WSWS : News
& Analysis : North
America : CNN
nerve gas story
Why did CNN retract its nerve gas report? A closer look
By Barry Grey
16 July 1998
At a gathering of the Television Critics Association on July
10 Time Warner Vice Chairman and CNN founder Ted Turner delivered
a public apology for the June 7 CNN broadcast "Valley of
Death," which alleged US Special Forces used deadly nerve
gas in a secret incursion into Laos during the Vietnam War.
Turner was abject--"I'll take my shirt off and beat myself
bloody on the back"--in asking forgiveness from veterans
or anyone else offended by the story, which was aired as a joint
presentation of CNN and Time magazine. CNN and Time
retracted the story earlier this month after a public campaign
by Special Forces veterans' groups and intense behind-the-scenes
pressure from high-ranking military and intelligence figures.
Turner's statements were part of an ongoing media attack on
the CNN program. The July 15 Wall Street Journal, for example,
carried a column by former Secretary of the Navy James Webb entitled
"The Media's War on Vietnam Vets." Taking Turner's apology
as his starting point, Webb issued a blanket denunciation of journalists
for publishing "lies, exaggerations and misrepresentations"
about the Vietnam War. Webb's column is representative of an expanding
genre of corrupt reportage aimed at sanitizing and glorifying
the US assault on Vietnam.
The networks, newspapers and news weeklies have put out derogatory
accounts of the CNN story, giving the false impression to the
public that "Valley of Death" was a concatenation of
unsubstantiated charges and fabrications, and that in killing
the story CNN acted responsibly to disavow a journalistic hoax.
The most significant aspect of Turner's histrionics last Friday
was his justification for disavowing the nerve gas story. He did
not deny its basic allegations--that the September 1970 raid used
sarin gas in an attempt to eliminate American defectors. Nor did
he assert that the broadcast failed to provide credible evidence
to support the charges. Whether he believed the report to be correct
or not, he said, "we didn't have evidence beyond a reasonable
Almost by sleight of hand, a new and fundamentally inappropriate
criterion, proof beyond a reasonable doubt, is being introduced
as the standard for journalism, or, to be more precise, journalism
that seeks to expose secret or illegal operations by military
or intelligence agencies. This is not entirely new. Last year
on similar grounds the San Jose Mercury News retracted
a series of well-documented articles by Gary Webb exposing the
connivance of the CIA in drug smuggling operations by the Nicaraguan
contras in the early 1980s.
With the CNN case, the entire media establishment is falling
into line. A clear warning is being given to reporters and publishers
with regard to exposures of the military: if you cannot make a
case that meets the legal standards applicable to a criminal court,
you should remain silent. This chilling injunction has been backed
up by the firing of the two veteran journalists most directly
involved in the production of the CNN program, April Oliver and
Jack Smith, and the public reprimand of the internationally renowned
reporter, Peter Arnett, who narrated the segment.
From a legal and Constitutional standpoint, the imposition
of such a standard on the press is entirely without foundation.
From a practical standpoint, it makes any serious reporting of
government secrets or misdeeds impossible. Had such a criterion
been in effect at the time, no serious reports of the My Lai massacre
or the Watergate affair would have seen the light of day.
It is inevitable that attempts to ferret out the truth in cases
involving the actions of powerful military, government or corporate
interests will bring forth contradictory and somewhat ambiguous
evidence. That is one of the reasons journalists and publishers
should not be held to as rigorous a standard as that established
by the law to protect the rights of defendants in criminal prosecutions.
The job of journalists is not to convict, but rather to bring
forward, with scrupulous fidelity to the facts, convincing evidence
that substantiates a particular analysis of events. Where such
reporting makes a serious case that individuals or government
agencies have violated the law, lied to the public or carried
out actions that threaten democratic rights, their revelations
should become the starting point for further investigation, including
possible criminal indictment.
