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Jewish World Review / June 24, 1998 /30 Sivan, 5758

Mona Charen

Mona Charen

Poison pen

DURING THE GULF WAR, members of the press complained to the Pentagon that they were kept too much in the dark about military plans and operations. They cited World War II for contrast, when, it was claimed, members of the press often accompanied American units even into dangerous situations. "That was different," explained one U.S. commander. "You were on our side then."

Is that too harsh an assessment?

Not really. Mike Wallace once said he would not inform an American military unit about an enemy ambush -- a tactic his profession has polished to a high art. He is journalist first, American second, apparently. The Gulf War crimped journalism's anti-military style for a time because against its wishes and its coverage, the American people supported the war and made heroes of its generals. (If the war had gone on for months or years, or featured heavy casualties, opinion might have shifted, but that's another matter.)

So poor Peter Arnett, unable to persuade the world that Americans were purposely bombing Iraqi women and children and wantonly destroying baby-formula factories, has gone back to Vietnam hoping for the big payoff. In a brassily hyped joint CNN/Time magazine project called "Valley of Death," Arnett and reporter April Oliver have put their names and reputations (as have their employers CNN and Time) behind an obvious skein of lies about a 1970 American operation in Laos that involved the use of deadly Sarin nerve gas.

According to CNN and Time, American special-operations forces were sent into the jungle to seek out American defectors and kill them. To effect their mission, they were assigned gas masks and Sarin gas, which they used against North Vietnamese forces.

If any of this were true, it would be fair and right for these respected news organizations to track down the story. But as Eric Felten in The Weekly Standard and Chip Beck in Soldier of Fortune, among others, have abundantly demonstrated, it is false, and what's more, the reporters almost certainly knew it to be false.

Who are the sources? CNN and Time rely most heavily on one Robert Van Buskirk, a lieutenant who led one of three platoons on the Tailwind mission. In 1983, Van Buskirk wrote a book about his experiences in Laos, but the account in the book differs dramatically from the one CNN/Time presented. In the book, Tailwind was merely a diversionary mission to distract attention from a CIA-planned mission about 30 miles away, and the gas deployed was tear gas, not Sarin nerve gas. In fact, it was not until he was interviewed by Arnett and Oliver that Van Buskirk suddenly retrieved his "suppressed memories" of nerve gas and American defectors. The book was never mentioned in the CNN broadcast.

The highest-ranking military officer supposedly to offer confirmation of the nerve gas story was retired Adm. Thomas Moorer. Arnett claims that Moorer confirmed the use of nerve gas in Thailand "off camera." But Moorer later denied this. Besides, as Eric Felten reported, Moorer is 87 years old, lives in a nursing home and gets confused.

Eugene McCarley, the Army captain who led Operation Tailwind, told The Weekly Standard that he denied the use of Sarin a thousand times in interviews with Oliver. CNN never broadcast McCarley's denials, only a segment of tape in which McCarley said that poison gas "might have been available." How dishonest can you get?

How about ignoring the fact that Sarin doesn't even cause the symptoms described by Van Buskirk? He described enemy soldiers vomiting and choking, yet recovering quickly enough to shoot holes in his departing helicopter. Those are symptoms of tear-gas inhalation, not Sarin exposure. A scientist who explained all this to Oliver also talked to The Weekly Standard. He said he had explained that these symptoms were inconsistent with Sarin exposure and that Oliver had gotten angry at him.

Now that Air Force Maj. Gen. Perry Smith has resigned as military adviser to CNN, and Adm. Moorer, Capt. McCarley and the pilot who supposedly delivered the gas have all vehemently denied CNN/Time's account, Arnett and Oliver are claiming that their true source is a secret document they will not reveal.

If a conservative magazine had published such scurrilous lies, the scandal would be scarcely containable. It should work the same way with CNN/Time.


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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.