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Sorkin's Simplistic Take on Operation Tailwind: Special Report on 'The Newsroom'

By       Message Jennifer Epps     Permalink
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Additionally, the Tailwind segment did not ignore contradictions between pre-show interviews and on-camera statements, as Sorkin appears to believe. The source Sorkin was referring to was probably Admiral Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1970 -- who, as mentioned above, later confirmed his off-camera statements in a legal setting, though he had disputed them immediately after the broadcast. But another military source, Captain Eugene McCarley, was the leader of the SOG Operation in Laos, and the "Valley of Death' piece quotes him thus in the transcript (with narration by Peter Arnett):

"ARNETT: Captain McCarley told CNN off camera the use of nerve gas on Tailwind was quote "very possible.' Later on-camera he said:

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MCCARLEY: I never, ever considered the use of lethal gas, not on any of my operations."

For the record, the "AK Report' pronounces that the segment should have given McCarley's perspective more attention, since it provided a balancing counterpoint. The producers, however, protest that they found him to be an unreliable witness, since he wasn't directly in charge of the Tailwind operation; he contradicted himself a few times (at one point stating on-camera what sounded like support for the allegations: "as I understand it, these gases -- these CBU lethal gases -- are an Air Force ordinance and are in their arsenal"),   and because he made no bones about a willingness to lie if necessary: "if operating across border [into Laos] is considered unethical or deniable, then I reckon I'm denying it."


Despite the fact Sorkin's entire appearance on The Daily Show was just over six minutes long, there's more in his statement to refute. Sorkin implied that the producers of the "Valley of Death' segment relied on just one source -- the military expert who wouldn't say on-camera what the producer needed to get the scoop. But the transcript of the "News Stand' broadcast quotes multiple sources just within its opening seconds. A montage of four low-ranking veterans of Operation Tailwind and of the Special Operations Group speak about Tailwind as the segment starts -- and that's just the first of two broadcasts. A handful more came forward for the second night

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Furthermore, in the transcript for part 1, host Arnett states that more than two-hundred veterans were consulted. Again, in the transcript for part 2, "News Stand' co-host Bernard Shaw begins the show by asserting: "In the course of eight months of reporting we contacted over 200 people, from the men on the ground, to the pilots above, to those in the military chain of command."

Moreover, the segment's producers refer, in their later defenses of their reporting, to their lead source, someone who could not be identified because he spoke to them on condition of complete anonymity (he could only be used "on background)." They say he read and approved the transcript of the intended broadcast, " giving the "thumbs up' signal a number of times as he read it, including in particular with respect to the use of CBU-15 [sarin gas] on Operation Tailwind." This source was, the CNN internal investigation acknowledged, a military official who had "been highly placed for years", and who was "particularly knowledgeable about chemical weaponry, [and] intimately familiar with nerve agents."

Of another confidential source, described by the "AK Report' as "a highly placed intelligence source" who provided validation "through a third party" that sarin gas was used in the operation, CNN's lawyers actually did conclude that "the statements of the source were properly viewed by CNN as lending considerable support to the broadcast."

The producers also seem to have found themselves in an awkward position wherein career military personnel told them one thing in private, yet felt the need to come out against the story in public. "I have revealed in court papers," April Oliver wrote in response to one attack on the Tailwind allegations in the press, "that a leading critic of the broadcast, retired Gen. John Singlaub, was a prime source for our story."

Finally, despite what seems to have been a quite powerful Pentagon backlash after the story aired, the producers maintain that sources continued to come forward to corroborate the allegations about Operation Tailwind a year after the broadcast.

U.S. Defectors

However, what is most baffling of all about Sorkin's summary on The Daily Show is that he described the claims of the Tailwind story as being about a U.S. sarin gas attack on civilians. This isn't to do with behind-the-scenes information, this isn't about complicated details of process, this is the basic headline that the CNN/Time show presented to the public: central to their scoop was the claim that Operation Tailwind targeted soldiers. U.S. soldiers who had defected to Laos.

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The "Valley of Death' story provided a variety of support for this allegation. There are on-camera quotes in the transcript from Robert Van Buskirk, Operation Tailwind veteran, and Jim Cathey, former Air Force Resupply for SOG Commandos. Arnett told the TV audience that Cathey recalled spending five hours, as ordered, observing the village base camp through binoculars, during which time "he spotted 10 to 15 long shadows, Caucasians, much taller than Laotians and Vietnamese." Cathey stated on-camera: "I believe there were American defectors in that group of people in that village, because there was no sign of any kind of restraint. In retrospect, I believe that mission was to wipe out those long shadows." Van Buskirk also states that after the U.S. had dropped gas on that Laotian village from the air, the bodies of 15 -- 20 Caucasians were found.

Admiral Moorer also stated on-camera in the transcript: "I'm sure that there were some defectors. There are always defectors." (This, in spite of the Pentagon's public statement to CNN that there were "only two known military defectors" during the entire Vietnam War.) And in Oliver and Smith's later rehash of Oliver's original interview with Admiral Moorer, the Admiral was asked if killing U.S. defectors was the mission in Operation Tailwind, and he is said to have replied: "I have no doubt about that."

The CNN attorneys' report suggested that the producers should have been more careful in checking out whether the Caucasians could have been Russians rather than Americans. But the producers included a source explaining why targeting U.S. defectors was considered important strategy by the military. Arnett's voice-over in the part 1 transcript declares that "former SOG commander John Singlaub told CNN: "It may be more important to your survival to kill the defector than to kill a Vietnamese or Russian.'  American defectors' knowledge of communications and tactics can be damaging, Singlaub argued, "it's better to kill defectors than to risk lives trying to capture them.'" The segment also quoted Van Buskirk's recollection of speaking in English to one of the Caucasians he sighted before the raid, urging him to come back to join them; he said the soldier told him to "F-off." (Van Buskirk claimed he then killed the defector with a white phosphorus grenade.) CNN's attorneys discredited Van Buskirk in their report for mental health and credibility reasons; the producers objected. Reasonable people can debate the entire issue and argue for or against various of the witnesses who were interviewed. But in his Daily Show appearance Sorkin didn't even mention the allegation that defectors had been targeted. That's a significant omission.

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Jennifer Epps is a peace, social justice, pro-democracy, environmentalist and animal activist in L.A. She has also been a scriptwriter, stage director, actor, puppeteer, and film critic. Her political film reviews are collected at: (more...)

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