Operation Tailwind was a covert incursion into southeastern Laos during the Vietnam War, conducted between 11–14 September 1970. The purpose of the operation was to create a diversion for a Royal Lao Army offensive and to exert pressure on the occupation forces of the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN). It involved a company-sized element of US Army Special Forces and Montagnard commando (Hatchet Force) of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG or SOG).
Nearly 30 years later, Peter Arnett narrated a CNN/Time magazine investigative report about Operation Tailwind produced by April Oliver, Jack Smith, Pam Hill, and others. The report Valley of Death claimed sarin nerve gas had been used, and other war crimes had been committed by US forces during Tailwind. The reaction to the controversial assertions prompted an internal investigation that ended in retraction of those claims by both news organizations, the firing of the producers responsible for the report, and the reprimand, followed by the resignation, of Arnett.
During late 1970 the overall US-supported military effort in the covert war in the Kingdom of Laos was floundering. Operation Gauntlet, a multi-battalion Royal Lao Army offensive that was to determine the fate of Paksong and the strategic Bolovens Plateau, was failing. A call went out to SOG's Saigon headquarters asking if the highly classified unit could insert an element near Chavane and disrupt PAVN defenses. Colonel John Sadler, SOG's commander agreed to undertake the mission, even though none of his cross-border reconnaissance teams had ever operated so deep in Laos and the target area was 20 miles (30 km) beyond the unit's authorized area of operations.
The mission was launched by three platoons of Command and Control Central's (Kontum) Hatchet Company B and two United States Air Force Pathfinder Teams. The 16 Americans and 110 Montagnards, under the command of Captain Eugene McCarley, were heli-lifted from a launch site at Dak To to a landing zone (LZ) in a valley 60 miles (100 km) to the west, near Chavane. The distance to the target was so great that the men were lifted by three United States Marine Corps (USMC) Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters from HMH-463, escorted by 12 USMC and Army Bell AH-1 Cobra gunships.
McCarley then called down airstrikes on enemy troop dispositions and equipment caches. The North Vietnamese responded by trying to concentrate their forces, but the US troops kept on the move, even at night.
On the morning of the third day the Americans overran a PAVN bivouac and killed 54 troops. Why the Vietnamese had not fled was a quandary until members of the Hatchet Force discovered a bunker buried beneath 12 feet of earth. Inside they found a huge cache of maps and documents. They had overrun the PAVN logistical headquarters that controlled all of Laotian Route 165. Two footlockers were quickly filled with the intelligence haul, and the Hatchet Force then began to look for a way out. The North Vietnamese were closing in, but McCarley, instead of moving toward an LZ large enough for the extraction of the entire force, dropped off elements at three separate (and smaller) landing zones, catching the PAVN unprepared.
Casualties incurred during the operation amounted to three Montagnards killed in action and 33 wounded while all 16 Americans were wounded. Two CH-53s were shot down during the operation. Many more men of the Hatchet Force would have died had it not been for the efforts of SOG medic Sergeant Gary Michael Rose, who was recommended for the Medal of Honor for his actions. He was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions. His DSC would later be upgraded to the Medal of Honor. President Donald Trump presented Rose with the Medal of Honor on October 23, 2017.
Actions taken during the extraction operations later came under fierce dispute. Allegations were made that US aircraft, in an unprecedented reversal of policy and breach of international treaties, had utilized sarin nerve gas ("GB" in US/NATO nomenclature) when North Vietnamese ground troops began to attack the landing zones. It has not been disputed that some chemical agent was utilized, nor that both North Vietnamese and American soldiers struggled against its effects. However, most witnesses, sworn and unsworn, stated categorically that only a potent tear gas (most likely a CN/CS mixture) was used. Others, according to two members of the US media, insisted it was sarin, or a combination of tear gas and sarin.
False reporting accusations
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 used 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, appeared to state that nerve agents had been used, and not just during this operation. However, Admiral Moorer later told investigators he "never confirmed anything" to CNN regarding Operation Tailwind, that he had no knowledge of the use of Sarin or the targeting of defectors, and he felt that April Oliver had asked him "trick" questions. Later in sworn deposition testimony, Admiral Moorer reviewed April Oliver's notes of her interviews of him, including his responses to her questions, and he did not make any significant objections to their accuracy. 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.
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.
In early July 1998, CNN News Group Chairman, President and CEO Tom Johnson issued a statement describing the findings of the internal investigation. He pledged acceptance of the findings and reiterated that the allegations in Valley of Death and related reports "cannot be supported." He said there was insufficient evidence that sarin or any other deadly gas was used, nor could CNN confirm that American deserters were targeted or even at the camp in Laos.
As a supplement to CNN's retraction, on July 2 and July 5, 1998, after firing Oliver and Smith, CNN aired retraction broadcasts which sought to portray some of the sources for the Tailwind reports as unreliable.
New York attorney Floyd Abrams had urged CNN/Time Warner to retract the report, while acknowledging that it may have had truth to it, saying, "It doesn't necessarily mean that the story isn't true. … Who knows? Someday we might find other information. And, you know, maybe someday I'll be back here again, having done another report saying that, 'You know what? It was all true.'"
The producers, Oliver and Smith, were chastised but unrepentant. They put together a 77-page document supporting their side of the story, with testimony from military personnel apparently confirming the use of sarin. Active and retired military personnel consulted by the media, including CNN's own military analyst, USAF Major General Perry Smith (ret), noted that a particularly strong non-lethal formulation of "CS" teargas was indeed used during Tailwind, but that it should not be confused with sarin, which is categorized as a weapon of mass destruction by the United Nations.
As well as compiling the report, Oliver and Smith both challenged their dismissal by filling suit against CNN. Oliver was the first to settle out of court for a reputed $1 million. Smith fought longer but also eventually settled for an unknown amount. By June 2000, less than two years later, none of the executives responsible for hiring and firing the two, including Johnson, remained with CNN.
Several individuals who were sources for the reports, whose images were shown in the reports or who were otherwise involved in the reports brought legal actions against CNN and Time Warner. These actions were combined by the Judicial Panel for Multidistrict Litigation and were assigned to the United States District Court in the Northern District of California and became collectively known as the "Operation Tailwind" litigation.
In these legal actions, CNN and Time Warner defended its reports from claims of defamation and most of these actions were dismissed. In none of these cases did a court find that the original Tailwind reports had defamed anyone.
A decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in one of the cases states that the Tailwind reports did not defame the plaintiff who was a source for the reports because the plaintiff, in his interviews with CNN, "admitted the truth of each of the three facts he now challenges." The Ninth Circuit went on to state that CNN may have subsequently defamed this source in its retraction broadcast's statement seeking to portray the source as unreliable and that the question of whether the source was defamed by CNN in that retraction broadcast "merits further development" and remanded "this issue to the district court for further proceedings."
In popular culture
The second season of the HBO series The Newsroom featured a major storyline involving the fictional ACN's coverage of "Operation Genoa," which was based loosely on the fallout surrounding CNN's coverage of Tailwind.
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