'It didn't happen like that'
By DAVID BALLINGRUD
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 18, 1998
arlier this month Denver Minton, a retired U.S. Army commando now settled comfortably with his family in Palm Harbor, awoke to discover that a battle he helped fight long ago in the jungles of Laos had somehow become front-page news.
It was a grim story, aired on CNN and told in its corporate sibling, Time magazine, recalling an unreported horror of the war in Vietnam: In September 1970, American special forces conducted a successful raid into Laos to kill U.S. soldiers who had defected to the enemy. A village had been wiped out; about 100 people, almost surely including women and children, had been killed.
Then, with the raiders of Operation Tailwind under heavy fire from advancing North Vietnamese army troops, a deadly nerve gas called sarin was used to rescue them. Despite a "no-first-use" promise by the Nixon administration, a plane dropped canisters of gas. The North Vietnamese soldiers fell to the ground, convulsing and apparently dying.
But Minton was puzzled. He was there in 1970. And as a sergeant first class, he was second in command of one of the three platoons of raiders.
"It didn't happen anything like that," he told the St. Petersburg Times this week. "We weren't there to kill defectors. I attended all the briefings. We were there to hit and run, create a diversion. There was no talk whatsoever about defectors."
An airplane did drop gas "to help with our rescue," Minton said, "but I believe it was tear gas, not nerve gas."
The credibility of the CNN-Time account has suffered on other fronts as well:
Capt. Eugene McCarley, who led the raid, told the Times on Wednesday, "it's all lies." He made the same statement to Newsweek magazine this week. In its current issue, Newsweek raises a number of what it calls "serious doubts" about the accuracy of its competitor's report.
Calling it "sleazy journalism," CNN's military analyst since the Persian Gulf war, retired Maj. Gen. Perry Smith, resigned in protest.
Smith quit after failing to persuade Tom Johnson, chairman of the CNN News Group, to have the network retract the story, which aired June 7. "I can't work for an organization that would do something like this and not 'fess up to it," Smith told the Washington Post.
One primary source of the account now says he was misquoted, and another has revealed that his experience existed as a "repressed memory" until his interview with CNN.
Retired Adm. Thomas Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1970, gave the initial CNN-Time story much of its credibility. He "confirmed the use of sarin in the Laotian operation," Time reported. He also reportedly acknowledged in an off-camera interview that American defectors were the target.
But Moorer, 86, and living in an assisted care retirement home, now says he had no independent knowledge that nerve gas was used. In a letter dated June 13, he asks investigator Rudi Gresham to be his "special spokesman to clear up this matter and correct my misquotes."
Gresham said Wednesday that he also is looking into the matter for the Special Forces Association and the Special Operations Association, organizations of former soldiers angry about what they feel are mischaracterizations of their service.
"It is a bull---- story," said Gresham. "We have talked with the soldiers involved, and it just doesn't check out.
"Adm. Moorer, who will be 87 next month, by the way, flatly denies he ever said anything off camera confirming this mission or the use of nerve gas. I think they put words in his mouth."
Another primary source for the story was platoon leader Lt. Robert Van Buskirk, who told CNN-Time a dramatic story of how he saw and pursued two "longshadows":
Suddenly Van Buskirk spotted two longshadows, a name for taller Caucasians. One was sliding down a "spider hole" into the underground tunnel system beneath the camp. The other was running toward it. "Early 20s. Blond hair. Looks like he was running off a beach in California," remembers Van Buskirk. "Needs a haircut. This is a GI. Boots on. Not a prisoner. No shackles. Nothing." The lieutenant gave chase but just missed the blond man as he slipped into the tunnel. He shouted down the hole, identifying himself and offering to take the man home. "F--- you," came the reply. "No, it's f--- you," answered Van Buskirk as he dropped in a white phosphorous grenade, presumably killing both longshadows.
There are no confirmed deaths of American soldiers at the camp. Moreover, in this week's Newsweek, Van Buskirk is quoted as saying he forgot and repressed his memory of the event for 24 years, until his interview with CNN producer April Oliver, whose byline appeared with that of CNN reporter Peter Arnett above the Time article.
He told Newsweek that he began repressing the memory in 1974, while he was in prison in Germany, charged unsuccessfully with selling weapons to terrorists. "Van Buskirk, now a prison minister in North Carolina, said that until he had a vision of Christ on that Easter morning, he had been drinking heavily and was haunted by nightmares," the magazine reported.
CNN and Time stand behind the story.
CNN vice president Pam Hill told Newsweek that Oliver has "multiple confidential sources" to back up the story about the use of sarin gas.
And Newsweek quotes Time managing editor Walter Isaacson: "We welcome further debate and inquiry."
As for the resignation of its military affairs expert, CNN spokesman Steve Haworth said Smith "leaves with our respect."
A bestselling author and speaker who served 30 years in the Air Force, Smith is based in Augusta, Ga., and teaches ethics and management to businesses, war colleges and corporations.
He flew 130 combat sorties over Laos from 1968 to 1969 and said he never heard of lethal gas being used. He said he has consulted such former high-ranking military officials as retired Gens. Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf, who assured him that U.S. forces used no nerve gas during the war. Smith quoted Schwarzkopf as calling the allegation "ridiculous."
Smith also tracked down two pilots who delivered gas to Laos that day from an air base in Thailand. Both said they had carried non-lethal tear gas, not poisonous nerve gas. One, Art Bishop, told Smith that he had found a 1970 diary notation that he dropped non-lethal gas.
After the program aired, a lieutenant colonel asked Smith by e-mail to "please assist us in regaining our honor" and not allow "the press ... (to) once again crucify us as they did 30 years ago."
"CNN has damaged the United States of America quite seriously," Smith said. Referring to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, he said: "Saddam can now accuse America of hypocrisy and use CNN as a source."
Defense Secretary William Cohen has ordered an investigation of the CNN-Time charges, and that continues.
Meanwhile, in Palm Harbor, Minton shares his memories of Operation Tailwind with pride.
He remembers several days of running gunbattles with the North Vietnamese army, of being wounded, and of his team's dramatic rescue from a landing zone made of stomped-down elephant grass. Actually, there were two rescues, he says.
The first helicopter to pick him up lost both engines to gunfire and crashed. Another came to complete the rescue.
When asked how people could have such vastly differing recollections of the same event, he smiled and shrugged.
"I can't imagine," he said. "Maybe someone wants to sell a book."