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From AJR,   December 1998  issue

The Lessons of Tailwind   

CNN’s former military adviser sifts through the wreckage of the ill-fated “Valley of Death” report.


By Perry Smith
Perry Smith, a retired Air Force major general, is president of Visionary Leadership of Augusta, Georgia, and a contributing editor for U.S. News & World Report.     

As president of a small training institute, I teach leadership, strategic planning and ethics to executives in corporations, nonprofits and government organizations. One of the major points I emphasize is that professionals must move quickly when something unethical is taking place within their organization. If they ignore the problem, they themselves can be tarred, making it more and more difficult to correct the situation. I also suggest that getting to the big boss fast can be a useful approach. Often the top leader is unaware of the ethical problem or doesn't fully understand its implications. I also stress that if you can't right the wrong, you must be willing to resign, since loyalty to your own integrity must take precedence over loyalty to the boss, the organization, the job or anything else.

Not long ago I saw firsthand how serious the consequences of ignoring that first piece of advice can be. I followed the second, contacting the boss about a disaster in the making, but perhaps not emphatically enough. And I had to put my own commitment to the third principle to the test, ultimately ending a long and satisfying professional relationship.

From the day I entered the military as a 17-year-old cadet at the United States Military Academy, I learned the importance of integrity. If you are in a combat situation and the commander on your right flank tells you by radio that he is holding his position against an enemy assault, you must be able to trust him completely. If he is not telling the truth, if he is in the process of pulling back, the enemy can sneak up on your right, hit you with a surprise attack and destroy your unit.

For most of the 1990s, while I worked for CNN as a researcher, adviser and on-camera military analyst, I was impressed by the integrity of the network's professionals. When CNN made a mistake, it corrected the error quickly. I served CNN from the day the Persian Gulf War began and watched it evolve from a little-known cable network to a widely respected news organization. In 1991 I wrote a book, "How CNN Fought the War," which spotlighted the admiration I felt toward the professionals who worked so hard to cover the gulf war quickly, objectively and accurately.

But the organization I had respected so much behaved very differently this year when it aired a deeply flawed newsmagazine segment and, when its shortcomings became all too apparent, moved too slowly and too incompletely to set the record straight.

On June 14, my 7 1/2-year relationship with CNN ended when I resigned in protest over "Valley of Death."

I learned about CNN's June 7 report on Operation Tailwind--a Special Forces mission that took place in Laos in September 1970--when I got a call the previous Wednesday from a friend who had seen a short CNN promotion of the broadcast. He gave me a brief summary: The United States had used deadly nerve gas against American defectors. I was highly skeptical; I had flown 180 combat missions over Laos and North Vietnam and had never heard even a suggestion that anyone had used poison gas.

I called my nominal boss at CNN, Gail Evans, to ask some questions and express my concerns. She told me that she would call me back. In the meantime, I telephoned a number of experts on the Vietnam War, military historians and biographers.

During my first 24 hours of probing, I came up with one person who told me "it might well have happened," while others told me that it could not have happened or that they were unaware of the incident.

On June 4, I made my first mistake. I left a message on Evans' answering machine saying that I was going to "back off" from my objections since I had found one person who thought the horrendous incident might well have taken place. I should never have made that phone call based on one source, particularly when many others disagreed.

Meanwhile, I found myself deeply troubled by the situation. Since the hypothesis about the use of nerve gas against Americans or anyone else didn't make sense to me, I decided to continue digging. Many of my Air Force, Marine and Army friends (including many West Point classmates) were helpful in my quest for the truth.

On the evening before "Valley of Death" was scheduled to air, I had dinner with retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the American commander during the gulf war. He explained why a commander in ground combat would never have called for lethal gas. Later that evening, he told me that at least a dozen conspiracy theories had swirled around him (including one that accused him of conniving with Saddam Hussein to kill American troops), but CNN's story topped them all.

