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Questioning a report that the U.S. used sarin gas during Vietnam By Evan Thomas and Gregory L. Vistica

It is a shocking tale--if true. In September 1970, as the Vietnam War rages on, a team of 16 commandos is sent deep into Laos on a secret mission. They are ordered to find and kill U.S. defectors, fellow soldiers who have gone over to the communists. In a jungle village, scouts spot a dozen or so "round eyes"--Westerners--who are believed to be turncoats. U.S. warplanes drop bombs containing lethal sarin gas, a nerve gas, killing some of the defectors, along with scores of civilians. The Air Force drops more poison gas the next day to help the commandos escape by helicopter.

But is the story true? The account, which appeared on CNN and in Time magazine last week, caused a stir in the Pentagon, which announced a full investigation. Sarin, the lethal gas used in the 1995 terrorist attack on a Tokyo subway that killed a dozen people, is banned by international law. The United States has threatened to go to war against Iraq to prevent the production of nerve gas and biochemical weapons. Use of sarin gas against civilians or soldiers would be a clear-cut war crime.

Reporting by NEWSWEEK, however, raises serious doubts about the most sensational allegations. The Army captain who led the raid, Eugene McCarley, told NEWSWEEK, "It's all lies." Several other officers and enlisted men involved in the mission, code-named Operation Tailwind, strongly disputed that they were ordered to kill defectors or that they ever saw any. (NEWSWEEK was able to reach seven of the eight soldiers who spoke on the record to CNN/Time as well as 26 others involved in or knowledgeable about the raid.)

Gas was dropped to help the commandos escape a large North Vietnamese force, these men said, but it was nonlethal tear gas, not poisonous nerve gas. According to the CNN/Time story, Adm. Thomas Moorer, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed the use of sarin gas in the mission. But Moorer denied this to NEWSWEEK. Moorer, who is 86 and now lives in a "care-assisted" retirement home, said that he recalled hearing something about a mission in which gas was used, but he could not recall if it was sarin gas or tear gas.

Officers involved in Operation Tailwind scoffed at the suggestion that commandos would be ordered to kill defectors. "We'd try to bring them home, if we ever found any. We never did," said Lt. Pete Landon, one of the three platoon leaders on the mission. The real purpose of Tailwind, according to Captain McCarley and several other officers briefed on the mission, as well as a declassified special-forces history obtained by NEWSWEEK, was to blow up a bridge and disrupt traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The CIA needed the commandos to create a diversion to draw away North Vietnamese regulars who were threatening to overwhelm CIA-backed Hmong tribesmen in the Laotian highlands. From the beginning of Operation Tailwind, the 16 special-forces commandos, along with some 140 Montagnard tribesmen hired to fight the communists, encountered stiff resistance. All the commandos were wounded, though none died. The CNN/Time story reported that 60 Montagnards were killed; official records put the death toll at three.

On the fourth day, the American force came across a rear-guard base for a North Vietnamese unit. Lt. Robert Van Buskirk, a platoon leader, gave CNN/Time a dramatic account of what happened next. Entering the enemy base, Van Buskirk says he spotted two Caucasians. One was sliding down a "spider hole" into an underground tunnel. The other was running toward it. The lieutenant gave chase, but just missed the blond man as he slipped down the tunnel. Van Buskirk said he offered to take the man home. "F--you," came the reply. "No, it's f--you," answered Van Buskirk, as he dropped a grenade down the hole.

Van Buskirk repeated this story to NEWSWEEK. But, he said, he had forgotten it entirely for 24 years--until he suddenly recalled the events during a five-hour interview with CNN producer April Oliver earlier this year. Van Buskirk told NEWSWEEK that he had repressed the memory on Easter Sunday 1974. At the time, Van Buskirk said, he was in a German prison on charges that he had sold weapons to a terrorist gang (the charges were later dropped). Van Buskirk, now a prison minister in North Carolina, said that until he had a vision of Christ on that Easter morning, he had been drinking heavily and was haunted by nightmares.

Two special-forces scouts, viewing the base from a distance of about two miles, told CNN they had seen "round eyes." One enlisted man, Sgt. Mike Hagen, says he saw a "blond guy from a distance." He thought the man might be a Russian adviser. But Van Buskirk did not mention killing defectors when he was debriefed after the mission. He says he was warned not to by a senior officer who is now dead. Other knowledgeable officers and officials dispute Van Buskirk's account.

"I never heard anything about defectors, and I would have,"said Hugh Tovar, the CIA station chief in Laos at the time. Under attack, the men of Operation Tailwind had to be rescued by helicopter. U.S. planes dropped canisters of gas on the enemy. Van Buskirk and Hagen later suspected that the gas was lethal. Hagen says he is today numb below the knees and is seeking full disability payments. But other men told NEWSWEEK the gas was ordinary riot-control gas sometimes used on helicopter rescue missions to befog enemy gunners.

