The recent serious allegations of CNN broadcasting fake news aren’t new for the Atlanta-based cable network. On June 7, 1998, in an effort to compete with CBS’s popular 60 Minutes program, CNN launched a new program called NewsStand. It aired a story entitled “Valley of Death,” which alleged that 16 Green Berets and 120 indigenous troops on a 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. The next day, Time Magazine repeated the allegations in a news story headlined “Did the U.S. Drop Nerve Gas?” It was written by CNN Producer April Oliver and CNN International Correspondent Peter Arnett, who produced the CNN story that aired June 7.
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 Bolovens Plateau in southern Laos 47 years ago. Led by Green Beret Captain 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.”
Retired Air Force Major General Perry Smith was that highly regarded military analyst Moriarty referred to. Smith had been on retainer by CNN since the Persian Gulf War in August, 1990. He had authored a book titled “How CNN Fought The War – A View From The Inside,” which told how CNN’s 24-hour coverage of the Persian Gulf War set new standards for war correspondence, and how he was highly respected for his work there and as an Air Force fighter pilot and commander of airmen. Smith detailed in his book how CNN reporters were in Baghdad on January 16, 1991 when U.S. airstrikes commenced, reflecting on how the cable network quickly surpassed ABC, CBS, and NBC with its 24-hours-a-day war coverage, complete with reports from on the ground in Baghdad.
Smith only learned about the “Valley of Death” story the Wednesday before it aired on CNN on June 7, 1998. “I found out on Wednesday…I did a little research. I talked to April Oliver and Jack Smith; I told them that couldn’t happen. I told them the Air Force wouldn’t use nerve gas. It was against our rules of engagement. I tried very hard to stop it. But they had done promos on it and they had hired Rick Kaplan to kick up the ratings, so he thought they had a really juicy story…I felt sick to my stomach watching it when it aired.”
Smith tried “very hard for a week to convince” top CNN executives to do a major retraction and an apology. “Lots of people at CNN were solidly with me on this, but not the top bosses and the team that put that terrible special together.” Smith told SOFREP that within 24 hours after “Valley of Death” was aired, he had contacted Air Force ordnance personnel who confirmed that the only sarin nerve gas supply in 1970 was held at six military installations: four in U.S. bases, one in Germany, and one in Okinawa. There was no sarin gas anywhere in Southeast Asia in 1970.
During that first week after the June 7, 1998 broadcast, Smith called Gene McCarley, the Green Beret captain who led Operation Tailwind in Laos. Smith received a letter from a veteran telling him he had to go public with his concerns about the biased, inaccurate report. When CNN executives refused to issue an apology or a retraction, and instead broadcast a lame follow-up story on June 14, Smith resigned in protest, hoping his resignation would finally get some attention at the highest levels of CNN management. He wrote a piece for the N.Y. Times business section expressing his concerns about the piece, he appeared with Charlie Rose for 20 minutes, and he offered to cooperate with respected First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams when the media lawyer was commissioned to head a panel to investigate veterans’ complaints of inaccuracies and false information CNN had broadcast. After Smith surfaced publicly, he received more than 2,000 letters and emails from veterans and citizens angered by the story.
Serious consequences of false reporting
There was an additional political ramification stemming from the CNN/Time report in 1998: “Great harm resulted to the strategic interest of the United States from CNN airing these demonstrably false claims,” said Moriarty. “…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)…”
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 State’s 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-boards 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.
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. He has been submitted to receive the Medal of Honor for his actions during that mission, during which 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.”
Sergeant Mike Hagen told SOFREP, “We call it the Communist News Network to this day because when I heard CNN was going to do a story on Tailwind, I gathered the family around the television and tuned it in for us to watch. Imagine my horror, my utter and complete horror, when I was sitting there with my family and I was portrayed as a fucking war criminal. I never got over that.”
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.”
In a July 14, 1998 letter, Ted Turner wrote to McCarley, “I hope you will accept my personal apology for CNN NewsStand’s recent erroneous reporting on Operation Tailwind. This entire episode has been very painful for me as the founder of CNN. However, my greatest distress comes from knowing that our coverage upset those on the front line of Operation Tailwind—the soldiers on the ground and the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Marine Corps pilots engaged in the action.”
McCarley told SOFREP in a recent interview, “I spoke personally to Ted Turner and he reiterated what he wrote in the letter. He also told me he was going to call the other members of our team and write them letters of apology. To the best of my knowledge, that didn’t happen.”
Larry Groah, a Marine Corps helicopter door gunner who survived Operation Tailwind, added, “I really felt betrayed by CNN for allowing those reporters to publish all those lies and twisting the statements from those who were interviewed. CNN really showed me how the news media can twist a story to fit its needs, and I’ve never really trusted any of the other media 100 percent in their reporting since then.”
Featured image courtesy of CNN