He also predicted that I would not be able to stop the network from going with the story, since the promotions were already running and there was clearly great momentum behind the program. The broadcast was to launch "NewsStand," CNN's much-ballyhooed new newsmagazine, which it was producing in conjunction with Time magazine (Time also ran an account of the Tailwind story).

The more I learned, the more convinced I was that this story was flat-out wrong. And so that Sunday, I decided I would be remiss if I didn't telephone Tom Johnson, the chairman and CEO of CNN News Group, to express my deep concerns.

When I reached Johnson, hours before "Valley of Death" was to air, I reminded him that I had spent 1968 and 1969 flying combat missions over Laos and had never heard anything then or since about Americans (or anyone else) using lethal gas anywhere in Southeast Asia. At the end of our conversation, I told him that I thought he was about to make a major mistake, one he would regret for the rest of his life.

Johnson asked me to contact Rick Kaplan, the president of CNN/U.S. Kaplan told me the story had been eight months in the making and was rock solid. I told him that I thought he was about to make a huge mistake.

Kaplan had "Valley of Death" producers April Oliver and Jack Smith call me. They answered all my questions but did not agree with me when I suggested that two of their sources might not be reliable. They told me that many people had confirmed their hypotheses, although they did not share the identities of their sources with me. I asked them why they had not discussed the story with me and CNN Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre. I also asked why they had not contacted the biographer and close associates of Gen. Creighton Abrams, the commander of the American forces in Vietnam in 1970.

Their research was thorough, Oliver and Smith replied, and they were certain that they had gotten the story right. I emphasized that I was not convinced; in fact, I told them, I thought they were about to drive CNN right off a cliff.

That's when I made my second mistake. As soon as I hung up, I should have called Johnson and Kaplan to tell them that I still had major concerns. I should have urged the network chief to hold the Tailwind broadcast so that McIntyre and I and others could make sure it was airtight.

As I watched "Valley of Death," I was appalled by its style and its substance. It was much worse than I had expected. CNN accused the U.S. military of four major war crimes: planning for and using lethal nerve gas; killing American defectors with lethal gas; targeting innocent women and children with lethal gas; and using lethal gas on their own troops in an effort to rescue them from the enemy. None of these allegations seemed to track with reality.

In the next three days I had e-mail or telephone contact with about 200 people in my military brain trust. I also telephoned Gene McCarley, the Special Forces commander on the ground during Tailwind; three of the Air Force Skyraider pilots who flew in support of Tailwind (including both of the pilots who dropped the gas); and one of the Marine helicopter pilots who rescued the embattled Special Forces team on the last day of the operation. In addition, I focused on Air Force logistics and munitions records to determine exactly what kind of gas had been carried on those Skyraiders that day. My combat experience and my expertise in munitions and aviation logistics told me that the most reliable sources would be the munitions records, load crews and the pilots.

By the morning of June 11, I had learned that munitions records showed the planes carried a strong tear gas called CS, not the nerve gas sarin cited in the broadcast. The soldiers on the ground were surrounded and in such desperate shape that only by hitting everyone--friendly and enemy soldiers alike--with tear gas could the helicopters get in to rescue the American soldiers and their Montagnard allies.

By now I was absolutely certain CNN's story was wrong. I telephoned Johnson and told him that I had incontrovertible evidence that the story was dead wrong and urged him to issue a complete retraction--fast. In the next three days I bombarded him with e-mails raising point-by-point refutations about each allegation in the broadcast.

When I realized that I was making no progress, I began to seriously consider leaving CNN. I asked myself during sleepless nights how I could work for an organization that would produce such an egregious report and compound the error with an unwillingness to set the record straight. Each e-mail I sent was stronger than the one before. On June 13, I wrote to Johnson: "Watching a great organization self-destruct is sad indeed. It is not too late to turn this whole situation around, but time is running out fast."

The day I sent that message, I received an e-mail from a reserve Army officer who was serving an active duty tour at Fort Benning, Georgia. His background was with the Special Forces, and his message had a powerful impact on me.

