WASHINGTON, D.C.–There is “no evidence” to support CNN’s “irresponsible” report that U.S. troops used sarin gas against American defectors during Operation Tailwind, Defense Secretary William Cohen said in late July after the Pentagon finished its investigation of the CNN-Time allegations.
“We studied scores of documents about ‘Operation Tailwind,’ and conducted interviews with soldiers and officials at all levels of command,” Cohen said at a press briefing. “No document — military order, after-action report, briefing paper or official military history — mentions pursuit of U.S. 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.”
According to the Pentagon study, the once-secret Operation Tailwind was a special-forces reconnaissance mission to engage the enemy and to divert enemy attention from a larger CIA-backed operation to cut enemy lines of communication inside Laos.
Although the Pentagon study confirmed that tear gas was used during Operation Tailwind to “suppress enemy ground fire while friendly forces were extracted by helicopter,” it emphasized that U.S. policy since World War II prohibited the use of “lethal chemical agents, including sarin, unless first used by the enemy.” The study adds that if the highly toxic sarin gas were used as alleged, it would have been “highly improbable that all 16 U.S. servicemen” and all but three members of native forces would have survived.
The study includes supporting comments from military personnel who were intimately involved with Operation Tailwind: “It’s criminal to say our own Air Force would drop nerve gas on us,” said Captain Michael Rose, the medic on Operation Tailwind. “I’m living proof that toxic gas was not dropped on us that day.”
The Washington Post reported that officials could not produce documents that would have definitively shown what types of munitions were used in the area during the four days in question, and that a computer database printout indicated that sarin gas, identified as CBU-15, was dropped 2,000 times in 1970. According to the Post, officials said the CBU-15 entries were the result of a coding problem, and revised them to read CBU-14, or tear gas.
Shortly after CNN aired their “Valley of Death” report and Time published an article by the show’s producers in early June, the Defense Department initiated an internal investigation into the allegations. Cohen said that the Secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff interviewed individuals with “personal knowledge of the operation,” and reviewed military records, archives, historical writings and “other appropriate sources.” Cohen said he also asked the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency to review “relevant agency files and personnel.”
At the press briefing, Cohen explained it was important for the Pentagon to conduct its own investigation and issue a public report because the CNN-Time report was being used in anti-American propaganda in the Middle East.
“I think every journalist has every right to investigate any allegation or concern,” Cohen said. But the CNN report lacked “overpowering evidence” to support its allegations, and, therefore, was “irresponsible,” according to Cohen. “It called into question the integrity of the United States,” Cohen said. “It also provided Saddam Hussein with an excuse to try and divert attention from his own activities.”
Time and CNN retracted the Operation Tailwind report in early July and fired the report’s two main producers, Jack Smith and April Oliver, following an investigation by media attorney Floyd Abrams. Senior producer Pam Hill resigned, and the lead reporter, Peter Arnett, was reprimanded.
Oliver and Smith have defended their report, saying CNN buckled under pressure from the Pentagon. (Department of Defense Review of Allegations Concerning “Operation Tailwind”)