk and other soldiers, claiming that vomiting is not a symptom of tear-gas exposure. But it is. One of the nation's most respected experts in chemical agents, Dr. Frederick Sidell, confirms this. And no doubt millions of American veterans can attest to the same effect, from their forced exposure to tear gas in one of the classic boot-camp rites of passage, a "confidence-building" exercise that leaves gassed recruits weeping and heaving.

 

CNN had an obligation, at the very least, to warn its viewers about Van Buskirk's remarkable change of stories. The fact that it did not demonstrates Arnett and Oliver's fundamental dishonesty in "Valley of Death." CNN's report is also demonstrably false on scientific grounds. And there is evidence Arnett and Oliver had good reason to know it was false.

 

In the CNN broadcast, the symptoms of exposure to the gas used in the attack were described as follows: "vomiting, convulsing, and falling quickly to the ground unconscious." These purported facts are ambiguous: Tear gas doesn't ordinarily leave its victims unconscious. But they come nowhere close to fitting the nerve-gas theory. The vomiting is the key to the puzzle. Though retching is indeed a side-effect of sarin exposure, it occurs only under certain circumstances, depending on how the victim is exposed and whether the nerve agent is vaporized or in its liquid state.

 

According to Dr. Sidell's essay in the 1996 text-book Chemical Warfare Agents, vomiting does not occur when sarin vapor is inhaled. Instead, vomiting occurs primarily when liquid sarin has been absorbed through the skin. The problem for CNN's account is that, while inhalation of sarin may produce nearly instantaneous effects, absorption of sarin through the skin takes time. Liquid sarin on the skin usually causes vomiting an hour or two after exposure. The delay can be as long as 18 hours and no shorter than 30 minutes. In other words, though vomiting can be an effect of sarin exposure, the immediate onset of vomiting is not. By contrast, immediate vomiting is a common effect of tear-gas exposure when the gas is in high concentrations.There is only one circumstance under which immediate vomiting is associated with sarin, and that is when the vaporized chemical comes in contact with unprotected eyes. Indeed, the most common physical consequence of sarin exposure is a condition called miosis -- an excessive contraction of the pupils. When terrorists released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995, some 98 percent of those exposed suffered from miosis. With miosis, the pupil contracts; the nerves in the eye are dulled; eyesight becomes blurry; there is usually pain in the eyes. The condition -- if not treated with atropine eye-drops -- can persist for days. Most of those in the Tokyo subway had minimal exposure to the gas and yet suffered from miosis, which can be caused by as little as 1/100 of a lethal dose of sarin. If the concentration is great, miosis is severe and disorienting -- and can lead to vomiting.

 

CNN claims sarin gas was used in Operation Tailwind, and yet Arnett and Oliver provide no account of any of the gas-exposed soldiers suffering from miosis. Had their exposure been great enough to cause vomiting, their miosis would have been so severe it would have lasted for days -- and would have been obvious to any observer. Asked about his eyes, Van Buskirk says with confidence that he never suffered a thing: When the gas hit, "I covered everything but my eyes." The gas "didn't bother my eyes. I was able to see and shoot. I made it to the chopper and could see to shoot the gun." Asked if he suffered any problems with his eyes in the days after the mission, Van Buskirk says he did not.

 

The absence of miosis and the immediacy of the vomiting are two of the reasons why, when Oliver contacted a leading expert in chemical agents, she was told that the gas couldn't possibly have been sarin. "Three or four months ago I got a call from a lady from CNN," says the scientist, who asked not to be named. "She described the signs and symptoms. I told her that they did not fit with exposure to nerve agent." The scientist says that Oliver became angry with him. "She told me she knew it was sarin gas because it had been confirmed to her by the Pentagon." The scientist didn't budge from his conclusion: Sarin could not have caused the symptoms the reporter had described. Oliver never called the scientist back, and not surprisingly his comments did not appear on the show.

 

The Pentagon has denied the story from the outset and is conducting an investigation. Now that many of those quoted in CNN's "Valley of Death" say they were misquoted or misrepresented, and now that Adm. Moorer, Capt. McCarley, and the pilot Bishop insist no nerve gas was used, Arnett and Oliver have fallen back on the claim that they are relying on confidential sources and secret documents, which they have yet to release. Had there actually been any such documents, they surely would have been the centerpiece of the broadcast. But none was shown or quoted from. News organizations don't usually pass up the chance to reveal secret documents.

 

Time's managing editor Walter Isaacson, in a prepared statement, says, "We're continuing to report this story and will clarify the charges and countercharges when we have more information." Contacted by THE WEEKLY STANDARD, CNN refused to make Arnett or Oliver, or anchor Jeff Greenfield, who introduced the "Valley of Death" segment on NewsStand, available for comment. Until CNN and Time retract their story and apologize, a noxious cloud of dishonor hangs over them both.