Producers Jack Smith and April Oliver's Rebuttal
Floyd Abrams and David Kohler's report (the "AK Report") is thin on detail, and shows a weak and superficial understanding of the facts upon which the broadcast was based. It makes unsupported propositions regarding the credibility of sources, appears to rely on third-party reporting, virtually ignores the most significant confirming and corroborating statements from sources, and repeatedly proposes ambiguities which are at odds with any common-sense reading of the interview transcripts.
The quotes [from Admiral Moorer] are set forth non-sequentially in the AK Report, which substantially distorts their content. The AK Report virtually ignores the third and most important interview with the Admiral in May 1998, referring to it in only a single paragraph. In that off-camera interview with April Oliver, Admiral Moorer was asked whether killing defectors was the mission in Tailwind and replied, "I have no doubt about that." In that interview, he also clearly and unambiguously confirmed that sarin nerve gas was "by and large" available for search and rescue missions, that it was "definitely available" in the Vietnam War and that it saved American lives in Laos. "We are going to report the U.S. used nerve gas in combat during Tailwind. Will we be correct in saying this?" "Yes, I think so." None of these confirmations are even given passing mention in the AK Report, which concludes that none of Moorer's statements are "sufficiently clear to be relied upon as a true confirmation or anything like it."
[One] confidential source is a military official who the AK Report acknowledges "has been highly placed for years," and, in the words of the AK Report itself, is "particularly knowledgeable about chemical weaponry, [and] intimately familiar with nerve agents." This source also has detailed knowledge of Operation Tailwind. His credibility is not attacked by the AK Report.
This confidential source was the original lead for the story. [He], like Admiral Moorer, ultimately reviewed and approved the script for the Tailwind broadcast, giving the "thumbs up" signal a number of times as he read it, including in particular with respect to the use of CBU-15 on Operation Tailwind. The AK Report, however, proceeds to state that "[t]here are serious weaknesses in this confirmation . . . " [Yet] no reference is made to the following exchange [between Oliver and the source] in the AK Report: "Offensive use of nerve agent unusual?" "I know of only one instance of this, this one." This exchange represents actual knowledge, not reasoning.
When asked whether getting defectors was a part of the mission, the source replied, "It's a no-brainer. You want to kill defectors. They are a huge embarrassment, particularly in context of the times with the antiwar movement. And they can be a big military problem, with the codes and language, and working with the radios . . ."
[Another] confidential source is a former senior military official, intimately familiar with SOG operations and Tailwind. His intimate knowledge is confirmed by multiple other sources.
His credibility is not attacked by the AK Report.
With respect to this confidential source, the AK Report states that what was said by the source "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."
This source confirms that CBU-15 was used on Operation Tailwind and that the target was defectors:
"Just one last time, your own personal understanding of Tailwind is that it was a mission in which CBU-15, GB, was used at least twice on the village base camp and on extraction, and that the target was a group of American defectors?"
"You are not going to use my name on this are you?"
"No, sir, you are on background as a senior military official."
"Yeah. That's my view."
Men of Operation Tailwind
The AK Report states that more prominence should have been given to Captain McCarley. The AK Report ignores totally the facts (1) that because McCarley was wounded early, Van Buskirk, not McCarley, led a the attack on the base camp, called for the gas (the "baddest of the bad"), and was chosen to brief General Creighton Abrams on the operation, (2) that McCarley made numerous contradictory statements regarding the gas, including "[i]t very well could have been nerve gas," not referred to in the AK Report, and (3) that McCarley stands ready to deny that the U.S. military was ever in Laos at all, stating in an on-camera interview that:
"IF OPERATING ACROSS BORDER [INTO LAOS] IS CONSIDERED UNETHICAL OR DENIABLE, THEN I RECKON I'M DENYING IT."
In other words, McCarley stands ready to deny everything relating to operations in Laos by the U.S. military. This pronouncement, nowhere referred to in the AK Report, cuts to the very heart of McCarley's lack of credibility on Tailwind.
