• U.S.

Absolutely No Evidence

3 minute read
Mark Thompson/Washington

After CNN and TIME ran stories saying the U.S. military had killed American defectors and had used deadly sarin nerve gas during a commando mission in Laos in 1970, the Pentagon began combing its Vietnam archives to confirm–or refute–the report. Last Tuesday, after a six-week investigation, Defense Secretary William Cohen released a report declaring that the military could find “absolutely no evidence” for either of the allegations.

The Pentagon concluded that the key goal of the once secret Operation Tailwind mission was to divert enemy attention from a CIA operation inside Laos. The Pentagon said planning for the operation never mentioned hunting down U.S. turncoats. And while Air Force warplanes dropped a “personnel-incapacitating agent” on enemy troops to help rescue the 16 Americans and more than 100 of their Montagnard allies under hostile fire, it was a potent form of tear gas that was used, not sarin gas.

“No document–military order, after-action report, briefing paper or official military history–mentions pursuit of U.S. defectors as Tailwind’s mission,” Cohen said at a Pentagon briefing. “While sarin was stored in Okinawa in 1970, we found no evidence that sarin nerve gas was ever sent to or used in Vietnam or Laos.” The pilots who dropped the bombs, as well as those who loaded them into the planes, said the weapons contained tear gas, the Pentagon said. Two Tailwind veterans and a pair of their commanders looked on as Cohen praised their bravery and ordered a review to ensure they receive all veterans’ benefits and commendations due them.

Cohen declared the story “irresponsible” because it leveled such grave charges against the U.S. and its troops without the “overpowering evidence” such explosive allegations require. The Pentagon probe found that Robert Van Buskirk, a Tailwind platoon leader and a prime source for the original story, never mentioned sarin or defectors in an after-action briefing he gave. Retired Captain Michael Rose, the Tailwind medic, told Pentagon investigators that he had no doubt the fumes he inhaled were tear gas, just like the whiffs he got in basic training. “It’s like skunk,” he said. “Once you smell it, you never forget.” And, the Pentagon said, two ex-service members that the original report said had scouted the enemy camp before the attack were in fact never in Laos.

“Americans and foreign nations should understand that the United States has not and does not use lethal nerve gas,” Cohen said. Pentagon officials fear that the charge, even once dismissed, will be used by Saddam Hussein and others to justify their own alleged possession of what the Defense Department calls weapons of mass destruction.

The Pentagon findings came three weeks after CNN and TIME, both owned by Time Warner, retracted the Tailwind story and apologized to the veterans involved. That action followed an internal investigation by TIME and a report by attorney Floyd Abrams, who was hired by CNN to investigate the broadcast. The inquiries concluded that the story was not supported by the facts and should not have run. CNN subsequently fired producers April Oliver and Jack Smith, who have publicly continued to stand by their story. Senior executive producer Pamela Hill resigned, and CNN reprimanded Peter Arnett, the on-air reporter.

CNN has also agreed to pay Thomas Moorer, a retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a settlement reported to be $100,000. The original program and article stated that Moorer confirmed the use of sarin during Tailwind, which he has denied.

–By Mark Thompson/Washington

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