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By Jennifer Epps
In June of 1998, CNN/Time premiered a new joint venture, a weekly program called ‘News Stand’. Their first segment had revelations about a ‘Valley of Death’ (as one of the veterans interviewed called it) during the Vietnam War. The news story of this 1970 U.S. military black operation known as Operation Tailwind aired nationally over two consecutive Sundays. It quoted members of the military who alleged that commandos from the U.S. Special Operations Group (SOG) had been dispatched to a village base camp in Laos with sarin gas, a toxic nerve agent that causes a painful death. It’s the same gas that was used by a Japanese religious cult in the 1995 terror attack in the Tokyo subway. [It's also the same gas the U.S., the UK, and France are alleging was used in Syria by Assad's military.] One hundred people in the Laotian village reportedly died as a result of Operation Tailwind. Moreover, the story purported that U.S. military defectors living in the village were the primary target.
News of the secret attack, named ‘Operation Tailwind’, shocked the nation and also created a firestorm of protest directed at the news organization from the Pentagon, veterans, and high-placed figures like Henry Kissinger (who had been National Security Advisor at the time of the black op). It was not long before CNN was issuing apologies..
..and firing the story’s producers, reassuring the nation that the story was untrue and the whole thing was a mistake. Consequently, ‘Tailwind’ has gone down in the annals of broadcast journalism as a cautionary tale about accuracy.
Fifteen years later, it is back in the public consciousness thanks to the award-winning scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin, who has spun his own creation off of the idea of the Tailwind journalistic scandal. In the current season of his HBO fiction series, The Newsroom, the hour-long drama about a fictitious cable news program (‘News Night’), on a network known as the Atlantic Cable Network, Sorkin has been exploring leaks about an alleged war crime reminiscent of the Tailwind episode as CNN initially presented it. This time, the incident is more current than Tailwind was when CNN/Time ran its story; a military source reveals to Jerry, a News Night guest producer (played by Hamish Linklater), that U.S. forces used sarin gas on civilians in Pakistan during an ‘Operation Genoa.’ (Sorkin invented the story and the codename.) Through a multi-episode flashback structure, Sorkin makes clear from the outset that the big scoop is false, and that getting sucked in by it will prove disastrous for the characters. That’s certainly a rich plotline for a dramatist to mine. However, in seizing on it, Sorkin may be doing a disservice to the original producers of CNN’s ‘Tailwind’ expose, reporters who stood by their story throughout the ensuing fracas and who accused CNN of a cowardly retreat in the face of Pentagon opposition to it. And Sorkin may also be betraying the Quixotic principles the characters on his show so passionately espouse; in this case siding, not with the underdogs his dialogue so often champions, but with the powerful.
Sorkin considered it no spoiler to tell the public before Season 2 premiered last month that the core of this season revolves around a Tailwind-inspired plotline: a News Night “mistake” in running a shocking story that ultimately turns out to be untrue. “Hopefully, the mistake is understandable,” Sorkin told John Oliver (who was filling in for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show) on July 15th.
(VIDEO REMOVED BY YouTube)
News Night guest producer Jerry is scoffed at by his higher-ups (The Newsroom’s series regulars) over the extreme claims a source makes regarding Operation Genoa – they find them much too outrageous to believe. However, as the season progresses, switching back and forth between present-tense legal deposition scenes and flashbacks to how they got into this mess (a structure similar to The Social Network), various factors start to convince the News Night executives the Genoa tip has validity. For instance, ACN news division president Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) comes to believe the story is true in episode 2.5 because a federal agent (or someone passing for one) snoops around the newsroom asking about the story – it makes the government seem as if it really is worried about a secret getting out.
Now, when Sorkin went on Comedy Central to plug The Newsroom’s Season 2 premiere, he could have been vague about the real news story that gave him the idea. After all, he has every right to dramatic license — Operation Genoa and the ACN network are clearly fictional, so he can stray from what happened with CNN around its reporting of the Tailwind saga as much as he likes. But instead, he stated up front in the interview that CNN’s 1998 broadcast on Operation Tailwind was his inspiration, and then he went on to describe where CNN went wrong with it. Sadly, the whole description was full of inaccuracies, beginning as soon as he broached the subject.
It’s true that CNN retracted the news story after it aired, and fired the segment’s producers, Jack Smith and April Oliver. But the pair filed wrongful termination lawsuits, and apparently Smith and Oliver had a pretty good case: one of them reportedly received $1 million from CNN, and the other settled for an undisclosed sum.
