Nerve Gas, CNN, and Honor
by Perry M. Smith Ď56

In November 1996, I had the pleasure of addressing the Class of 98 on the subject of leadership. One of the points that I made was that the greatest gift I received from West Point was a deep and abiding understanding of honor and ethics. I described a number of personal examples where the West Point Honor System helped me as a commander and staff officer during 30 years on active duty.

When I made that speech, I did not know that soon I would be caught up in a major issue of journalistic ethics that would receive national and
international attention and that the Honor System, as well as my classmates and other West Pointers, would be of great assistance to me. The issue was directly related to my work as military analyst and special consultant to CNN.

On 7 Jun 1998, on a new program called NewsStand, CNN aired a 20-minute segment charging the U.S. military with using lethal nerve gas during Operation Tailwind in Laos in September 1970. The special was entitled "The Valley of Death." Had it been true, this CNN report would have been the journalistic scoop of the decade.

When CNN was researching the story of Operation Tailwind, a Special Forces operation deep within enemy territory in Laos in 1970, the CNN producers, April Oliver and Jack Smith, discovered that a very strong gas had been delivered by Air Force Skyraiders. This gas caused soldiers on the ground to gag, choke, and vomit. Oliver and Smith thought this gas too strong to have been tear gas, so they assumed that it was nerve gas. Although this hypothesis was very shaky, they did find some indications that nerve gas (sarin gas) might have been used. Thus, whenever Oliver and Smith ran across people or data indicating that the gas used was tear gas, they assumed that someone was lying to cover up a supersecret operation and a war crime.

Pam Hill, the CNN executive producer of "The Valley of Death," decided that I should not be consulted. She did not trust me, even though I had worked for CNN for more than seven years and had assisted on hundreds of military stories during that time. Hill feared that I was too close to the Pentagon and would try to prevent the story from being aired. Ms. Hill, who was asked to resign when it became clear to the top executives of CNN that none of the charges against the military were correct, knew that I had complained strongly by letter to Tom Johnson about an earlier erroneous special report about the military. On 7 Jul 1997, I sent Johnson the following via e-mail: "The ĎAmerican Edgeí segment on Area 51 (aired last week) was as bad a piece of journalism as I have ever seen on CNN. It was way below your standards, Tom.

Whoever put it together didnít check with me or Jamie [McIntyre-CNNís Pentagon correspondent] for our knowledge, ideas, or insights. In my judgment, it was yellow journalism at its worst. For instance, there was no examination of the court case that had ruled in favor of the government on both the environmental issues and the legitimacy of a secret base. You might want to look it over and see if you agree with me that the segment lacked balance, context, or nuance."

In late May 1998, when Tom Johnson was given a preview of "The Valley of Death" about a week before it was scheduled to be aired, he asked if I if had been consulted. The answer was that I could not be trusted. Although he was very uncomfortable with this answer and had trusted me on so many other stories, he did not call me or insure that someone else did. Hence, I did not know about the upcoming NewsStand show until I received a telephone call on the 3rd of June, four days before "The Valley of Death" was to air. A friend said that CNN was promoting a show highlighting the use of nerve gas by the United States to kill American defectors in Laos during the Viet Nam War. I received his call just as I was leaving for a Class of Ď56 golf tournament in Pinehurst, NC. I called a CNN executive to determine the gist of the story. She told me she didnít know much but would call me back (she never did). I also called an historian who was an expert on the Viet Nam War and requested some quick research of his extensive library and database for any indication that nerve gas was used in Laos in September 1970. At Pinehurst, I asked my classmates if any of them had heard of the use of nerve gas in Laos. I also made a number of phone calls around the country asking the same question. Everyone I talked to said "no," with the exception of one person who reminded me that the CIA ran many operations in Laos and might have used lethal gas.

I then made a significant mistake. I called the CNN executive with whom I had spoken on Wednesday and left voicemail stating that I had found one person who felt nerve gas might have been used in Laos. I found out, much later, that a number of executives at CNN, including Tom Johnson, took my phone call as my acquiescence to "The Valley of Death" special. The more I talked to classmates at Pinehurst, the more I became convinced that CNN was about to run a false story. Hence, on Sunday, 7 June, at 2:08 PM, about eight hours before the show was to air, I called Tom Johnson. I told him that I didnít know much about the upcoming special, but I felt that CNN was about to make a major mistake. I was very blunt and reminded him that I was his military analyst and had flown 150 combat mission over Laos in 1968-69, yet no one at CNN had checked the story with me. He asked me to talk to Rick Kaplan, president of the domestic branch of CNN.

