April Oliver and Jack Smith, the producers of the CNN program charging that the U.S. used deadly nerve gas on Operation Tailwind in Laos, are standing by their story even though CNN has retracted it and apologized. After they were fired, Oliver and Smith appeared on several TV shows, including CNN’s “Crossfire,” charging that CNN caved in to pressure from the Pentagon. They have had some success with this argument when they have not had to face critics thoroughly versed in the facts.
April Oliver presented her case to readers of The Washington Post on July 10 in a long op-ed article. The Post, which had done no investigative reporting of its own on the Tailwind story, allowed her to get away with the claim that her story had been confirmed by Admiral Thomas Moorer, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff despite the admiral’s insistence that he did no such thing.
Oliver said she had shown the script of her program to Admiral Moorer before the program aired to (quote) “reconfirm its accuracy.” She said he carefully reviewed the script, and raised no objections to it. This, she argued, was confirmation that the charges it made were correct. Moorer has written to The Washington Post denying that he studied the script carefully. He says that he glanced at it so casually that he didn’t even notice that Peter Arnett was the narrator.
Moorer says he had told Oliver that he would not cooperate if Peter Arnett was involved with the program and that she assured him that Arnett had nothing to do with it. He says that if he had noticed Arnett’s name in the script, he would have accused Oliver of deceiving him on the spot. He did so only after he saw the program.
Moorer says, and transcripts of his interviews confirm, that he told Oliver that he knew nothing about nerve gas being used on Operation Tailwind and could not confirm what others had told her. He advised her to have those people make their charges on camera. She said she had done that, but on the program she had only one person who said on camera that nerve gas had been used. That individual’s credibility is suspect because he is trying to get disability payments from the military on the grounds that he was exposed to nerve gas in Tailwind.
Bob Van Buskirk, the source on whom Oliver relied most heavily, has denied saying that nerve gas was used. Moorer’s letter cites Van Buskirk’s report to General Creighton Abrams in which he said that tear gas was used to protect the landing zone where the helicopters came to pick up the commandos. That was the only time he says gas was dropped during the operation. The use of tear gas to keep the enemy away was standard practice in Vietnam in the rescue of pilots downed in enemy territory. Art Bishop, one of the pilots who dropped the gas, told Oliver many times that it was tear gas, but he says that was not what she wanted to hear.