Moreover, the wrongful termination suit obviously entailed examining the accuracy of the producers’ reporting on Tailwind. Far from proving incompetence on Smith and Oliver’s part, the case apparently validated them. In the book Me and Ted Against the World: The Unauthorized Story of the Founding of CNN (excerpted here), the network’s co-founder and its first president, Reese Schonfeld, relates that when the Tailwind story’s key witness Admiral Thomas Moorer was confronted at the deposition by Oliver’s notes from their conversation, the Admiral affirmed that he had made the statements the producer he’d met with claimed he had: “His answers indicated that Oliver had quoted him correctly about Operation Tailwind. Moorer admitted that sometimes defectors were killed and that he had been told by Singlaub [former SOG commander] that killing defectors was a priority. When asked about the use of sarin, the poison gas, Moorer said, ‘If the weapon could save American lives, I would never hesitate to use it.’… After Moorer’s deposition, it was apparent that CNN’s retraction was premature, cowardly and dead wrong.” This is certainly not the way Sorkin presented CNN’s Tailwind saga to Jon Stewart’s left-leaning fan base.
But even more specifically, Sorkin told The Daily Show that what went wrong with the reporting on Tailwind in 1998 was that a producer, frustrated at being unable to get the source for the story to state on camera that sarin gas was used in Operation Tailwind, altered videotape of the interview in the editing room. Sorkin claimed that the CNN producer had changed the military expert’s response from “If we used sarin gas, it would’ve been wrong” to sound as if the source was saying they had used sarin gas and it was wrong.
Even if it was 15 years ago, this is quite a claim to make against an individual journalist. It’s especially extreme considering that an extensive internal investigation was conducted by CNN and authored by two of the company’s high-powered attorneys, Floyd Abrams and David Kohler – and this report contains no such allegation. In the text of that official 1998 ‘AK Report’ currently posted on CNN’s own site, Abrams and Kohler criticize a host of specific flaws in the reporting on Tailwind, cite some instances where sound bites from sources were cut off before an important follow-up statement, and conclude that CNN should issue a retraction — but they also state categorically: “we have found no credible evidence at all of any falsification of an intentional nature at any point in the journalistic process.” The report stressed that “the report was rooted in extensive research done over an eight-month period and reflects the honestly held conclusions of CNN’s journalists,” and affirmed:
“we do not believe it can reasonably be suggested that any of the information on which the broadcast was based was fabricated or nonexistent.”
Their chief complaint about the investigative reporters’ handling of the story is not about tampering but about vague interview questions and premature extrapolations from inadequate responses. The attorneys explained: “when one reviews, in their entirety, the underlying transcripts, outtakes, notes, and other available information, much of the most important data said to support the broadcast offers far less support than had been suspected.” If true (more on that later), this is obviously a big problem with the methodology behind the Tailwind news story, but it’s quite different from the impression Sorkin gave.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
The concept that the U.S. military could possibly have ever used biochemical warfare on its own members, even turncoats, may be completely beyond the pale for some people — and it wouldn’t be surprising if the thought alone provokes too much cognitive dissonance for Sorkin, ever a sentimentalist about several of the tropes of ‘patriotism’. But other investigative reporters have uncovered glimpses of a military program which tested biochemical weapons on U.S. forces – and not defectors but loyal, active-duty troops. The Pentagon, naturally, denied the program for as long as they could: eventually, as the press discovered more, the Department of Defense admitted more, in increments. An article by Jon Mitchell posted on Truthout summarizes the Pentagon’s admissions thus far: that it ran a highly classified testing program for biochemical agents, code-named Project 112 or Project SHAD, between 1962 and 1974, and that U.S. forces stationed in Okinawa, Hawaii, Panama, and on ships in the Pacific Ocean were experimental subjects for it. But that’s alright, the DOD affirms, because “to date, there is no clear evidence of specific, long-term health problems associated with participation in Project SHAD.”
It’s pretty clear that the DOD didn’t start to admit this testing program of its own volition, but because of a dogged media — in this instance, CBS News. This is exactly the kind of journalism that Sorkin’s Newsroom philosophy is meant to celebrate and encourage. Over and over again, the characters on the HBO show declare a passionate commitment to telling the truth even if it’s unpopular, to reporting important stories even when powerful enemies try to keep them quiet. In the pilot, which takes place on April 20, 2010, much drama is built up around early bits of information emerging about the Gulf oil spill. An early lead that Halliburton was negligent is brought to the attention of senior producer Jim (John Gallagher Jr.), and he and Neal (Dev Patel) want to tell the world. However, Don (Thomas Sadoski), the executive producer of the 10pm show, tries to block them: “You’re wrong about Halliburton? And that will be the first sentence of your bio, forever. They will own you… They will have their own record label. They will have their own theme park.” Yet the pilot revolves around News Night anchor Will (Jeff Daniels) committing to reform the news and quit pandering, so of course they go up against Halliburton. Because an informed electorate is essential to democracy, as executive producer Mackenzie (Emily Mortimer) reminds Will. In later episodes, they take on the Koch Brothers, voter ID laws, and the Tea Party – in defiance of explicit instructions from network owner Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda).