Art Bishop, one of the two American pilots who bombed the enemy, wrote in his journal the next day that his payload was "CBU-30"--tear gas. The allegation of sarin gas, he told NEWSWEEK, is a "lot of nonsense." It is possible that the special forces used an "incapacitating agent" stronger than tear gas in Vietnam. Two commandos told NEWSWEEK they had been trained to operate in a kind of gas that was not lethal like sarin but powerful enough to cause vomiting and diarrhea.

April Oliver, the CNN producer, has for the past eight months been investigating the alleged use of poison gas by special forces in Vietnam. CNN vice president Pam Hill told NEWSWEEK that Oliver has "multiple confidential sources" to back up the story about the use of sarin gas. Oliver, together with correspondent Peter Arnett, wrote the piece that appeared in Time as part of a new TV magazine show called "NewsStand: CNN & Time." (The two news organizations are corporate partners.)When informed of the substance of this NEWSWEEK article, Arnett said, "It's a pretty factual account of one side of what's going on. It seems fair."

Time staffers had minimal involvement in reporting the story. Says Time Managing Editor Walter Isaacson: "We welcome further debate and inquiry." A Pentagon spokesman says no evidence has been found to confirm the story, but the investigation continues.

US Nixes Vietnam Defector Report
By SUSANNE M. SCHAFER The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - A Pentagon review has found no evidence to support allegations by CNN and Time magazine that US troops used sarin nerve gas during a 1970 operation in Laos designed to hunt down American defectors,Defense Secretary William Cohen said today.

The allegations were made during a report on ``Operation Tailwind''broadcast by CNN on June 7, followed by an article in Time magazine under the bylines of two CNN employees. But by early July, the network retracted the story.

``We studied scores of documents about ``Operation Tailwind,'' and conducted interviews with soldiers and officials at all levels of command,'' Cohen said in a statement. ``We found no evidence to support the CNN/Time assertions on defectors or the use of sarin nerve gas.``No document -- military order, after-action report, briefing paper or official military history -- mentions pursuit of US defectors as Tailwind's mission. While sarin was stored in Okinawa in 1970, we found no evidence sarin nerve gas was ever sent to or used in Vietnam or Laos,'' Cohen said at the Pentagon.

All chemical agents stored in Okinawa during the Vietnam conflict were removed in 1971 prior to the reversion of the island to the government of Japan in 1972, the statement said.

``All Americans should know the 16 men who conducted this mission were heroes,but they have been hurt by this report,'' Cohen said. In its June 7 report, CNN said US Special Forces troops were put into Laos to locate and kill American defectors. It said the troops destroyed a village and killed American defectors as well as enemy troops and civilians. US aircraft dropped the sarin gas to suppress the enemy as the Americans were to be taken from the scene by helicopter, the CNN report alleged.

The Pentagon study said the operation was launched as a reconnaissance mission ``to engage the enemy and to divert enemy attention'' from ``Operation Gauntlet,'' an offensive mission designed to gain control of terrain in Laos.

``No records or personal recollections were discovered to suggest that targeting US defectors played any part in the operation,'' the report said.

On the allegations of sarin use, the report noted that US policy since World War II had been to prohibit the use of lethal chemical agents, unless first used by the enemy. ``No evidence could be found that the nerve agent sarin was ever transported to Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand).... No evidence could be found that sarin was used in Operation Tailwind,'' the report stated.

Air Force personnel involved in the mission have stated CS tear gas was used,the study said.The report also stated that ``relevant North Vietnamese military documents reviewed record no use of lethal chemical agents by US forces at any time during the Vietnam War, but they do record the use of tear gas.''

The toxicity of sarin is such that had it been used to help retrieve soldiers,``it is highly improbable all 16 US servicemen and all but three Montagnards would have survived the mission alive,'' the study concluded. The indigenous Montagnards forces were assisting the Americans in the operation.

Cohen ordered a Pentagon investigation shortly after the story was broadcast,saying the charges were serious enough to warrant it even though initial studies found no evidence the gas was used.

In its retraction, CNN apologized for ``serious faults'' in its reporting and that a CNN-requested investigation by a prominent media attorney concluded that its joint ``NewsStand'' report with Time magazine could not be supported. The report's two main producers, Jack Smith and April Oliver, were fired after a CNN-requested investigation by a prominent media attorney. Senior producer Pam Hill resigned, while the lead reporter, Peter Arnett, was reprimanded.

Smith and Ms. Oliver said they stood by the ``Valley of Death'' story.``CNN alone bears responsibility for both the television reports and for the printed article in the June 15 issue of Time magazine,'' Tom Johnson,chairman of the CNN News Group, said in a statement issued at the time of the retraction. ``We acknowledge serious faults in the use of sources who provided NewsStand with the original reports and therefore retract the Tailwind story.''

