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American Journalism Review
The Wrong Lessons  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   July/August 1999

The Wrong Lessons   

A producer of CNN’s retracted Tailwind broadcast staunchly defends the story and assails a critic’s proposal for handling controversial reports on the military.

By April Oliver
April Oliver sued CNN following her firing.     


In the year since CNN executives retracted our story on Operation Tailwind, Jack Smith and I, its producers, continue to hear of additional corroborations that the U.S. military used deadly nerve gas in Laos during the Vietnam War to kill American defectors.

One independent investigator, a military veteran, has found support for our findings during his six-month research effort. He is buttressing his reporting to withstand the denials that can be expected from the Pentagon and CNN. Others, including reporter Dennis McDougal, who conducted a four-month investigation for TV Guide, believe our research on this CIA-approved mission had substantial merit. Even lawyer Floyd Abrams--no friend of the June 7, 1998, broadcast--conceded it was based on "exhaustive research." In addition, I have revealed in court papers that a leading critic of the broadcast, retired Gen. John Singlaub, was a prime source for our story.

Yet Smith and I were fired for not reaching a retroactive burden of proof imposed on us by CNN's executives. We were fired even though our bosses knew the depth of our sources and had been warned in a written memo that our story would likely generate controversy and Pentagon wrath.

Put simply, I feel we were scapegoated so CNN could preserve its highly valued and all-too-friendly relationship with the military. During the Tailwind controversy last summer, CNN's executives and the Pentagon operated as a virtual joint venture to crush the story. The fact is CNN needs the Pentagon's ongoing cooperation for the 24-hour network's immediate access to U.S. military operations.

In "The Lessons of Tailwind" in AJR's December issue, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Perry Smith, formerly CNN's military adviser, attempted to position himself as the military czar overseeing journalistic ethics and integrity, assailing our reputations and characters. The general made the sweeping allegation that the Tailwind broadcast involved "ethical lapses" but failed to give specifics--because none occurred.

First, some background. My Tailwind co-producer, Jack Smith, has built a career and earned a reputation on his integrity and ethics. When he was a rookie reporter in the early '60s, his editors at the City News Bureau of Chicago hammered into him the first commandment for covering news: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." Smith did just that, while covering the cops, mobsters and politicians who dominated Chicago's front pages. He followed that commandment for four decades from City News to the Chicago Daily News to CBS and CNN. He ran the CBS News Chicago bureau in the '70s and its Washington bureau in the '80s. Then, as now, Jack Smith stood firm in his support of what he knows to be solid reporting. And he is the person that I have come to respect beyond all others in the broadcast business.

Of all the many inaccuracies that have circulated about Tailwind, the attacks on Jack Smith's character and editorial judiciousness have been the most wrenching and ill-founded.

Nor have I, in 15 years of news reporting, ever been embroiled in controversy or charged with inaccuracy, until now.

Perry Smith has done much to advance this unwarranted character assassination. Not only does his allegation of "ethical lapses" lack basis in fact, he also proposes some alarming new standards for journalism. He counsels that media bosses should form brain trusts, with their own personal generals on call, when dealing with controversial military stories. Underneath a posture of integrity and ethics, he calls for increased military control over national security stories.

Perry Smith arrived at different editorial assessments than Jack Smith and I did regarding the credibility of individuals involved in Operation Tailwind. The retired general posits that he is more qualified to make these judgments by virtue of his long experience in the military.

In his attacks on the Tailwind broadcast, Smith lends great credence to the captain of the mission, Eugene McCarley. McCarley now states adamantly that Tailwind was an innocuous diversionary mission, in which tear gas was dropped. But he initially told CNN at various times that the gas was "something like mustard gas, but without the burn," that it was "very possible" it was nerve gas and that it was "incapacitating." McCarley also told us on-camera that "if going 'cross border [into Laos] was considered unethical or deniable, I reckon I'm denying it."

Our evaluation was that McCarley's statements were inconsistent, his on-camera aversion of eyes and long pauses highly suspect, and his new stance regarding Tailwind, gas and defectors reflected his willingness to deny anything that might be an embarrassment to the U.S. military. There is nothing ethically questionable about how we arrived at this evaluation, which is based on the written and taped record.

Smith's argument rests mostly on the postulate that if he or his high-ranking fellow officers didn't know about nerve gas use or killing defectors, it couldn't be so. It's a disingenuous argument. Smith knows, of course, that the world of special operations and covert warfare is structured so that information about these secret missions will be tightly compartmentalized to prevent the conventional military, the media and the public from unearthing them. This provides "plausible deniability" to military and political leaders should these secrets ever be revealed.