Sorkin even seems to hold that it was corporate pressure, not journalistic standards, which forced Dan Rather to vacate the once-hallowed anchor’s chair on CBS News after his infamous report that a young George Bush didn’t fulfill his required service commitment at the Texas National Air Guard. At one point, worrying that someone might be trying to bait Will with an incendiary tip just so he can be disgraced, Mackenzie wonders if he is “being Dan-Rathered.” Elsewhere in Season 1, Charlie informs Will: “Dan got it right.” (Dan Rather happens to agree: “I am not at CBS now because I and my team reported a true story,” he stated in April 2012, a few years after his exit. “Nobody has ever proven that the documents were not what they purported to be.”)
But Sorkin did not decide to write about the career costs of reporting true stories in today’s media climate. His takeaway from the scandal over CNN’s story on Tailwind is very different: he seems to have focused chiefly on how difficult journalism can be, how an error in judgment can ruin your career and threaten an entire organization. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that the U.S. government might have tried to cover up an embarrassing story, or that the corporate media might have been complicit. In contrast to the support he expressed for Rather’s position, Sorkin’s view of the Tailwind aftermath seems completely oblivious to the objections raised by the reporters themselves.
Producers Smith and Oliver’s lengthy rebuttal to CNN states: “In a June 18 meeting, [CNN President] Rick Kaplan said this was a public-relations problem, not a journalism problem, and that he did not want this controversy to progress to congressional hearings with ‘3,000’ members of the establishment on one side of the room and CNN and members of the Special Forces on the other. During that same meeting, Kaplan and [CNN CEO Tom] Johnson expressed their concern about the pressure they were receiving from Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell and the threat of a cable boycott by veterans groups.” If that quote is accurate, it suggests that the executives were not concerned primarily with whether the reporting was factual, but with the size of the opposition to it.
Oliver and Smith further alleged that at the height of the hubbub, “Kaplan and Johnson gagged us from publicly defending the broadcast, and pulled Pamela Hill and Jack Smith from a scheduled appearance on CNN’s Reliable Sources program. Nevertheless, CNN continued to air unopposed criticism about the broadcast without any fairness or balance on the Reliable Sources program and with a news report from the Special Forces convention.”
Smith and Oliver did try to salvage the story and keep it alive. CNN’s former military adviser, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Perry Smith, criticized Tailwind’s producers in print as misguided conspiracy theorists: “If nerve gas had been used in the Vietnam War, thousands of people would have known–commanders, pilots, soldiers, load crew members, munitions storage people, intelligence officers, supply officials, transportation officials, database managers, historians, enemy soldiers.” But in a 1999 piece April Oliver penned about the controversy in the American Journalism Review, she quipped that the Maj. Gen. might be “relieved to hear that some of the people he describes have in fact volunteered statements corroborating the use of nerve gas and the killing of defectors. We continue to receive calls.” Moreover, she added: “It appears Tailwind was not an isolated incident.”
Reading through a range of material about the ‘Valley of Death’ coverage — the transcripts from the two broadcasts, the AK Report generated by CNN, and Smith and Oliver’s rebuttals — it is not readily apparent which side is right. For instance, some of the reporters’ questions and follow-ups do seem like they might have confused the 87-year old Admiral Moorer, who was interviewed in an assisted-living home. He may also not have understood the full weight of the reporters’ intentions for the story. Also rather troubling is the finding in the AK Report that “Information that was inconsistent with the underlying conclusions reached by CNN was ignored or minimized. The views of some of the individuals best placed to know what happened — the two A-1 pilots who dropped the gas, the officer who commanded the operation, and the medic on the ground — were unduly discounted.” None of this necessarily means that the story was untrue, but it could mean that Moorer did not quite realize what he was saying or confirming, and it might also be the case that viewers didn’t get the chance to weigh both sides and draw their own conclusions. On the other hand, the producers complained in their rebuttal that several conclusive exchanges with sources, documented in their research, were not addressed by the AK Report at all.
