Twenty years ago on June 7, CNN aired a new a story entitled “Valley of Death,” which twisted one of the most heroic missions during the eight-year war during the Vietnam War into an erroneous story. The claims alleged that 16 Green Berets and 120 indigenous troops on that top-secret mission deep inside Laos had destroyed a village, killed women and children, and had directed U.S. aircraft to drop lethal sarin nerve gas on U.S. war defectors. Time Magazine repeated the false allegations one day later.
“CNN’s Tailwind broadcast has become notorious as one of the most reckless and irresponsible acts of journalism in television news history,” according to a Feb. 2005 expert’s opinion of that broadcast by Mark Feldstein, then the director of journalism at George Washington University.
Feldstein wrote in his 27-page scathing report (which is linked at the bottom of this article) that,
CNN producers, executives, and legal counsel repeatedly ignored specific and persuasive evidence indicating that the premise of their story was false. CNN relied upon and aired interviews with subjects whose credibility was severely diminished by infirmity, mental illness, and even time in prison—all while knowing about these problems and failing to disclose them on the air.
Further, in a pattern that can only be described as willful and deliberate, CNN downplayed or ignored interviews with numerous military personnel who explicitly rejected the thesis of its story; twisted or took out of context the words of interviewees in order to strengthen its case; pressured interview subjects to confirm the story’s premise; and dismissed and reacted angrily when legitimate warnings were voiced within CNN and its parent company, Time Warner. These journalistic failures were not isolated mistakes but systematic and across the board—from the producer who first proposed the story; to numerous levels of news supervisors, executives, and legal counsel responsible for vetting the script; to the chairman and chief executive officer of CNN who allowed the report to be aired despite what he later claimed were his own reservations about its accuracy. Taken together, the unfortunate but nearly inescapable conclusion is that CNN’s Tailwind broadcast demonstrated a pattern of reckless disregard for the truth.
…First, it claimed that the U.S. military used chemical weapons—specifically, sarin nerve gas—in what CNN suggested may have been a violation of international law. Second, it alleged that during this same secret mission, U.S. Special Forces deliberately targeted and killed American soldiers who had defected to the North Vietnamese. In some parts of the CNN broadcast, these claims were stated as outright and incontrovertible facts, without attribution. In addition, the CNN reports inferred that the U.S. military committed war crimes by killing women and children on this mission and that the Pentagon had engaged in a conspiracy to cover-up the truth about what took place in the decades since the Tailwind operation.”
The broadcast and Time article stemmed from one of the most successful operations conducted during the eight-year secret war in Laos during the Vietnam War, codenamed “Operation Tailwind,” run under the aegis of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group, or simply SOG. It was conducted south of the Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos 47 years ago.
Led by Green Beret Cpt. Eugene McCarley, 15 Green Berets and 120 Montagnard mercenaries executed a hair-raising, four-day mission deep inside enemy territory to take the pressure off of a CIA operation farther west in Laos dubbed Operation Gauntlet, with a diversionary operation along Highway 165 on the plateau made against the communist North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Operation Tailwind not only succeeded in diverting NVA assets and hundreds of soldiers from the CIA battlefield, but it netted one of the largest intelligence coups by a Green Beret team in the secret war’s history.
Operation Tailwind went down in the annals of SOG history as one of the most successful operations because of its unique nature and because it was conducted beyond the area routinely authorized for SOG operations in Laos. This was a success due in large part to the aggressive leadership of McCarley, a SOG veteran who had run SOG reconnaissance missions into Laos, and the relentless day-and-night air cover provided to the Green Berets by Air Force SPADs, F-4 Phantom jets, C-119K Stingers, C-130E Spectre gunships, forward air controllers, Marine Corps Cobra gunships, and heavy transport CH-53D Sikorsky helicopters.
In 2015, SOFREP produced a six-part series on Operation Tailwind that focused on the valor of the men involved in the secret mission.
Green Berets who served on the secret mission from Sept. 11 – 14, 1970, members of the Air Force and Marine Corps, and Army aviators who flew in support of Operation Tailwind, told SOFREP that when they were initially interviewed by CNN, they were told the story would focus on the mission, but often the reporters would raise questions about the use of sarin gas and if they had killed women, children, and American war defectors.
“CNN, when faced with an amazing story of courage, daring, and military success, maligned the brave soldiers, Marines, and airmen who brilliantly fought the assigned mission against staggering odds,” said Houston-based attorney Jim Moriarty, a Vietnam veteran who served three tours of duty with Marine Corps aviation, which included supporting missions across the fence into Laos. “CNN chose to invent their preconceived narrative, one utterly lacking in credible evidence. And CNN worked hard to avoid reporting on the credible evidence that showed no use of sarin nerve gas nor any intent to kill American defectors … CNN ignored its in-house military advisor.”