"Sir, please assist us in regaining our honor, you 'fast movers' never let us down in [South Vietnam], you and your peers got me out of hot water many times, so I hate to impose and ask you to once more leap into the breach. So many of the men [who] ran those dangerous missions are dying now as a result of the wounds received, the diseases that ran through them, malaria, dengue, etc., the physical abuse one's body had to absorb in the performance of duties, that this is having a terrible effect on them. Please don't let their last thoughts be that once again their sacrifices were in vain, and that the press can once again crucify us as they did 30 years ago."

Soon after I read this message, I decided I had to leave CNN.

A week or so after my resignation, Johnson brought in an outside expert to ascertain whether "Valley of Death" was, in fact, a fair and faithful depiction of what really happened during Operation Tailwind. It did not take long for Floyd Abrams, the distinguished First Amendment lawyer, to conclude that the broadcast was way off track.

On July 2 Johnson retracted the story, apologizing to some of the soldiers, airmen and Marines who had participated in Tailwind, and fired producers Oliver and Smith. Pamela Hill, the head of the investigative unit, resigned. Peter Arnett, the on-camera reporter, was reprimanded. But neither Kaplan nor Arnett was fired, as I had urged. Also, the retraction did not state categorically that these war crimes had never occurred.

Whenever something goes terribly wrong, it's valuable to sift through the wreckage to figure out how a recurrence can be prevented. There are a number of important lessons to be drawn from this tragic episode.

• It's critical to assemble a strong ethical brain trust, a group that you can go to for advice and assistance when something is bothering you. When doubts were raised about Tailwind, 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.

• When it comes to information, never assume that high quantity equals high quality. The real test for all serious research is a satisfactory answer to three questions. Are the hypotheses clearly stated? Have they been thoroughly tested and proven? Has there been a sincere effort to try to disprove these hypotheses? In this case, the hypotheses were clear but none was proven, nor was there any serious attempt to see if they could be refuted.

• Leaders in all organizations should be skeptical of conspiracy theories--the "Oliver Stone rule." They should be particularly careful when they examine research based on the assumption that many people are lying or covering up something. There are instances when this is the case--but not many. During my 34 years of government service, I witnessed many stupid things. I also observed unethical people selling their souls for a promotion, more power or just to keep the boss happy. However, there was always someone within the decision or implementation processes who had integrity and was willing to blow a whistle during or after the questionable activity.

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, data base managers, historians, enemy soldiers. Keeping all of these people quiet for 28 years would have required the perfect coverup. I have observed some great work by government officials, but I have yet to encounter perfection.

• 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. This is one of the greatest failings of the top leaders at CNN. The Tailwind story was developed by CNN's investigative unit with little coordination with others at the network. CNN's leadership knew it had an explosive story about the military. If it had asked the producers whether, during their many months of research, they had checked with the six people at CNN who had a deep understanding of military matters, they would have found out that Oliver and Smith had consulted only one, Peter Arnett.

• All organizations, especially those in the news business, should conduct, on a regular basis, ethics training, using case studies from the field of journalism and elsewhere, for all of their professionals. Prior to "Valley of Death," CNN had no such program.

• News organizations should have an ombudsman who is street smart, has sensitive antennae and has the total trust and support of the top boss. If CNN had had an ombudsman in early June, he or she would have received my first call, four days before "Valley of Death" was to air.

• When a major mistake is made, organizations must admit error, hold executives fully accountable, issue a complete retraction and take aggressive and sustained steps to prevent similar problems in the future.

If the American democracy is to thrive, we must have a vigorous press. The year 1998 has not been an outstanding one for American journalism. There have been ethical lapses at the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Boston Globe, The New Republic, CNN and Time. Useful insights can be gained from each of these setbacks. The CNN/Time debacle should provide more insights than the others since it was such a massive failure by two distinguished news organizations and it hurt more people, by far.

As an executive told me after I had just experienced a major failure, "I learn a great deal about the character of leaders by how they handle failure; we can learn more from our mistakes than from our successes."