Kaplan told me that the story was rock solid, had been worked on for eight months, and was based on more than 200 interviews. I countered that I had never heard of the use of nerve gas at any time in Vietnam. I suggested that he was about to make the biggest mistake in the history of CNN. Kaplan then asked me to speak to the two producers, April Oliver and Jack Smith. I did so at length. Ms. Oliver did most of the talking and answered many of my questions, but-at the end of the long three-way conversation-I repeated that I had very serious doubts the reliability of two of their sources and thought that they were about to destroy the credibility of CNN. After my conversation with Oliver and Smith, I made another mistake. I should have informed Tom Johnson that Kaplan, Oliver, and Smith had not convinced me and that he should pull the segment until it could be fully validated.

Later that night, I watched "The Valley of Death." It was sickening to watch a network with which I had worked for more than seven years produce such an outrageous piece of journalism. Because I was not 100% certain that the story was wrong on all points, however, I did some additional research. Once again, other West Pointers were very helpful. I talked to my classmate, Bob Sorley, biographer of both Creighton Abrams and Harold K. Johnson, and asked him if he had any evidence of the use of nerve gas in the Viet Nam War. I also talked to Jim Ellis, Jim Anderson, and Tom Noel, Abramsí aides in Viet Nam. They had been cleared for the compartmentalized programs but said that there had never been any plans for the use of lethal gas. E-mail also was enormously helpful.

I sent an all-points bulletin out to about 200 knowledgeable people in my e-mail address book.

I soon learned that many warriors who fought in the operation told the CNN producers that the gas used could not possibly have been nerve gas, but they were not believed. It also bothered me that some of the "on-camera" interviews seemed to be manipulated to make it appear that the gas could have been nerve gas. It soon became clear to me that April Oliver would not allow anyone to disprove her hypotheses. One Marine helicopter pilot told me that the gas was sarin gas. When I asked him how he knew, he said, "April told me." When I asked if anyone else had told him it was sarin, he said he had been briefed that tear gas was to be used. For 28 years he had thought it was tear gas. But because April was from CNN and had done a great deal of research, he assumed that she was correct. In journalism, this unethical practice is called "planting." It became clear to me that this was not just a case of sloppy reporting-it was manipulative and dishonest journalism.

Three days after the show aired, I had incontrovertible proof that the story was dead wrong. From precise munitions records I learned exactly what was hung on and dropped from the aircraft during the extraction on 14 September. I then pressed Tom Johnson for a full retraction and an apology to each participant in Operation Tailwind. 13 Jun 1998: The NewsStand story seems to be built on three majors pillars: the veracity of Mr. Van Bushkirk, the credibility of Admiral Moorer, and the assumption that many people are using the principle of "plausible deniability" to mislead or lie to CNN. All three of these pillars need serious examination.

For instance, there are major discrepancies between what Van Bushkirk states in his book and what he is saying more recently. I understand that his description of the gas is very different in the book than what is in his on-camera commentary for CNN. I have a sinking feeling that this man has an integrity problem.

In the last few days, I have received a number of phone calls from CNN people.

Each of them then shared their concern about some of the journalistic practices demonstrated on NewsStand with me. They seem especially upset about the way Admiral Moorer, a man of 86 years, was handled both during the interview and since. By the way, many of my military contacts who have known Moorer through the years raised the point that Moorer at one time would have been a good source, but at his advanced age and with his diminished faculties he is no longer reliable or credible. As one retired general told me, "The way CNN is treating old Tom Moorer is shameful."

The plausible deniability issue is a fascinating one. The vast majority of people who fought in SEA did not operate in the black world. I flew 180 missions, but I never heard the term "plausible deniability" until years after the war. One of the pilots who dropped the gas, Don Feld, said all he had was a standard fighter pilot "Secret" clearance and was not cleared for any black program. With all three of these pillars a little shaky, I am somewhat surprised that there is such confidence at CNN that this story is "rock solid."

On the evening of 10 June, I had conversations with two distinguished Americans, Andy Goodpaster and Mike Davison. Both are retired four-star Army officers, both held senior positions in Viet Nam, both held all the clearances that would give them access to very sensitive information, and both are men of the highest integrity. Goodpaster and Davison told me with great confidence that there was no nerve gas in the immediate theater, that there was never any discussion in any forum about using nerve gas, and that there were no operations where nerve gas was used.

On the afternoon of 10 June, I talked to the pilot of the number- two gas bird, Art Bishop. It is quite true that he had been briefed that he would be carrying tear gas. More importantly, he knew he was carrying and dropping tear gas. In fact, he kept a diary and read the entry for 15 Sep 1970 to me. It stated that on a very tough mission on 14 September, he dropped two canisters of CBU-30. CBU-30 is CS (tear) gas. He told me that he told both Peter and April that he was carrying tear gas on the fateful day the teams were extracted under heavy fire.

