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No, the U.S. Did Not Drop Nerve Gas on a Laotian Village

Jun 29, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 41 • By ERIC FELTEN
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Two weeks ago, some of the biggest guns in American journalism made a horrifying accusation: A U.S. Special Forces unit in September 1970 had cold-bloodedly dropped lethal nerve gas on civilians in Laos while on a mission to assassinate American defectors thought to be in the village. This blockbuster story kicked off a new program called NewsStand: CNN & Time, a joint venture of the cable network and the newsweekly, which are corporate siblings in Ted Turner's media empire. CNN's Bernard Shaw and Jeff Greenfield anchored the broadcast, and the story was simultaneously published in Time magazine, under the bylines of CNN's Peter Arnett and April Oliver, who had done the reporting.

All of these parties, it is now clear, bear some responsibility for maligning the reputations of the U.S. military and of the soldiers who took part in the commando raid into Laos known as "Operation Tailwind." There is in fact no plausible evidence to support the allegation of nerve-gas use -- which Oliver has called a possible "war crime." CNN's longtime top military expert, Air Force major general Perry Smith, quit the network, after a follow-up broadcast of NewsStand: CNN & Time on June 14 stood behind the original reporting. Smith called the story "sleazy journalism." Editors and reporters at Time have been speaking off the record about their unhappiness at having published the article.

It's not hard to see why they would be unhappy. There was an Operation Tailwind in Laos, but it was not an assassination mission. It was a diversion intended to distract North Vietnamese troops from a CIA operation miles away. The mission did involve dropping gas on enemy soldiers, but it was garden-variety CS tear gas, not deadly sarin nerve gas. Oliver and Arnett should have known this. They gathered evidence during their reporting that the story wasn't plausible -- and that their main witness wasn't reliable. When the Washington bureau of Time read the article that was about to be published, they were mortified, according to one Time reporter, because of the obvious holes in the story. But the only concession they extracted from the magazine's top editors in New York was a headline with a question mark, "Did the U.S. Drop Nerve Gas?" The answer, it turns out, is no.

NewsStand: CNN & Time brags that its report, "Valley of Death," was based on an eight-month investigation in which everyone from the soldiers on the ground to the top brass was interviewed -- 200 sources in all. What it hasn't done is break down those numbers and tell how many of those sources believe the tale that was broadcast. Here are accounts of how the CNN reporters supposedly got "confirmation" from key sources.

* Adm. Thomas Moorer. The highest-ranking military source named was Moorer, who had been chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1970. According to Arnett, "Moorer confirmed that nerve gas was used in Tailwind," but he didn't say so on camera. On the air, Moorer's clearest statement was, "I would be willing to use any weapon and any tactic to save the lives of American soldiers." After the broadcast, Moorer told Reuters and Newsweek that he had never confirmed the use of sarin to CNN and had no knowledge that nerve gas was ever used during the Vietnam war. For its June 14 follow-up, NewsStand: CNN & Time reinterviewed Moorer and was unable to get the "confirmation" it once claimed. Moorer said he had no knowledge of sarin use, although later, "in general discussions," he had heard "verbal statements indicating the use of sarin on the Tailwind mission." (This is a vague enough assertion to encompass his interviews with CNN, during which he no doubt heard precisely such "verbal statements.") A friend of Moorer's says of the original broadcast, "The admiral got mixed up. He's 87 years old; he's in a nursing home; they interrogated him for hours."

* Eugene McCarley. Moorer was only the first source to back down from the allegations attributed to him. Eugene McCarley, the Army captain who led Operation Tailwind on the ground, is livid at the way his quotes were cut and pasted by CNN to make him appear to say things that are the exact opposite of what he said. "I don't know how the newspeople get away with it," he says.