The very nature of the subject matter of "Valley of Death,"
a Special Forces raid into neutral Laos, called Operation Tailwind,
that has remained a tightly held secret for 28 years, guaranteed
that the evidence extracted by the reporters would be somewhat
fragmentary. The US denies ever having used nerve gas in combat
and, needless to say, denies having targeted American defectors
in Vietnam for extermination. No one, therefore, could legitimately
be surprised that for every witness affirming the use of nerve
gas or the killing of American defectors, there would be at least
as many ex-Special Forces men, military officers or intelligence
figures staunchly denying the allegations.
Taken as a whole, however, the mass of evidence, eyewitness
accounts and verification from high-ranking military and intelligence
sources, both named and unnamed, presented in the CNN broadcast
was impressive. Seven of the sixteen Special Forces soldiers who
carried out the assault gave on-camera statements supporting to
varying degrees the program's contention that nerve gas was used
and American defectors were targeted. Several experts on nerve
gas consulted by the reporters said the symptoms of vomiting and
convulsions described by the soldiers, as well as their description
of the properties of the gas used on the raid, pointed to sarin.
The reporters further based themselves on interviews with three
highly-placed confidential sources: an expert on chemical weaponry,
a senior intelligence source, and a former high-ranking officer
well versed in the operations of the Special Forces group that
carried out the incursion. Finally, April Oliver spent some eight
hours interviewing retired Admiral Thomas Moorer, who was chairman
of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1970. Moorer is shown on camera
confirming the use of nerve gas by Special Forces during the Vietnam
The program also included statements contradicting the main
allegations: the statement of the commander of the raid, who denied
any use of nerve gas or any targeting of American defectors, and
the statement of a pilot, who said he dropped tear gas, not sarin.
Oliver and Smith gave the entire script of "Valley of
Death" to Moorer and two of the confidential sources prior
to the June 7 broadcast, and all three gave their approval. Moreover,
the journalists submitted a 156-page briefing book to their superiors
at CNN containing the notes of their interviews and other evidence
they compiled. The fact that top executives at CNN News approved
the program, despite protests from their own military adviser
and others within the organization, further indicates that the
report was a solid piece of journalism.
Once the program was aired, it came under intense behind-the-scenes
attack. Oliver and Smith assert that Henry Kissinger, who was
Nixon's national security adviser at the time of Tailwind, Richard
Helms, then the CIA director, and Colin Powell, chairman of the
Joint Chiefs during the Gulf war, all contacted CNN and demanded
a retraction. CNN quickly began backing away from the program,
appointing attorney Floyd Abrams to carry out a supposedly independent
Abrams issued his report on July 2, concluding that the allegations
that Operation Tailwind involved the use of nerve gas and targeted
American defectors were "insupportable." This became
the vehicle for CNN and Time, which had published an article
based on the CNN broadcast, to issue public retractions.
That Abrams's report was not the purely neutral investigation
it purported to be, but rather the means for repudiating the broadcast,
is indicated by three facts. First, during the period of Abrams's
investigation, Oliver, Smith and Arnett were ordered not to speak
to the press or in any way defend their story. Second, the Abrams
report was co-authored by CNN's general counsel. Third, the CNN
journalists were denied the chance, as promised, to review Abrams's
report before it was made public.
The review is a carefully constructed lawyer's argument for
killing the Tailwind story. It reads very much like a cross-examination
in a trial, and implicitly adopts as its standard the criterion
of proof "beyond a reasonable doubt." Far from accusing
the reporters of inventing facts or falsifying evidence, Abrams
acknowledges that they conscientiously and honestly amassed a
considerable basis of evidence to support their conclusions. He
further acknowledges that the confidential sources interviewed
by the reporters are reputable.
(Given this characterization by Abrams, an obvious question
that arises is why were Oliver and Smith fired? The answer is:
they were the only ones who refused to knuckle under, and instead
took a principled stand in defense of their story).
Abrams then proceeds, on the basis of the reporters' briefing
book, notes of interviews, the footage broadcast in the TV report
as well as out-takes, to point out ambiguities in some of the
statements of two of the confidential sources, and certain inconsistencies
in the statements of Moorer. By such means he seeks to question
the reliability of their evidence. He does not challenge, however,
the evidence provided by one of the confidential sources, whom
he describes as "a senior intelligence source with access
to records of the Tailwind operation." This is one of the
sources who read and approved the script in advance of the broadcast.
