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.
[Another] 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 a 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.
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. 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.
Men of Operation Tailwind
Captain Eugene McCarley . . . led the SOG Operation in Laos. [In the broadcast] Arnett states that McCarley told CNN off camera that the use of nerve gas on Tailwind was “very possible.” In an interview with us 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). Minimizing McCarley's views on the broadcast [is unacceptable]. 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.
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. Gary Michael “Doc” Rose, the medic awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (and nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor) for his participation in Tailwind . . . told a CNN producer on three occasions that the gas used in Tailwind was not GB nerve gas.
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.
The on-the-ground figure who dominated the CNN broadcast was [Lieutenant] 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 15 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 [CNN producer April] Oliver.
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.