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American Journalism Review
Sorting It Out  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   September 1998

Sorting It Out   

By Susan Paterno
Susan Paterno ( is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

Here are some of the key areas of dispute surrounding CNN's ``Valley of Death'' broadcast:
Was deadly sarin nerve gas used by the U.S. military in a 1970 raid in Laos called Operation Tailwind?

According to the CNN broadcast: As he prepared for the mission, Tailwind platoon leader Robert Van Buskirk ``said an Air Force colonel privately warned him about the lethal gas.'' The broadcast fails to specify if he meant it was going to be used on the mission.

  • Tailwind commander Capt. Eugene McCarley told CNN off-camera, ``The use of nerve gas on Tailwind was very possible,'' then said on camera: ``I never, ever considered the use of lethal gas.''
  • Adm. Thomas Moorer, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, never directly stated on camera that nerve gas was used. CNN reporter Peter Arnett said in the broadcast that Moorer confirmed the use of nerve gas.
    Moorer saw the script before it was broadcast and raised no substantive objections, according to producer April Oliver. (Moorer has said he saw the script but didn't read it.) In a June 14 follow-up, he said, ``I had no...knowledge of the use of sarin. However, later in general discussions I learned of...verbal statements indicating the use of sarin.'' He said his remarks had been taken out of context; CNN apologized and paid him a settlement.
  • Michael Hagen, a platoon sergeant, and reconnaissance leader Jay Graves both said on camera that nerve gas was used.
  • Arnett said several current and former military officials, who asked not to be identified, said sarin was used in Tailwind.
  • Arnett said a pilot ``who dropped gas to get the commandos out said he was briefed it was just tear gas.'' In the follow-up, CNN reported that logistic records showed tear gas was loaded on the planes and pilots were told they were carrying tear gas.

    Floyd Abrams' report on the broadcast concludes:

  • Much of the important data said to support the broadcast's allegation that nerve gas was used ``offers far less support than had been suspected.''
  • ``Statements of sources that were vague, ambiguous or qualified were relied upon as if they were clear, focused and unambiguous.''
  • ``Viewed as a whole, Adm. Moorer simply does not come close to offering the sort of support for [CNN's] conclusions that the program asserts that he does.''

    Was the goal of Operation Tailwind to kill American defectors, as the broadcast alleges? In the broadcast:

  • Graves said he saw in the camp ``some round-eyed people. We don't know whether they were prisoners or whatever.'' Arnett said Graves' ``recon team spotted several Americans: round eyes, either POWs or defectors.''
  • Tailwind operative Jim Cathey said he spotted 10 to 15 Caucasians in the camp; he said he believed they were American defectors because ``there was no sign of any kind of restraint. In retrospect, I believe that the mission was to wipe out those long shadows,'' slang for Caucasians.
  • Moorer said: ``I'm sure that there were some defectors. There are always defectors.'' Arnett said Moorer ``acknowledged in an off-camera interview that Tailwind's target was, indeed, defectors.''
    Arnett said ``other senior military officials also confirm that Tailwind's objective was a group of defectors collaborating with the enemy'' and ``several former senior military officials have confirmed to CNN that the village and the defectors were Tailwind's objective.''
  • Van Buskirk said he heard from Laotian tribesmen, on the mission as U.S. allies, that ``beaucoup round eyes'' were among the dead. He claimed to have chased two Caucasians down a hole where he blasted them with a grenade. One spoke perfect English, he said.
  • McCarley denied Tailwind's mission was to kill defectors, saying his orders were to draw enemy troops away from CIA mercenaries in battle nearby.

    The Abrams report says:

  • The substance of Adm. Moorer's interviews does not confirm that Tailwind's ``target was indeed defectors.''
  • ``The sources supporting the notion of Caucasians in the base camp did not always tell consistent stories.... Van Buskirk referred initially to Russians, and then said he believed they were Americans.... The possibilities of Russians was not mentioned.''

    The rebuttal by producers April Oliver and Jack Smith says:

  • ``We did...have a reference to the possibility that these were Russians...but this was taken out at the direction of `NewsStand's' deputy executive producer Jim Connor and executive producer Pamela Hill because of time constraints.''

    How strong were the three confidential sources?

    The Abrams report says:

  • Source #1, ``who has been highly placed for many years,'' said a nerve agent was used, but he wasn't ``basing his support on actual knowledge.''
  • Source #2, a highly placed intelligence source, ``provided the CNN producer, through a third party, with information confirming [nerve gas] was used.... The source did not provide information directly to the producer and there is thus no way for us to assess the precise questions asked of and answered by the source.''
  • Source #3, a former senior military officer, provided ``a level of support for the truth 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.'' Oliver and Smith stand by their sources.

    Return to An Ill Tailwind part one



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