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Letter to TIME Managing Editor Walter Isaacson

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TIME Magazine
June 15, 1998


Accuracy In Media

June 19, 1998

Mr. Walter Isaacson
Managing Editor
Time & Life Building
Rockefeller Center
New York, NY 10020-1393

Dear Mr. Isaacson:

I am sure that you regret having published the article by April Oliver and Peter Arnett, "Did the U.S. Drop Nerve Gas?" in your June 15 issue. I suspect that you and others on your staff would prefer to have run an article similar to that published by Newsweek, giving your readers an honest evaluation of the CNN claims based on your own reporting. It certainly puts you in a difficult position when corporate ties oblige you to publish stories by reporters who are not under your control.

I wish I could have been a fly on the wall of the editorial office where Time’s editors evaluated the claims made in the article.

This one, for example: "They had just wiped out a village base camp, killing about 100 people that included not only women and children but also what some believed to be a group of American G.I.s who had defected to the enemy."

I have interviewed seven of the commandos who saw that "village base camp," and I have yet to find one who saw any women and children or who would describe it as a "village." It was a binh tram, which means "logistical sub-headquarters." Did your editors request and obtain the name of any credible source for the claim that there were women and children there?

It appears that the Time editors thought the village idea needed a little extra support. Time twice says the landing zone for the rescue was a rice paddy, suggesting that the "village" was populated by farmers. In the CNN transcript there is no mention of a rice paddy. I am told by those who were there that the landing zone was located in the tall elephant grass. The men who were there say they saw neither rice paddies nor farmers in the area.

None of those that I talked to, including Robert Van Buskirk, said the base camp was the target of their mission, as Time claims. They all say they didn’t even know it was there and that they stumbled onto it by accident. They all say they had not been told about any American defectors who were supposed to be in the area. CNN identified only two men as sources for the claim that American defectors may have been in the base camp, Van Buskirk and Jim Cathey. Cathey is the only one who says he believes the purpose of the mission was to kill the defectors. And he said it was only speculation on his part.

If your editors had bothered to check out Cathey’s claim of involvement in the operation, they would have seen that there was reason to question his credibility. He claimed to have been a member of an Air Force "rat pack," a five man recon team that he claims was inserted into Laos two days ahead of the Tailwind force. He was an Air Force enlisted man stationed at Binh Hoa whose job was essentially like that of a taxicab dispatcher except that he dispatched airplanes. His job and training would not suggest that he would be likely to be put in charge of a recon mission deep in the jungles of Laos.

His story of how he got the assignment makes it sound even more like a fantasy. He told me that a buddy at Ton Son Nhut, suggested that he get a pass and come down to Saigon and have a good time. He says he got a six-day pass, flew down, and was told that he had been selected for a recon assignment in Laos together with four other men he had never met before. He said no orders were cut, and there is nothing in his record that shows that he was there. It would just show that he had a 6-day R& R pass. He has no idea why he was chosen.

He claims that his group was flown to Laos from Danang on a small civilian chopper and that they holed up on the side of a hill where they had a clear view of the sub-headquarters one and a half to two miles down in the valley. Looking through his binoculars, he claims to have spotted 10 to 15 tall men, foreigners. He also told me that he saw the commandos attack the base.

All the Special Forces veterans with whom I have discussed this say that his story is ridiculous. David Young, who took the photos that CNN and you used, says that if those who planned the operation had wanted a recon team, they would have used experienced men from the Special Forces, not someone plucked from behind an Air Force desk.

If Arnett and Oliver are to be believed, the Special Forces did have their own recon team headed by Jay Graves, an instructor at their school near Saigon. The CNN transcript shows Graves saying, "We saw some round-eyed people. We didn’t know whether they were prisoners or whatever." Arnett translates "round-eyed people" as Americans, overlooking the fact that if there were Caucasians there, they were far more likely to be Russians or Cubans than Americans. Time says: "Through a special field telescope, Graves’ men spotted the prize—several ‘roundeyes,’ Americans in the village." That implies that killing these Americans was the mission objective, even though the planning for the mission had been completed by the time Graves allegedly radioed this information to headquarters.

Graves’ story is somewhat more plausible than Cathey’s. At least, he was a Special Forces instructor. But his claim that he was there has yet to be confirmed by anyone else, such as the other members of his team. He told me that he spotted the "roundeyes" through the telephoto lens on his camera, not a special telescope, but he could not tell their nationality. His story is suspect because (1) Special Forces procedures would require that the Tailwind force be informed of the presence of the recon team, and they weren’t; (2) If David Young is right, he would not have been able to see the base because of the tree cover; and (3) while Van Buskirk and Michael Hagen claim to have seen Caucasians or Caucasian bodies in the base camp, Van Buskirk’s story about seeing two blond-haired men slip down a spider hole is one that he had not told when he was debriefed and which he had totally forgotten about until he was interviewed by CNN. David Young says that when they got back to Kontum, Van Buskirk said for the first time that he had seen two foreigners, but at that time he said they were Koreans.