In any case, even Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein made mistakes in chasing down Watergate secrets, as was made forever memorable when Jason Robards chewed Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford out in the middle of the night. (The “If you screw up again, I’m going to get mad” scene was memorable for Sorkin too, as he made two allusions to it in The Newsroom’s Season 1 dialogue.) Tracking down high crimes and misdemeanors is surely not easy. Supervision, guidance, the checks and balances that are normally part of the journalistic process anyway, these are especially important in an explosive story like Tailwind. Yet Sorkin appears not to consider that the AK Report did not condemn the ‘Valley of Death’ segment outright, that it noted that “this was not a broadcast that was lacking in substantial supportive materials”, and that it conceded there was enough evidence to be taken as “justifying serious continued investigation”. Perhaps Oliver and Smith’s supervisors could have been more careful, or held off on the story until it was airtight. Or perhaps the network could have allowed for corrections and adjustments as they went along, like the Watergate reporting was able to do. But at the first sign of trouble, the entire investigation was dumped. “It is sad how the CNN executives caved,” Oliver told interviewer Barry Grey almost a year after her ‘Valley of Death’ report had been disowned by the network.
The Newsroom’s Operation Genoa storyline has only partly unfurled, but we’re already half-way through the season, and considering the statements Sorkin has made in promotional interviews, it seems as if he has chosen to build his fictional spin-off of Tailwind around the angle of a ‘mistake’ made at the bottom of the food chain, rather than looking into top-tier corporate cowardice. And this may in part be the result of who Sorkin had advising him about Tailwind in the first place: in last month’s Daily Show interview, Sorkin disclosed that his consultants Rick Kaplan and Jeff Greenfield are the ones who told him about the 1998 CNN/Time ‘Operation Tailwind’ saga. Both Kaplan and Greenfield were at CNN during that time: Greenfield was a senior analyst at CNN (1998-2007), and co-hosted the ‘News Stand’ show that aired the ‘Valley of Death’ segment – he introduced it. Kaplan was president of the network 1997-2000 — Oliver and Smith’s complaints against him have already been mentioned. Both Kaplan and Greenfield weathered the Tailwind scandal while the journalists on the frontlines did not. (A year after the firing of the producers Oliver and Smith, there was also the dismissal of prominent broadcaster Peter Arnett, the on-camera narrator of the segment. Oliver has claimed his firing was Tailwind-related, that CNN planned it but delayed it deliberately in order to hide the connection.)
Despite a long-standing concern for social justice, Sorkin does not seem to consider that he’s only listening to the management side regarding that Tailwind affair, that he’s not hearing out the employees who maintain: “We were tried, convicted, and sentenced in a closed proceeding that failed any test of fairness or due process.” They claimed that the report issued by CNN evaluating their journalism “suggests that it is designed to absolve CNN management, including Mr. Kohler, of any responsibility.” The long-term ramifications of this are not, of course, just the unfairness of shutting out the labor side in a labor-management conflict. “The military and veterans’ groups not only determine what CNN covers, but who covers it,” Oliver complained to interviewer Barry Grey in 1999. “That the military should have veto power over the employment policy of the networks is alarming. The message is: fall in line, otherwise, you’re history. Above all, don’t mess around with national security issues.”
What is most striking is that in ignoring this angle, Sorkin is also passing up the very themes he has cared so much about in The Newsroom: the pernicious influence of the profit motive on the news, the damage done to society when news caters to what the public wants to hear, and the shamelessness of masquerading entertainment as news.
This may or may not underlie the way CNN handled the aftermath of Tailwind, but Oliver encapsulates her experience this way: “It is absolutely chilling. I see the fallout from CNN’s capitulation on Tailwind continuing.” If Sorkin wonders whether human error or corporate spinelessness is a more urgent tale, all he has to do is look at the Dan Rather scandal, the instances of censorship and cover-up described in the book Into the Buzzsaw, and the tragedy of Gary Webb, who authored the much-attacked, ground-breaking San Jose Mercury News series about the CIA taking money from crack-cocaine sales to fund the Contras. (Webb’s career was ruined by the attacks on his professionalism, and ultimately so was his life – he committed suicide after his employers left him out to dry. Thankfully, Jeremy Renner’s production company is shooting a biopic of Webb, based on the book Kill the Messenger, to be released in 2014 with Renner in the lead.)
Near the end of last year’s season, The Newsroom episode “The Blackout, Part 1: Tragedy Porn” climaxed with Mackenzie just about to begin a broadcast she’s ashamed of — it’s full of Casey Anthony filler and an interview with one of the young women listed in Anthony Weiner’s smartphone. Mackenzie has been struggling with her bosses all episode and is thoroughly disgusted by the depths to which the program has sunk, bumping crucial coverage of the debt ceiling crisis for these sexier tabloid headlines. So just before they roll tape, she half-seriously prays aloud: “God, please give me a sign that I’m not doing a big thing badly.” A split-second later, all the power goes out in the studio.
Ironically, just before Sorkin’s July 15th Daily Show interview in which he misrepresented basic facts about the Tailwind story and how it was reported, all the power went out in the Comedy Central studio. Was it a sign?