Despite a retraction and apology over its story about Operation Tailwind, the questions remains: why would CNN depict American soldiers as committing war crimes during the Vietnam War? Referring to the accusation that American troops used deadly nerve gas and killed women and children, retired Lt. Col. Eugene McCarley, the commander of Tailwind, said, “They are saying we are war criminals when we are clearly not.”
If the motives of the producers, Jack Smith and April Oliver, are still in dispute, then the agenda of reporter Peter Arnett is not. His record is clear. As we noted in a previous Media Monitor, one of his stories during the Vietnam War was about our use of non-lethal tear gas, which he associated with poison gas. This set off an international furor that helped Arnett win a Pulitzer Prize. April Oliver was aware of this, noting during an appearance on the Charlie Rose program on public television that Arnett had experience with the subject while covering Vietnam. Clearly, Arnett knew what he was doing when he put his name on this story.
However, Arnett was not fired along with Smith and Oliver, reportedly because CNN chief executive Tom Johnson believed that his reporting from Baghdad, Iraq, during the Persian Gulf War outweighed the mistakes he made on the Tailwind story. But this is ridiculous. Arnett didn’t get the reputation as “Baghdad Pete” for nothing. One of his infamous stories during the Persian Gulf War was to feature Iraqi propaganda that an Iraqi military facility was making baby milk. Arnett is hanging on to his job, apparently concerned that Johnson might have second thoughts and fire him as well. He is now claiming that “I contributed not one comma” to the story. But Oliver says that Arnett conducted three of the interviews and played a significant role.
Which brings us back to motive. Arnett is a New Zealand-born journalist whose allegiance to the United States is questionable. He is an international journalist, which makes him perfectly suited for CNN. The unreported aspect of this story is the relationship between Peter Arnett and CNN founder Ted Turner and his wife, Hanoi Jane Fonda. Did they approve this smear of the United States, and are they protecting Arnett’s job?
The timing of this story suggests what one of the motives may have been. It aired just about one week before the United Nations commenced a conference to create an International Criminal Court with the power to prosecute American soldiers as war criminals. The Pentagon had issued a memorandum warning of that likelihood, even though the Clinton White House openly supports creation of this tribunal.
CNN’s airing of war crimes charges against American soldiers may have been designed, at least in part, to intimidate the Pentagon into dropping its objection to that court. CNN’s story played into the hands of those anti-American countries and organizations that want U.S. troops prosecuted for pretended offenses. There is a long history of left-wing tribunals that have gone after Americans for alleged atrocities in various military actions, including the wars in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf.