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.