On the afternoon of 12 June, I had an hour long conversation with Don Feld, the lead pilot of the flight that dropped the gas on14 Sep 1970. His recollections are quite sharp. I asked him why he had such vivid memories. He said the mission was very special in a number of ways. He knew that if the evacuees were to get out, his two-ship flight would be absolutely essential (the other A-1 flights had aborted and returned to NKP). He was asked to deliver the CS gas at 50 ft. above the trees-very low and very dangerous. The weather was quite bad, and he almost hit a ridge line as he was completing his first pass. The gun fire was extremely heavy. He had major engine problems on his single engine Skyraider in the combat area and barely made it to Da Nang with an engine that was tearing itself apart. Feld commented to me that he had lunch with April and spent four hours explaining that mission and why he was certain that the gas used was not nerve gas. He said there were no facilities at NKP for the storage of nerve gas and no sign of any weapons loaders in special chemical gear or taking special precautions at all.

It was important to me to check the logistics and expenditure records. I did so with an historian who has direct access to a very extensive database, especially detailed as it relates to weapons expenditures. It shows that 6 loads of CBU-30 (CS gas) were dispensed on both 13 and 14 Sep 1970 from NKP.

GEN Abrams, the MACV commander at the time, is dead. I have talked at length to his biographer as well as three of his officer aides who served him from 1968-72. They held all of the special clearances and sat in on all the briefings and discussions. I asked them if there were any briefing, discussion, compartmentalized program, rumor-anything at all relating to nerve gas or poison gas or lethal gas. Each said no. Each one independently and without prodding from me told me that Abrams, a man of great character, would never have authorized its use because this was against national policy.

They also emphasized that they never heard any discussion or briefing relating to targeting American defectors in Laos.

When I called you on Sunday, 7 June, I had concerns about NewsStand but had not had time to do much research and had not seen the script. My knowledge is much better now. I have gone from concern to certainty about the nonuse of lethal gas.

Tom, you are facing perhaps the toughest decision as the CNN boss. I am making that decision harder by pressing you so vigorously to learn, acknowledge, and take action regarding the truth. Let me know if I can be of assistance. I would like to emphasize that bad news does not improve with age.

Signed: Perry

After I sent the e-mail, I received one from an active duty lieutenant colonel stationed at Ft. Benning. It had such a profound impact on me that
I decided that I must do more than just protest to CNN. This message triggered my decision to resign. An excerpt follows: "Sir, please assist us in regaining our honor. So many of the men of SOG that ran those dangerous missions are dying now as a result of the wounds received, the diseases that ran through them-malaria, dengue, etc., and the physical abuse oneís body had to absorb in the performance of duties-that this is having a terrible effect on them. Please donít let their last thoughts be that once again their sacrifices were in vain, and that the press can once again crucify us as they did 30 years ago."

What leadership lessons can be drawn from this episode?

1. Have a strong ethical braintrust that you can go to for advice and assistance when something is bothering you. For instance, Tom Johnson could easily have contacted his close friend, Colin Powell, a man of towering integrity who had two combat tours in the Viet Nam War, and checked out this story prior to the decision to air it.

2. Never assume high quantity equals high quality as far as research is concerned.

3. Leaders in all organizations should be very skeptical of conspiracy theories generated by their staff and of research based on the assumption that there are many people lying or covering up.

4. Leaders should keep a sharp eye on any compartmentalized group to ensure it upholds and supports the established institutional values and ethics.

5. All organizations, especially those in the news business, should conduct ethics training (to include the use of case studies both from the field of journalism and from other fields) on a regular basis.

6. All news organizations should have an ombudsman-street smart and with very sensitive antennae-who has the total trust and support of the top boss.

7. When a major mistake is made, organizations must admit error, hold executives fully accountable, issue a complete retraction and take aggressive and sustained corrective action.

In the months since my resignation from CNN, I have received over two thousand e-mail messages and letters of support. I have fully endorsed the position of the Special Forces Association and the Special Operations Association that Time-Warner must take additional steps (Peter Arnett and Rick Kaplan must leave CNN permanently, CNN and Time must state categorically that none of these horrendous charges are true, and the Tailwind warriors must be given adequate air time on CNN to tell the true story of Operation Tailwind). Also, in September 1998, I wrote each member of the Time-Warner board urging that the board take these corrective actions. Incidentally, I got the idea of writing the board from Tom Carpenter Ď58, who wrote each board member soon after "The Valley of Death" was aired. Incidentally, not one of the board members answered my letter. In summary, during this difficult period in my life as I struggled with what to do, the West Point Honor System and West Pointers from many classes helped me immeasurably. They assisted me in finding the truth and in determining how best to deal with CNN on this very important issue. What became very clear in June 1998 was how well West Point had prepared me to deal with ethical issues beyond my career in the military. If I were asked to speak to cadets again, I would stress this point-honor is forever. It will last you a lifetime.

About the Author: Perry Smith, the son of a West Point graduate, was born at West Point and spent his high school years there. His two most rewarding experiences as a cadet were helping his roommate, Don Holleder, survive the demands of the academic departments and beating Navy in lacrosse. Smith is the author of Rules and Tools for Leaders and Assignment Pentagon.