In addition, Moriarty told SOFREP on Tuesday, “Don’t forget the bigger picture here, the CNN/Time report in 1998 aided Iraq’s then-dictator Saddam Hussein. At that time, the U.S. and other countries were forcing Iraq to get rid of its weapons of mass destruction. When CNN broadcast that completely wrong story, Hussein used it as proof that the U.S. used sarin gas … In 1998, the weapons inspectors were thrown out of Iraq, with Iraq claiming that we were hypocrites for accusing them of using chemical weapons against their own people when we had supposedly done the same thing decades earlier (in Laos). Imagine if CNN had not run that story, and the U.S. and its allies would have forced Hussein to get rid of those weapons, we might have avoided those deadly wars in Iraq altogether. Imagine.”
Feldstein’s findings substantiated Moriarty’s criticism:
The CNN broadcast was not just a dry historical inquiry into events of the past. At the time of the report, which was broadcast worldwide, Saddam Hussein’s alleged possession of illegal chemical weapons was being advanced as a reason for the U.S. to invade Iraq. Thus the CNN report suggested that the U.S. government had hypocritically used the same kind of chemical weapons that it was now seeking to seize from Iraq’s dictator.
Such an explosive allegation should have set off alarm bells at CNN when the premise was first advanced, not only because of its inflammatory international implications but also because even at first blush it seemed illogical in a number of ways: First, either the use of illegal nerve gas or the killing of American defectors would by itself have been a blockbuster journalistic scoop under any circumstances; the notion that both occurred on the very same military operation should have raised CNN’s skepticism that perhaps this story was too good to be true. Second, as the author of a book about Tailwind later pointed out, the premise “made no tactical or political sense” because spraying nerve gas was not a precise way to target defectors; because it would have needlessly endangered U.S. troops as well as the enemy; and because it would have risked disproportionate political fallout at a time when the anti-war movement in the U.S. was at its peak in the months after the infamous killing of student protesters at Kent State University.”
At a July 21, 1998 press conference repudiating the CNN/Time report, then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen said, “…The charge would be used to discredit the United States’ attempt to curb the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In fact, Iraq immediately incorporated CNN’s charges into its anti-U.S. propaganda campaign in an effort to try to deflect attention from its own outlawed chemical and biological weapons programs.”
Cohen also ordered a full-scale, across-the-board investigation of the CNN/Time story from all military branches involved in Operation Tailwind, while requesting the same from the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. All of those reports, including the documented fact that the only poisonous gas in U.S. military possession was in six locations outside of Southeast Asia, vindicated the Green Berets and airmen from Operation Tailwind.
New York Times Columnist William Safire wrote, “Though not so intended, this questionable report about poison-gas use—slyly cast as an accusing question in Time’s headline—will reinforce CNN’s favored access to facilities in Baghdad at a critical moment.”
For the Green Berets who ran the mission on the ground and for the fearless aviators who supported them, including A-1H Skyraider pilots who dropped tear gas on the enemy—not deadly sarin nerve gas—the CNN/Time story implied that they were war criminals.
Gene McCarley, the Operation Tailwind commander, was working with a private security firm when the show was broadcast. “I was busy working, saw glimpses of it … I didn’t like what I saw. You could tell they were manipulating, cutting people’s quotes to fit their story line.”
During Operation Tailwind, the only Green Beret medic on the ground was Sergeant Gary Mike Rose, who, along with McCarley and several other men, was wounded by RPG shrapnel the first night of the mission. On Oct. 23, he received the Medal of Honor from President Trump at the White House for his actions during that mission, where he treated all of the wounded Green Berets, in addition to the 60 indigenous personnel wounded during that mission.
During the DoD probe of the CNN/Time story, Rose told investigators, “I’m living proof that toxic gas was not dropped on us that day. Nobody showed any signs of exposure to toxic gas.”
Rose told SOFREP, “If toxic gas had been used, there would have been stacks of dead NVA soldiers, all of whom were trying to kill us (on final extraction from the LZ), Green Berets, and many of our indigenous troops. Yet, when that show aired, I had to turn to my 20-year-old daughter and explain that I had done nothing wrong. That hurt.”
Following that mission, 33 Purple Hearts were awarded to the Green Berets who served on Operation Tailwind, along with many other valor awards, all of which are detailed in the recently released book on that mission: SOG Chronicles Volume One, available through Amazon.
