The Corner

The New Journalism

Some nice responses to my column today. One surprising one: It seems a lot of people have no memory of the Tailwind controversy. “You mean Tailhook, right?” ask several readers. Nope. Tailwind. From Wikipedia (not the ideal source, but it’ll get the job done):

On 7 June 1998 a controversial version of the above events was broadcast during the premiere of the Cable News Network’s NewsStand CNN & Time in a report entitled Valley of Death. The segment alleged that Operation Tailwind had been devised simply to eliminate a group of Americans who had defected to the enemy and were holed up in a Laotian village. The broadcast went on to claim that sarin had been utilized during the operation. According to Valley of Death, the agent had been sprayed from aircraft twice—once to prep the village and once during the extraction. It also claimed that over 100 men, women, and children had been killed during the attack on the village.

The broadcast (and the ensuing 15 June Time magazine article) seemed to have reliable credentials. Admiral Thomas Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time of Tailwind, stated that nerve agents had been used, and not just during this operation. Former SOG Lieutenant Robert Van Buskirk (one of the three platoon leaders) and three of the participating SOG sergeants allegedly lent testimony to support the allegations as edited and presented in the televised and published investigative report.

Van Buskirk stated that the Hatchet Force was exposed on the Landing Zone (“LZ”) when the teargas agent was deployed to drive the enemy back. He also stated that he saw his men (who were not equipped with gas masks) convulsing when the wind blew the agent back upon the LZ. One key point of proof was missing from the broadcast: the North Vietnamese Army, who had chemical warfare units stationed in southern Laos at the time, made no comment on what would have been a propaganda coup of gigantic proportions.

The reports, which indicated that war crimes had been committed, caused the Pentagon to launch its own investigation. It concluded the claims made in the program were false. Van Buskirk, it seemed, had forgotten the episode for 24 years and had only recently recalled his repressed memory and was also suffering from psychological problems. Admiral Moorer was 86 years old at the time of the story and living under assisted-care retirement.

CNN and Time magazine then undertook an internal investigation which, after three weeks, concluded that the journalism was “flawed” and the report should be publicly retracted and apologies made. Two key CNN producers of the report, April Oliver and Jack Smith, were fired outright. Senior producer Pam Hill resigned. Reporter Peter Arnett was reprimanded and soon left for HDNet and then NBC.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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