CNN retracts story that U.S. used nerve gas to kill defectors Producer fired, 2 others leaving after review of Vietnam-era report

July 03, 1998|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- CNN retracted yesterday its explosive and widely criticized report that a U.S. military mission during the Vietnam War had used deadly sarin gas to target U.S. defectors, saying an independent review of its story found "serious faults."

Tom Johnson, president of the CNN News Group, apologized for the report, which was broadcast June 7 and appeared in Time magazine the next day. He said CNN bore full responsibility for its joint "NewsStand" report with Time.

"There is insufficient evidence that sarin or any other gas was used" on the mission, Johnson said in a statement.

"Furthermore, CNN cannot confirm that American defectors were targeted or at the camp as NewsStand reported," Johnson added. "CNN's system of journalistic checks and balances, which has served CNN exceptionally well in the past, failed in this case."

After its broadcast, the report was disputed by "hundreds of veterans and other former government officials," according to CNN, which has fired the main producer of the story and said another producer had resigned and a third would be leaving. But a lead reporter on the story, CNN's Peter Arnett, received only a reprimand.

"I've been terminated," said April Oliver, the main producer. Oliver said Arnett "did a number of the interviews" for the story, although CNN said he was not deeply involved in the research.

"I'm always concerned when my professional activities are questioned," Arnett told the Associated Press. "On the other hand, I'm a team player and I do what CNN wants."

Johnson added a "special apology" for the Special Forces soldiers and other servicemen who took part in the 1970 Operation Tailwind mission in Laos. At the time, the use of nerve gas would have violated U.S. policy.

Rudi Gresham, a spokesman for the Special Forces Association, said Johnson has agreed to the association's request for future airtime on CNN's International Hour. Gresham said he will tell viewers that the special forces soldiers "were real American heroes" who "never [were involved] in criminal activity."

Kenneth Bacon, the Defense Department spokesman, said the Pentagon was "obviously gratified that CNN retracted a report that we believe was not accurate."

Pentagon officials said no sarin was ever used by U.S. personnel in Vietnam or anywhere else. Further, there were only two known American defectors in Vietnam: One died in Southeast Asia in the mid-1970s; the other returned home safely.

The CNN report damaged U.S. credibility in its efforts to eliminate chemical weapons, Bacon said. "Iraq made some statements after this report came out about, alleging falsely our use of deadly chemical weapons," Bacon said. Two weeks ago, U.N. inspectors determined that Iraq armed its warheads with sarin just before the Gulf War.

Operation Tailwind was a bloody four-day operation in Laos designed to disrupt troop and supply movements. Pentagon reports and accounts of those involved said that tear gas was used to help extricate Green Beret troops.

The CNN report, citing "military officials," said Tailwind held "two of the military's top secrets": the use of sarin and the targeting of American defectors. In addition, the report said, the nerve gas not only killed Vietnamese enemy troops and U.S. defectors but also injured some U.S. troops nearby.

After the story prompted a storm of denials, CNN commissioned an internal review of the story by an independent media lawyer, Floyd Abrams. His 54-page report concluded that the CNN story had "serious flaws."

"The CNN journalists involved in this project believed in every word they wrote," Abrams' report said. But he said the journalists seemed so sure of the truth of their story that they ignored or downplayed information that conflicted with their conclusions.

While CNN said a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Thomas J. Moorer, confirmed the story, the Abrams report found that Moorer had never done so.

The CNN story also failed to include comments disputing the statements of pilots who dropped tear-gas bomblets and from a Green Beret medic who treated wounded soldiers during the mission.

The retraction by CNN was the latest in a series of recent journalistic embarrassments.

This week, the Cincinnati Enquirer apologized to Chiquita Brands International Inc., saying its articles questioning the company's business practices were false and based on stolen voice mail. Last month, Patricia Smith, a Boston Globe columnist, resigned after admitting to fabricating people and quotes. And in May, Stephen Glass, a New Republic editor, was fired after apparently fabricating material in 27 articles he wrote.

Pub Date: 7/03/98

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