Perry Smith suggests that surely retired generals Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell would know about these operations, if they happened. But these revered generals are not experts in unconventional warfare, never served in Laos during the Vietnam War and would have had no direct knowledge of these events. The soldiers who know the most regarding these secret activities are the commandos who were on the ground during Tailwind and those officers who were in the chain of command in 1970.

The CNN report of nerve gas use and the killing of defectors was based on these commandos' and officers' statements and information provided by chemical weapons experts. We were told by two Air Force commanders that not even pilots would know the exact nature of the weapons they were carrying--only where to drop them. Even so, more than a dozen pilots attested that a special last-resort gas weapon existed, which they variously described as incapacitating gas, nerve gas, GB (a name for sarin) or CBU-15 (a sarin cluster bomb).

As for ethics, the world of special operations is predicated on the view that there is no such thing as an unethical action, only deniable ones. Repeatedly, we were told by the special operations commandos that any weapons were permissible, as long as a good cover story could be invented to protect the chain of command. In this world, presumably, sarin nerve gas is explained as being a super-duper "tear gas." Yet tear gas does not produce convulsions on the battlefield, as Tailwind commandos described having happened.

The general never addresses the military's fundamental structure of duplicity designed to protect and uphold covert, unconventional warfare. For instance, in many of the documents, the Tailwind mission is said to have occurred in enemy-controlled Vietnam, not Laos. This standard practice of sterilizing paperwork poses real credibility problems for the general's assertion that any munitions records he waves around definitively prove the gas was merely tear gas. (Remember, the victims of the My Lai massacre were said in official Pentagon documents to be hardened North Vietnamese Army combatants.)

The general seeks to position himself on the ethical high ground, yet I believe he acted in an ethically questionable way during last year's Tailwind controversy. Smith states that on June 11, 1998, he learned of munitions records stating that the gas used in Tailwind was merely a strong tear gas, and that he had "incontrovertible evidence" our story was "dead wrong." We had requested Pentagon documents for eight months but were denied them. If the general obtained the documents (in all likelihood, sanitized), he was obliged to share them with us immediately. He was then a CNN employee, and we were preparing another broadcast for June 14. If he had not obtained them, it was wrong of him then to boast he had "incontrovertible evidence" of the story's inaccuracy.

The general makes numerous other factual mistakes in his critique, which raise questions about his objectivity and purpose. He claims, for instance, that an anonymous friend called him to tip him of promotional spots on CNN, reporting the use of nerve gas and the killing of defectors. This is inaccurate. The promos made no mention of nerve gas use or the killing of defectors, as we did not wish to give away the story before broadcast. One wonders who Smith's mysterious friend was, what his agenda was, and where he was getting his information.

The general incorrectly states that Tailwind producers did not consult close associates of Gen. Creighton Abrams--commander of American forces in Vietnam in 1970--in preparation for the broadcast. Abrams' associates were consulted, including officers and CIA operatives sometimes present at weekly intelligence meetings during the Vietnam War. Some lent support but did not want their names used.

Smith promotes the idea that he should have been brought into the Tailwind investigation earlier in the process. This is self-serving propaganda. Neither by industry standards nor CNN's practices would or should this retired general have the right to participate in an investigative report about the military. CNN's investigative unit has a long and proud history of digging into military stories, without Smith's or any other flag officer's stamp of approval.

For instance, months before the Tailwind report, the CNN program "IMPACT" aired a story on these elite special operations commandos. That report outlined their possible use of incapacitating chemicals during the Vietnam War. The program was widely applauded within CNN and received praise from the military. Perry Smith was never consulted for that program, no one insisted that he be consulted, and he has never raised his lack of participation as an issue. This "IMPACT" broadcast led to the Tailwind tip.

Nor is it the industry standard for career generals to approve programs for television air. One wonders, now that Smith is consulting for NBC and CBS, if this retired general has affirmed to Don Hewitt his right to involve himself in all "60 Minutes" investigations pertaining to the military.

The general's behavior throughout Tailwind is another alarm bell that the line between the military and the media has become dangerously blurred. Smith used his friendship with CNN News Group Chairman Tom Johnson to coerce Johnson into a hasty retreat from the Tailwind report. Smith employed such tactics as threatening retaliation from the Pentagon against CNN on future coverage, as well as giving an emotional plea that he was praying for Johnson's soul so Johnson would do the right thing.

When Smith could not control the editorial process to his satisfaction, he resigned with dramatic flourish. He then went on a public relations blitz, rallying veterans to the cause. Smith's personal pique ratcheted up the hysteria. The veterans organized an Internet campaign to deluge and overwhelm the CNN executives with enraged, impassioned missives. Most of those writing would have no direct knowledge of the Tailwind events, and many displayed an inaccurate understanding of the chemistry of sarin and the tactics guiding its use in last-resort circumstances.

