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Letter to the Chairman of CNN

Press Release

Related Media Monitors and Columns

Reed Irvine's Letter to the Chairman of CNN

Reed Irvine's Letter to the Managing Editor of TIME

Letter to the Weekly Standard

CNN NewsStand
June 7 Transcript

CNN NewsStand
June 14 Transcript

TIME Magazine
June 15, 1998


Accuracy In Media

June 18, 1998

Mr. Tom Johnson
CNN News Group
P.O. Box 105366
Atlanta, GA 30348-5366

Dear Tom:

The establishment media are questioning Matt Drudge’s right to claim to be a journalist because he "published" a story about Sidney Blumenthal that turned out to be false. Drudge admitted his error and apologized the day after he put the Blumenthal story in his report. I hope that after you examine the evidence laid out in this letter you will follow Matt Drudge’s example and retract the false charges about Operation Tailwind made in the segment titled "Valley of Death" on NewsStand CNN/TIME on Sunday, June 7 and essentially repeated on June 14 and issue an apology. I would go further and suggest that those responsible for this journalistic atrocity should be given their walking papers.

CNN took the story of an incredibly dangerous operation in which the Special Forces exhibited the courage, stamina and skill for which they are famous and converted it into a defamatory attack on the Army, the Special Forces and the United States. CNN made three charges:

1. The purpose of the operation was to find and kill American defectors working with the enemy in Laos.

Comment: I have talked to seven of the men who were on the Tailwind team. All, including Robert Van Buskirk, deny that the mission had anything to do with finding and killing American defectors. They say that the purpose was to create a diversion that would relieve pressure being put on CIA-backed tribesmen by the North Vietnamese army. They also say that the base camp they destroyed on the fourth day was stumbled upon by accident when they were trying to get to the landing zone where helicopters were to evacuate them.

To justify the charge that the mission was to kill Americans, CNN relied on a statement by James Cathey, who claims to have been an Air Force enlisted man in charge of coordinating resupply of the Tailwind team. His story, as CNN told it, is considered ludicrous by Special Forces veterans, but what he told me is even more bizarre. He said he got involved when he got a call from a friend of his at Tan Son Nhut inviting him to come down "for a good time" on R&R. He said he got a six-day pass, flew down and was immediately sent on this secret mission. He said he and four other Air Force enlisted men, none of whom he had ever met before, were flown to Danang in what appeared to be a civilian plane, and from there, what appeared to him to be a small civilian chopper carried them to Laos, landing late in the afternoon of September 9. He said there were no written orders and one would not find anything in his records indicating that he was there. All they would show would be his six-day pass. If all that were true, he obviously didn’t have any opportunity to get a briefing on Tailwind and its objectives. He admitted that what he told CNN was only speculation, and restrospective speculation at that. CNN has not named a single person who is in a position to know the purpose of the mission who has confirmed Cathey’s speculation. Inexcusably, CNN failed to report that those who were briefed on the purpose of the operation all reject the claim that it was to find and kill defectors.

2. Deadly sarin nerve gas was used against a village, killing women and children.

Comment: CNN did not cite a single source for either the claim that sarin was dropped on this "village" or that women and children lived there. No one who was there that I have talked to

saw any women or children. These bases were found along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Vietnamese call them "logistical sub-headquarters." They were not villages. Not a single commando has told me that the base had been gassed the night before they discovered it. They had rested overnight within 500 to 1000 meters of the base. They discovered it the next morning because they heard dogs barking. They attacked, killing about 100 men who would have been dead if lethal gas had been dropped. To hit the base with lethal gas without endangering our men would have required a very low bombing run that the commandos would have noticed. They saw none. The whole idea is absurd. It obviously did not happen.

3. Sarin was dropped to kill North Vietnamese troops who were trying to prevent the evacuation of the commandos, many of whom lacked usable gas masks and inhaled the lethal gas thatdrifted in theirdirection.

Comment: This charge is supported by only one member of the Tailwind team that I have spoken to, Michael Hagen. He insists that the gas was sarin because in recent years he has experienced serious health problems that his doctor says are the result of exposure to organo-phosphates, which is what sarin is. Hagen is bitter because the government refuses to accept this diagnosis. He says some of the other team members have experienced health problems which his doctor also attributes to organo-phosphate exposure, but those I interviewed say it was CS, a tear gas. Sarin is regarded as an effective weapon because it kills quickly, not 30 years after exposure. Gen. Walt Busbee, the Pentagon’s expert in chemical weapons, says that the medical history of those who have survived exposure to sarin show that they do not experience any long-lasting effects. CNN did not explain why Hagen is so certain that he was exposed to sarin. I am sure the producers recognized that this would hurt the credibility of Hagen’s testimony, and they needed him to make their case.

Robert Van Buskirk appeared to support the claim that nerve gas was used, but he pointed out to me that he did not say that on the program. The transcript bears out his denial. There is only an implication that he believes it was nerve gas. He is shown making a statement that implies that he was warned that lethal gas would be used, but in my taped interview, he says he was told that it would be tear gas.CNN showed him saying that after the gas was dropped, he looked down into the valley and could see only bodies and that "they were not fighting anymore." He points out, correctly, that he didn’t say they were dead, only that they were hors d’combat. He acknowledged that the symptoms he experienced were identical to those caused by CS and that none of the commandos died from breathing the gas even though they received no treatment for it.

