|CORRECTING THE RECORD
June 22, 1998HEADS MAY ROLL AT CNN OVER NERVE GAS CHARGES
Tom Johnson, the chairman and CEO of CNN, has told Accuracy in Media that he has ordered a thorough investigation of the "NewsStand CNN & Time" report charging that deadly nerve gas was used in conjunction with a Special Forces mission in Laos in 1970. The segment titled "Valley of Death" was aired on June 7, and a follow-up story reaffirming the charges aired on June 14. Time magazine published an article by the producer of the segment, April Oliver, and its narrator, Peter Arnett, in its June 15 issue making the same charges.
In addition to alleging that nerve gas had been used, the reports claimed that the purpose of the top-secret 150 man operation, code-named "Operation Tailwind, was to find and kill American defectors in Laos. Both charges have been denied by Eugene McCarley, who commanded the operation, and nearly all the 15 Americans under him who are still alive.
Johnson acknowledged that he had concerns about the program. He said he had turned over a four-page letter from AIM chairman, Reed Irvine, exposing the serious flaws in the reporting, to David Kohler, general counsel of CNNs news division, who is conducting the investigation. The letter summarizes the findings of a two-week investigation by AIM, which included interviews with all but one of the identified sources whose comments were used on the first CNN program and four members of the Tailwind team who were not quoted.
Johnson said CNN had been deluged with complaints about the program, and while it appeared to be well-sourced, he thought there was something wrong with it, and he hoped to have a full review completed within a week.
He said, "If weve blown it, were going to say weve blown it." He said he would insist that the same standards be applied to themselves as they apply to everyone else.
The AIM letter points out that CNN found only one member of the Tailwind team who claims that lethal gas was used, Michael Hagen. His claim is related to the fact that he is now suffering from health problems which he wants the government to recognize as caused by exposure to nerve gas. The other team member who appeared to support this claim, Robert Van Buskirk, distanced himself from that charge in an interview with AIM, pointing out, correctly, that the transcript does not show him saying that the gas used was lethal or that he saw anyone die from exposure to it. He said he was told it was tear gas, and all the other team members AIM interviewed say that is what it was. If it had been lethal nerve gas, those who did not have serviceable gas masks would have died. Although the gas was dropped on the enemy, the wind blew it onto them as they fought their way through the elephant grass to reach the rescue helicopters.
The claim that the purpose of the mission was to find and kill defectors was supported only by the retrospective speculation of an Air Force enlisted man, Jim Cathey, whose claimed association with Operation Tailwind is highly suspect, according to Special Forces veterans and especially those who participated in the operation. There was one exception, Robert Van Buskirk, the team member CNN quoted most in its program. But Van Buskirk agrees that the team accidentally stumbled across the tiny North Vietnamese base camp where he claims to have killed two blond men he thinks were Americans. He claims he forgot all about these men for 27 years until CNN was interviewing him. But he told AIM that he didnt mention them in his 1983 book, Tailwind, because the writer he worked with thought the story was too gruesome. Team member David Young says he first heard the story when they got back to Kontum. He says at that time Van Buskirk described the men as Koreans, not Americans.
In a separate letter to Walter Isaacson, managing editor of Time, Irvine pointed out that the editors of Time made changes in the Oliver-Arnett story showing that among other things they were not comfortable with the charge that the U.S. military had dropped nerve gas on a remote, tiny North Vietnamese base in Laos to kill American defectors. Irvine pointed out that the Pentagon knew of only 6 or 7 defectors in the entire Indochina theater, none of them in Laos. The idea that there may have been 12 to 20 of them at that base, as Van Buskirk implied, is ludicrous.
Mr. Isaacson told AIM that he appreciated our letter and said that the story would be investigated and that if anything was wrong it would be corrected or retracted, not defended. He didnt want anything that was false about this matter "out there." He said he had informed CNN that if the story could not be verified, Time would report that to its readers. He said AIMs letter would be used "as grist" in Times reporting.
When Dateline NBC was exposed for having faked test crashes to show how certain General Motors pickups would burst into flames, the president of NBC News and senior members of the Dateline staff got the ax. Irvine asks, "Can CNN and Time restore their credibility with anything less?"
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