In similar fashion, Abrams seeks to question the reliability
of the Special Forces soldiers who provided statements supporting
the conclusions of the CNN story, as well as the statements of
the nerve gas experts. In addition, he criticizes the program
for not making more prominent the views of Tailwind participants
and others who contradict the reports of nerve gas use and American
defectors. None of this, however, discredits the "Valley
of Death" broadcast as a piece of investigative journalism.
It may very well demonstrate that the program could not, in and
of itself, secure a conviction in a criminal trial. This, however,
is besides the point.
The bulk of Abrams's review quotes from various interviews
given by Moorer, for the most part off-camera. However, in trying
to show that Moorer was evasive about confirming the use of nerve
gas and the targeting of American defectors in Operation Tailwind,
Abrams quotes the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs making devastating
statements about US actions in the Vietnam War and the direct
culpability of the Nixon White House, his security adviser Kissinger,
and the CIA.
The citations in Abrams's report include Moorer asserting that
sarin nerve gas was a weapon in the Vietnam arsenal, and it would
not have been terribly unusual for it to be used on a mission
such as Tailwind. Asked, "Would it surprise you?" he
replies, "I would expect them to use whatever was necessary
to achieve their mission in an emergency." At another point
Abrams cites Moorer saying, "I think that it's highly possible
that it was used again, but I'm not aware of exactly where it
On the question of targeting American defectors in Laos, Abrams
quotes Moorer as follows: "'I do not remember the specifics
of this action' but was 'aware of the fact that there was this
objective in Laos.'"
Abrams further quotes Moorer insisting that those most familiar
with the details of Operation Tailwind and similar "black"
operations were the CIA and the Nixon White House. At one point,
on the issue of nerve gas use in Tailwind, the admiral says, "You
should ask Mr. Helms this question...." At another point
he is asked who knew about Tailwind, and replies, "Nixon
undoubtedly knew." He continues: "Kissinger would be
in to see him about five times a day. I would be most surprised
if Nixon didn't know."
Following the airing of "Valley of Death," Moorer,
under enormous pressure from the Pentagon and other quarters,
distanced himself from the story. But he did not deny that nerve
gas was used. While declaring he had no first-hand knowledge,
he said he had learned of the Laos raid after it took place, "including
verbal statements indicating the use of sarin on the Tailwind
Thus the very document CNN used to justify the retraction of
its Tailwind story, if read carefully and critically, actually
underscores the powerful array of evidence marshaled by the reporters
and the extremely serious nature of their revelations. With the
full support of the media establishment, however, this has been
turned into a vendetta against the journalists who quite courageously
unearthed the story, and an object lesson to any others who might
be tempted to follow their example. Meanwhile those who the piece
suggests may be guilty of criminal actions--the CIA, the military,
and individuals such as Kissinger and Helms--are off the hook.
The seriousness of the charges contained in the "Valley
of Death" broadcast are compounded by the charges of pressure
from the military, the CIA and figures such as Kissinger, Helms
and Powell to kill the story. All the greater is the need for
a full-scale inquiry.
The extraordinary disparity between the treatment of the Tailwind
report and the outpouring of unsubstantiated allegations and gossip
in the Washington sex story exposes the hypocrisy of any claim
that the CNN expose was buried because of journalistic scruples.
It also indicates that the military and the CIA exert far more
power in shaping what passes for the news than even the White
The apparent ease with which the military and CIA have killed
an important exposure of their illicit operations demonstrates
the lack of any genuine independence on the part of the mass media,
all of which are owned and controlled by huge corporate interests.
It must be taken as a warning of the growth of tendencies deeply
hostile to free speech and democratic rights in general.
Top of page
The WSWS invites your comments. Please send
Fired CNN journalists speak out: Kissinger,
Powell demanded retraction of nerve gas report
[13 July 1998]
Fired journalists say CNN caved in to
[10 July 1998]
CNN withdraws report on US use of nerve
gas in Vietnam War
[3 July 1998]
World Socialist Web Site
All rights reserved