By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
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, 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.
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 start with Admiral Thomas Moorer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from July 1970 to July 1974. 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." [CNN correspondent Peter] 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.
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. [Yet] 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. When asked if there was anything historically significant about Operation Tailwind, Admiral Moorer responded that he did not think that it was "historically significant."
[In an un-aired segment, Moorer was] asked directly about the use of sarin gas on Operation Tailwind, and 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 U.S. ever used lethal nerve gas in combat. How much awareness do you have of this?
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.
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.]
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[es] not confirm "that nerve gas was used in Tailwind" or that the Tailwind "target was indeed defectors."
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 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.
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. At the very least, the degree of actual knowledge possessed by the source should have been probed in more depth.