Perry Smith makes no bones about it: He was not merely demanding a retraction and an apology, he was calling for heads to roll. Not only does this retired general think he and his flag officer brain trust have a right to editorial control, he believes they should be determining employment policy.

He concluded his treatise in AJR with several dictums for news organizations. These deserve scrutiny:

• Smith asserts that "[i]t's critical to assemble a strong ethical brain trust.... Johnson could easily have sought the wisdom of his friend Colin Powell--a man of towering integrity who had two combat tours in the Vietnam War." It is in statements such as this that Smith reveals an insidious belief in control of the media by senior military figures. But this statement also highlights how personal "friendships" can corrupt decision-making. Powell is a highly distinguished military leader, but he is clearly not an objective figure on this matter. Yet during the controversy, Johnson did consult Powell--repeatedly, as Johnson has publicly admitted. I believe it was fear of congressional hearings with Powell on the wrong side of the room from CNN, and the bad public relations that could follow, that helped motivate CNN's retraction of our story last July. The extraordinary weight given to Powell's opinions, even though he had no firsthand knowledge of the mission, was part of CNN's tainted handling of the Tailwind report.

• Smith writes that "[i]n this case, the hypotheses were clear but none was proven, nor was there any serious attempt to see if they could be refuted." This is grossly inaccurate and also reflects a misguided notion of the fundamental tenets of journalism. There was no hypothesis. The statements about nerve gas use and the killing of defectors were multiply sourced and attributed to specific, credible individuals. Moreover, a considerable effort went into obtaining various viewpoints. Several skeptics and naysayers were, in fact, included in the two Tailwind broadcasts, including McCarley, a pilot and a Pentagon chemical expert. A dozen other senior officials or officers who might have expressed such viewpoints were approached but declined to go on-camera. President Nixon's national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, was one of the many who declined to participate and then wielded private pressure to kill the broadcast.

• Smith suggests that Tailwind's producers are misguided conspiracy theorists. "If nerve gas had been used in the Vietnam War, thousands of people would have known--commanders, pilots, soldiers, load crew members, munitions storage people, intelligence officers, supply officials, transportation officials, database managers, historians, enemy soldiers." Perhaps Smith will be relieved to hear that some of the people he describes have in fact volunteered statements corroborating the use of nerve gas and the killing of defectors. We continue to receive calls. It appears Tailwind was not an isolated incident.

• Smith asserts, "Leaders should keep a sharp eye on any compartmentalized group to make sure it upholds and supports the established institutional values and ethics of the organization." Surely Smith should be lecturing here to the military--not the media. The compartmentalized special operations commandos waged a secret war, helping create a wasteland of Laos. Insinuating unethical conduct, Smith does not state exactly how the Tailwind producers supposedly transgressed CNN institutional values. Moreover, Smith inaccurately states we did not consult individuals at CNN with a deep understanding of military culture, other than Peter Arnett. In fact, co-producer Jack Smith is an Army veteran, as is the hands-on manager most directly responsible for the Tailwind broadcast, CNN's Jim Connor. Our cameraman/co-producer, Michael Marriott, was one of the longest-serving newsmen on the ground during the Vietnam War. Several other senior CNN investigators were consulted--journalists who have covered covert action and possess a keen sensitivity about the need for keeping up firewalls between the military and the press.

• Smith calls for widespread ethics training, suggesting that somehow the Tailwind producers were ethically challenged. Yet every source used in Tailwind was quoted in context and fact-checked. Reporting secret tactics in a war that the United States lost may be unpopular, but it is not unethical.

The general's final bit of advice for journalists is, "When a major mistake is made, organizations must admit error, hold executives fully accountable." He says CNN/U.S. President Rick Kaplan and reporter Arnett should have lost their jobs, but curiously Smith never calls for the resignation of his personal friend, Johnson. Yet Johnson was the most senior figure with editorial responsibility for Tailwind. He was directly involved, assigning Washington Bureau Chief Frank Sesno as his editorial gatekeeper prior to the broadcast of the program. At Johnson's direction, senior executives including Kaplan, Sesno and others made concrete changes to the report during the week leading up to its broadcast. Johnson approved the story for broadcast. By applying Smith's own analysis of executive responsibility, Johnson should have lost his job.

More than any person, Smith clouded fact-finding on Tailwind. He demonstrates repeatedly that he doesn't understand the reporting process and basic journalistic values. He appears to believe that truth can be won through a well-executed military pressure campaign, which includes disinformation tactics and character assassination.

Is this the shape of military coverage to come? If Smith's ill-founded advice was taken, news organizations would become another branch of the military and a soapbox for the Pentagon. Tough, aggressive reporting on secret warfare is rarely embraced by the military but must remain a vital part of the democratic system.

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