The AK Report states that our failure to use the medic, Gary Rose, in the broadcast is "troubling." The AK Report uncritically refers to Rose's post-broadcast remarks that the gas was CS tear gas. As with McCarley, information undermining Rose's credibility on this issue is entirely ignored by the AK Report. In fact, Rose initially adamantly denied any gas at all. Later he changed his position, saying that the gas was "incapacitating" and was definitely not CS gas. He said "it was awful stuff." Furthermore, in a post-broadcast conversation Rose volunteer[ed] that the broadcast had reminded him that he was told to take extra atropine (the sarin-nerve-gas antidote) with him on the mission. Later still after the broadcast, he finally came to the position mentioned uncritically and without context in the AK Report that this was, in fact, tear gas. Reading the AK Report, one would believe that Rose's statements were clear, consistent and credible. They were none of these.
The AK Report states as uncontroverted fact that Lieutenant Van Buskirk "has . . . stated that he had repressed-memory syndrome." This allegation appears to arise from a third-party report by Newsweek magazine. Van Buskirk calls it "hogwash."
The notes from the first call made by Oliver to Van Buskirk in October 1997 make it clear that he did not suffer from repressed memory. In that call he references both his killing of a Caucasian who cursed at him in perfect English and the use of a lethal nerve gas.
The AK Report's assertion that Van Buskirk initially referred to the gas as tear gas, when his statements in his initial interview are read, is an extraordinary misrepresentation of what he said.
"That stuff they put in the CBU-19s it made us sick. The enemy was off on the hilltop, and started to come down on us. We had no choice. I had no choice. We were dead meat so I called out for the baddest of the bad. The rotors of the choppers kept it off us, and pushed it away from us." . . . "The rest of the enemy all died from the gas." "Oh, yeah, it was lethal war gas. Course they don't tell us too much . . ." "It came out of NKP. An A1E was carrying it." "It wasn't no incapacitating gas in that CBU-19."
He also describes the symptoms of those exposed to the gas in some detail, including a description of the enemy "laying down to die."
"My unit puked their brains out. We all got amoebic dysentery. Everyone's nose ran and all this mucus started coming out of everyone's nostrils. Lots of enemy started having seizures . . . ."
These are not tear-gas symptoms.
Regardless of Mr. Abrams' dismissal of Van Buskirk because he was "on the ground," the soldiers on the ground are the eyewitnesses, and therefore are obviously best placed to describe their experiences. Furthermore, Van Buskirk, on the ground, was the de facto leader of the operation and was the commando who called for the gas, the "baddest of the bad." Finally, Van Buskirk had been told about a lethal gas and, like Captain McCarley, had been briefed that any weapon in the U.S. arsenal would be available to him except nuclear weapons.
We have always been aware of contradictory information regarding nerve gas and defectors. We sought interviews with many who might contradict the story, including former National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger (he did not return our calls or letters), former CIA Director Richard Helms (who said he did not know anything about it), former SOG commander John Sadler (who told us our request, one of four, was in the trash can), and a former CIA station chief (who did not want to go on camera). Had any of these potential sources spoken, their views would have been aired. (A list of those approached is set forth in Attachment 1 to this Rebuttal.)
In a June 18 meeting, [CNN Worldwide President] Rick Kaplan said this was a public-relations problem, not a journalism problem, and that he did not want this controversy to progress to congressional hearings with "3,000" members of the establishment on one side of the room and CNN and members of the Special Forces on the other. During that same meeting, Kaplan and [CNN CEO Tom] Johnson expressed their concern about the pressure they were receiving from Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell and the threat of a cable boycott by veterans groups.
During that time, Kaplan and Johnson gagged us from publicly defending the broadcast, and pulled Pamela Hill and Jack Smith from a scheduled appearance on CNN's "Reliable Sources" program. Nevertheless, CNN continued to air unopposed criticism about the broadcast without any fairness or balance on the "Reliable Sources" program and with a news report from the Special Forces convention.
During the same period, Tom Johnson ordered us to the Pentagon to assist the Pentagon's Public Affairs Office with its investigation of Operation Tailwind. That meeting took place on Monday, June 22.
In the end, we were fired.
We stand by our reporting and producing of both Tailwind stories.
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