On June 7, in the inaugural broadcast of CNN's NewsStand, in a segment called “Valley of Death,” CNN's chief Pentagon correspondent, Peter Arnett, reported that in the Vietnam War, during an operation known as Tailwind, U.S. troops used sarin nerve gas to hunt down and kill American defectors in Laos. The story aired after an eight-month investigation by CNN producers April Oliver and Jack Smith, a 30-year veteran (23 at CBS, where he was bureau chief in D.C. and Chicago). The September 1970 commando raid was a black-bag maneuver by the Studies and Observations Group, an elite unit of the Army's Special Forces. It was Top Secret, CNN reported, not only because nerve gas was used on “friendlies,” but because the mission was conducted in Laos, where, presumably, the United States was not at war.
Before the investigation was aired, the producers sent a 156-page briefing book to CNN senior management, who were aware of the controversial nature of the story, yet approved its broadcast.
The 18-minute show quickly came under fire, the credibility of its on-air sources targeted by The New York Times, Newsweek and the Pentagon. CNN CEO Tom Johnson ordered an “independent investigation,” conducted by First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams and CNN co-counsel David Kohler. Upon the release of the Abrams-Kohler review, CNN issued a retraction and an apology, then fired Smith and Oliver, who shortly thereafter issued a rebuttal to the conclusions of Abrams and Kohler. Excerpts from CNN's report and Smith and Oliver's rebuttal follow; full text of both (as well as links to other sites) can be found on the Internet at www.laweekly.com.
Last week, Tailwind commander Eugene McCarley, who has complained about his treatment on the broadcast, said he had turned down an offer from CNN for $250,000 and would proceed with a lawsuit on behalf of himself and his men. CNN may thus be in the strange position of having to prove at least some elements of a story it has already retracted. A reading of both the Abrams-Kohler report and the Smith-Oliver rebuttal makes one thing certain: A reading of only one or the other is insufficient.