Retired Adm. Thomas Moorer, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,was said in the report to have confirmed the use of the nerve gas, but only in an off-camera interview. However, he later said he had heard rumors but saw no direct evidence that the deadly chemical was used.


First, I regret not having had SFTT Updates in the last couple issues of DA, but the last few weeks have been a tad on the busy side. It's truly been a blur. But what a great experience, to join with truth-tellers of all stripes - vets, media, concerned citizens, the gamut from A to Z.

Unlike some fire-fights, this one was a clear victory. CNN and Time raised a white flag over their position and sent out a team to parlay for surrender conditions. Some of us wanted unconditional surrender (meaning Peter Arnett and Richard Kaplan would be fired). Others wanted to accept a partial victory, and that, to date, is where it stands.


I'd found two exquisite examples of why CNN/Time got into such deep kimchi on their "Valley of Death" story. Number One - Producer Jack Smith on CNN's own Crossfire show, Monday, July 6, is responding to a question about the proof that CNN had that the SOG fighters killed "women and children. SMITH: Time out. Anybody who is familiar with the war in Vietnam knows that support troops, support troops, quarter master, motor pool and drivers, always had their women and children with them. That's just a given. That's a given. Support troops of the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese had their women and children with them constantly.

(Gang, if anyone out there can provide a documented basis for Smith's claim, please let me know pronto. For 34 years I've studied the Vietnam War-I don't claim to have read everything or know it all, but there is nothing that substantiates this claim, and a hell of a lot that flatly contradicts it.)

Number Two - Peter Arnett is on the CBS radio network with host Gil Gross on Monday, June 8, the day after CNN's presentation of "Valley of Death." I've taken the time to transcribe part of that show. Decide for yourselves if Arnett's answer to Gross' question about the use of sarin nerve gas makes any sense.

ARNETT: It was used in desperate circumstances in places where no one was expected to know about it. And those places were in Laos, where the U.S. conducted secret operations for a decade. And also, we understand, in search and rescue operations for American pilots in North Vietnam. Where the enemy was closing in on them, they'd go in and drop sarin, pick up the pilot, inject him with atropine and whatever, and keep him alive and take him to the hospital and save him.

(Okay, anyone know what planet I've been on for the last 53 years? 'Cause Arnett and I cannot have been on the same one. Anyone with the slightest bit of slightly credible evidence that supports Arnett's "understanding" - please forward same to me or to Can all the hundreds of repatriated POW's, plus the hundreds of pilots that were rescued, kept this secret? If I'm wrong, I'll issue the biggest apology to Arnett he's ever seen, and quit claiming that I know anything about the Vietnam War, or the U.S. military in general.)

SITREP #1 - CNN/Time Fairy Tales

1. Hack ran to the sound of the guns, joined by: (a) former SF/SOG'er Tom Marzullo (who had been fighting a largely one-man action since last fall when he first got wind of the perfidy of CNN) and (b) Perry Smith (who had joined Tom to Smith's credit and the further honor of West Point a few days before "Valley of Death" aired in a vain hope to stop it). They started returning fire together while reinforcements were rushing to man the parapets.

2. Other fighters, the Weekly Standard, Accuracy In Media and The Washington Times Fire started bringing supporting fires to bear.

3. Soldier Of Fortune held a direct-fire assault at the National Press Club and destroyed the key bunker in the CNN/Time defense. Former medic Mike Rose stood up and said, I'm here and I'm alive. If it has been sarin,I wouldn't be. End of serious talk about sarin having been used.

4. SFTT President Carl Bernard and myself attended the press conference and worked the media representatives to get some fire in their belly (only limited success, but that's still better than not even trying).

5. Mainstream media (NY Times) began to pick up on the story.

6. The day after SOF press conference, CNN called in outside investigator.

7. CNN and Time issued retractions on two points: sarin gas used and defectors were targets.

8. Two producers were fired by CNN (April Oliver and Jack Smith - not same Jack Smith as vet of Ia Drang valley and ABC journalist), one vice president (Pam Hill) resigned.

9. CNN called Arnett to Atlanta for consultations - announced Arnett will not be fired. (AP flew in reporter from NYC to cover story of Arnett's surviving this crash. Turns out reporter is old chum of Arnett's from Saigon AP bureau,1970.)

10. I did a long (over one thousand words) letter to The Washington Times who ran it on July 13, under headline, "The outrageous allegation CNN and Time have yet to retract". (The letter pointed out that CNN and Time had not withdrawn the scurrilous charge that the SOG warriors killed women and children at the NVA camp in Laos.)

11. Conflicting word is now being received that there is, or is not,serious legal action in the wind. (I've been unable to verify.) This CNN/Time debacle was something to watch and then end up in the middle of it. It isn't over either. Check out the NY Times op-ed page for Friday, July 17, 1998, and see for yourself. Christiane Amanpour wrote the newspaper of record and dared CNN to fire her - maybe that's what she wanted so she could go to CBS full time with 60 Minutes.