Feldstein’s final conclusion reads like a prosecutor’s indictment of CNN:
CNN’s “Valley of Death” broadcast, which falsely accused the U.S. military of using nerve gas and trying to kill American defectors during the Vietnam War, has rightly been called both a scandal and a fiasco. Throughout every stage of this story, CNN failed to exercise the prudent judgment that constitutes the normal standard of care for responsible journalism used by other television news networks. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that in this case, CNN effectively had no real system at all that provided vetting and oversight of this story. That CNN demonstrated reckless disregard for the truth seems as inescapable a judgment as it is insufficient; for in many respects, that label doesn’t do full justice to the enormity of the scandal.
CNN’s story was constructed like a proverbial house of cards, propped up by rumor, exaggeration, speculation, and generalization, ready to collapse with but the slightest prodding. Unfortunately, sufficient prodding came too late, only after the story had already been broadcast around the world and the damage from the false report was irrevocable. CNN management and legal staff failed abysmally to provide even the most basic vetting that would have revealed the glaring weaknesses in what is a textbook case of journalistic malpractice.
Hindsight may indeed always be 20/20 but in this case foresight would have taken little intelligence or effort since so many warnings were issued along the way—not only from the Tailwind veterans whose videotaped words were so frequently twisted out of context but also from CNN’s own military specialists whose sensible caution and expertise were so casually dismissed. Instead, CNN relied upon the hazy memories of witnesses plagued by infirmity, mental problems and even criminality.
The intellectual dishonesty of the CNN story was demonstrated not only by its false conclusions but equally by its cajoling questions, its cherry-picking of only those answers that fit its pre-ordained premise, and its circular conspiratorial logic that viewed any contradiction as part of a larger government cover-up—and thus further proof of its false thesis.
These failures were particularly avoidable because this was not a breaking news story. There was no competition from other media outlets, no compelling reason to rush the story to air—except, perhaps, a commercial one, to try to win ratings by making a big splash in the premier broadcast of CNN’s new television magazine show.
Tailwind has already entered the annals of broadcast news history as one of the worst journalistic scandals in modern times. Yet in some ways it is even more disturbing than other infamous media disasters because it was so easily preventable. Unlike reporters Jayson Blair of the New York Times or Stephen Glass of the New Republic, who invented people and stories out of thin air; unlike CBS anchorman Dan Rather’s reliance on forged documents about President Bush’s service in the National Guard; unlike Dateline NBC’s staged videotaping of an exploding truck; in Tailwind there was no single nefarious mastermind driven by some dark pathology trying to scam the system. Instead, Tailwind was a collective and systemic failure at all levels of CNN, from top to bottom. No forensic specialists needed to be called in to discover that the story was a hoax. The proof was right there the whole time in front of everyone at CNN, right in the network’s own video outtakes. Whether no one at CNN really examined this material carefully—or whether CNN did scrutinize it and recklessly went ahead anyway—the network demonstrated a reckless and willful disregard for the truth.
This monumental fiasco should have sullied the reputations of everyone at CNN who was associated with it. But it didn’t. CNN’s after-the-fact investigation of “Valley of Death”—co-authored by the very same CNN lawyer who approved its script in the first place—heaped disproportionate blame on those at the bottom of CNN’s corporate ladder while excusing the most powerful executives at the top who bear ultimate responsibility for the scandal. Ironically, in the end, CNN’s immensely unfair Tailwind story only led to further injustice in how the network handled the scandal’s aftermath.”
Retractions and apologies
At a July 21, 1998 press conference, after military staff worked more than 1,700 hours investigating the CNN/Time’s error-laden story, Secretary Cohen said, “I think all Americans should know that the 16 men who conducted this mission were heroes, but they have been hurt by this report … I can assure you and your colleagues and your families, you did nothing wrong. Quite to the contrary, you did everything right. Sixteen Americans fought steadily for four days. All of them were injured. All got out alive. The documents that they captured provided an intelligence bonanza. General Abrams, the commander of our troops in Vietnam, said Tailwind was a valuable operation executed with great skill and tremendous courage.”
Cohen told reporters that, after rigorous review of thousands of pages of documents, statements, after-action reports, and military ordnance and weapons storage records, “We found no evidence to support the CNN/Time assertions. We have found absolutely no evidence to support these charges … CNN and Time retracted their reports, noting that they could not support either charge.”
On July 2, 1998, in a CNN retraction, CNN News Group Chairman, President, and CEO Tom Johnson concluded that the report “cannot be supported. There was insufficient evidence that sarin or any other deadly gas was used and CNN could not confirm that American defectors were targeted or at the camp as NewsStand reported. We apologize to our viewers and to our colleagues at Time for this mistake. CNN owes a special apology to the personnel involved in Operation Tailwind: the soldiers on the ground and the U.S. Air Force pilots and U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilots who were involved in this action.”
On July 13, Time magazine printed an apology to its readers with a headline that read, “Tailwind: An Apology.” They noted that the allegations reported on June 7 and 8, 1998 could not be “supported by the evidence.”