Hagen claims there were two bodies identified as Russians from their clothing and two non-Vietnamese orientals, probably Koreans or Chinese. He says a third Caucasian body could not be identified. McCarley and Young say that if the bodies of any foreigners had been found, they would have been photographed or some other evidence to prove their presence would have been brought back. They say that none was.

Time’s editors apparently insisted on a modification of the claim of the CNN team that nerve gas was dropped on the base camp the night before it was attacked. That was changed to say, "Air Force A-1s ‘prepped’ the target." I infer that the editors had serious doubts about the accuracy of the claim that the base camp had been gassed. I’m sure they found it hard to believe that the Air Force would waste even an iron bomb on such an insignificant target, not to mention nerve gas. David Young, whom I have found to be one of the best sources for information about what he and his comrades on the mission saw and did, tells me that they took their rest overnight so close to the base camp that if they had dug in, the noise would have alerted the enemy to their presence. They did not discover until the next morning that the base was there. They were alerted to it by a barking dog. He says the base camp could not be seen from a low flying plane because of the tree cover.

CNN and Time place great confidence in everything they were told by Robert Van Buskirk. Did your editors ever ask Arnett and Oliver whether the other 14 surviving American members of the force had confirmed the accuracy of his claim that he personally had seen two men he believed to be Americans and that the Montagnards reported that there were 12 to 20 dead Caucasians? I am told that beaucoup to a Montagnard is three or more. Van Buskirk does not claim to have seen any intact bodies. Hagen says there were two Russian bodies and possibly a third. Others say they saw none. I wonder if anyone at Time thought to ask how many Americans had defected to the enemy side in Laos by 1970. The Pentagon knows of none, zero. In fact, there were only six or seven altogether in Indochina, depending on how Bobby Garwood is classified.

Your story says, "With the camp destroyed, spotter planes overhead ordered the SOG unit to the rice paddy (the one where they grew elephant grass) where the rescue helicopters would land." Gene McCarley says they did not waste any time in the camp because they were in a hurry to get to the landing zone where they were to be picked up. Your formulation appears to be designed to support the claim that the destruction of the camp was the reason for the operation.

Is it possible that none of your editors questioned the plausibility of that claim?

Craig Schmidt is quoted as saying, "It doesn’t surprise me the slightest bit that it was nerve gas. It worked too well." He was shown saying on the second CNN program, "It had a dramatic effect on the amount of resistance we encountered as soon as it was deployed from the A-1's. It was almost instantaneous. It was very quick." But surely your editors must have asked, "Why did it have such a potent instantaneous effect on the Vietnamese, supposedly incapacitating or killing them instantly, but had no effect on the Americans and Montagnards except to make those without gas masks choke and vomit?" I asked Craig that question. His entire platoon had gas masks and therefore did not experience the effect of the gas. Those who did not have masks experienced the same effects that are produced by CS. Craig ended up agreeing that it is very likely that many of the Vietnamese, who did not have masks and who had probably never been exposed to CS in training, thought they were going to die and panicked. Our men, knowing the gas was not lethal, kept on breaking through the elephant grass to get to the choppers. And not all of the Vietnamese panicked. Many were still attacking when the last chopper took off. In fact, they shot down one of the choppers shortly after it was airborne. Fortunately, a fourth chopper was on hand to rescue all those on board..

Your story said as many as 60 Montagnards died. What was the source for that? The SOG Command History, 1970, Annex B, says only three Montagnards were killed in action and only 33 were wounded. CNN claimed that "nearly all the rest were wounded." You wisely omitted that.

Finally, Time’s story says Adm. Moorer confirmed the use of sarin. I wonder if it occurred to anyone to give the admiral a call and see if he really did confirm it. If you looked at the transcript of the program, you would have seen that the "confirmation" was not obtained by asking something direct, like, "Was lethal nerve gas used in Operation Tailwind?" Adm. Moorer says he made it clear to Oliver that he was not responsible for Tailwind and that he had not seen the plans or the after-action reports. He suggested that she put such questions to the people who were there. He says she interviewed him three times, trying to get the answers she wanted. The transcript of the program shows that the alleged confirmation was his answer to this question: "So isn’t it fair to say that Tailwind proves that CBU-15 GB (nerve gas) was an effective weapon?" He replied, "Yes, but I think that was already known. Otherwise it never would have been manufactured." He says that was a trick question, one of many Oliver threw at him.

Admiral Moorer stated this week that he had no knowledge about what gas was used when he was interviewed by CNN, but that he has now reviewed Pentagon documents, including reports from the field and MACV Headquarters. He said these make it clear that no nerve gas was used in Operation Tailwind and that the after-action report clearly indicates that the gas used to cover the rescue of the commandos was tear gas, not nerve gas. He said CNN and Time should retract their false allegations both about the gas and about the purpose of the mission. He says they should apologize to all the veterans and members of the armed services whom they have defamed and to the American people whom they have misinformed.

Tom Johnson tells me that he is troubled by the CNN program and that he is having a thorough investigation made. He assures me that if it is wrong, he will not try to defend it. I urge you to do the same with respect to the Time article. Defending the indefensible in this case will only make it into a far greater scandal that will do serious damage to the credibility of both Time and CNN.

Sincerely yours,

Reed Irvine

1998, Accuracy In Media, All Rights Reserved