There are a number of problems with placing so much reliance on Van Buskirk. The use of 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. Van Buskirk himself disclosed in an October 1997 on-camera interview that he had been prescribed drugs for a "nervous disorder" for 10 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 posttraumatic stress disorder with "mind-bending drugs"). 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.
It was unacceptable to ignore his medical history, the inconsistency [of] what he said on air, and the ambiguity in his recollections of the gas. 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.
We hesitate to draw broad lessons from a single example of journalistic overkill. We do offer the following thoughts that have occurred to us as we reviewed the broadcast.
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.
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.
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.