Jay Graves appeared to lend credence to the charge that nerve gas was used, but Graves, who was not part of the SOG team, told me he had no knowledge of the use of nerve gas in Operation Tailwind. He said the CNN interviewer insisted that the use of nerve gas was taught at the Special Forces school where he was an instructor, but he said that was false. Graves appears to have been tricked into making it appear that he confirmed the use of sarin in Tailwind. Here is how it was done.

ARNETT: Tell me. What was the call sign for the sleeping gas used on Tailwind?

GRAVES: GB. We started calling it knockout gas, then it was GB, then they changed it to something else, which I can understand why they was doing it now.

ARNETT: Why were they doing it?

GRAVES: ‘Cause they was using nerve gas in that shit and not telling anybody about it. (The word "shit" was omitted from the transcript. posted on your web page.)

That sounds like confirmation, but Graves claims he was talking about a period long after Tailwind. Obviously, in replying to the first question, he was focused on the question about the call sign for "sleeping gas," not on the words "used on Tailwind." I am sure it never occurred to him that CNN would treat his answer as confirmation of something about which he had denied any knowledge.

The transcript shows that this same tactic was used to get Adm. Moorer’s "confirmation" of the use of nerve gas.

OLIVER: So isn’t it fair to say that Tailwind proves that CBU-15 GB (a cluster bomb filled with sarin) was an effective weapon?

MOORER: Yes, but I think that was already known. Otherwise it never would have been manufactured.

This is the only basis I can find for Arnett’s claim that "Moorer confirmed that nerve gas was used in Tailwind." Adm. Moorer says he made it clear that he was not involved with Tailwind. He told me, "That was all handled by the CIA. I have never seen an operation order, never seen a battle plan, had no authority to release the use of gas. Later, I heard rumors to the effect, and I told these reporters that they ought to go talk to the people that were there." He says the question about CBU-15 GB being an effective weapon was one of many trick questions Oliver asked him. He did not think of his answer as being confirmation of sarin being used on Tailwind. He only meant to point out the obvious—that CBU-15 GB was manufactured because it was believed to be effective as a weapon.

In addition to the fact that CNN could not find any reliable sources who were willing to go on camera and say that sarin was used in Operation Tailwind, you have the evidence collected by Gen. Perry Smith showing that no lethal nerve gas was available at the air base in Thailand from which the planes that dropped the gas took off. The official records and the diary of pilot Art Bishop all show that the gas was CS, tear gas.

CNN’s claim was left dangling by the thinnest of threads—Michael Hagen’s claim that his health problems were caused by exposure to sarin which miraculously failed to kill him or any other commando. The effort to strengthen that thread with a follow-up program on June 14 was a failure. Here is the additional "evidence" CNN cited.

1. Marine helicopter crew chief John Snipes claimed that he was told that "the gas was not tear gas. It was some other kind of gas, what they called knockout gas, that it would put you to sleep."

Comment: (1). The gas they were exposed to did not knockout any of the commandos without gas masks; and (2). Dr. Meselson, the expert CNN presented, said no such gas had been developed. The same comment applies to Mike Sheppard’s claim that he had been taught about a new knockout gas in a Special Forces school. If no such gas had been developed it obviously was not used in Operation Tailwind.

2. Craig Schmidt, one of the commandos, said the gas was "definitely more potent than tear gas."

Comment: I interviewed him the next day. He told me that he and the members of his platoon all wore their gas masks and did not personally experience any symptoms of exposure. I pointed out that those I had interviewed who didn’t have gas masks said the gas was like the CS they had been exposed to in training. Mike Hagen was the one exception. Schmidt agreed that the fact that the commandos did not collapse from exposure to the gas but many Vietnamese did might be explained by the fact that the Vietnamese thought they were going to die, not having been exposed to CS in training.

3. Prof. Matthew Meselson listed the sarin nerve gas symptoms: "You have nausea; you defecate; you urinate; difficulty in vision; difficulty in breathing; then convulsions; then paralysis; and then death. All rather quickly." Peter Arnett said, "Meselson says the gas described by the commandos fits the description of sarin nerve gas."

Comment: Who among the commandos experienced more than three of those symptoms? Nausea, impaired vision, choking, yes. Hagen claims he experience convulsions, but no one else that I talked to made that claim. No one said they defecated, urinated, suffered paralysis, and none died.

Prof. E. W. Pfeiffer, author of the book Chemical Warfare in Vietnam, stresses that it is only the initial symptoms of sarin and CS that are similar. Inhale CS and you think you are going to die, but you don’t. Inhale sarin and you die unless you get prompt treatment. None of the commandos were treated for exposure to sarin and none died. Prof. Pfeiffer, a foe of the Vietnam War, made this comment on the CNN program: "My impression of that piece is that it is a total hoax....I can’t understand why a well-respected reporter like Peter Arnett would have anything to do with that."

I can’t imagine Tom Johnson not agreeing that retractions and apologies must be made.

Sincerely yours,

Reed Irvine

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