- RON RIVER, Wis.-If you stare too hard into the shadows, sometimes you don't
see what is really there, only what you imagine ought to be there. This
was the case last week, when Time magazine and Cable News Network's "Newsstand"
asserted that in September 1970, United States Special Forces used sarin,
a lethal nerve gas, on a Laotian village believed to be harboring American
soldiers who had defected. These reports are untrue. Along with about two
dozen other Green Berets, I was on the helipad when the special forces
commanders, code-named the Studies and Observations Group, returned from
the covert mission in question, known as Operation Tailwind.
- As the soldiers on the mission discussed
what they had done, not one mentioned nerve gas. Nor did anyone mention
having seen, much less killed, American deserters. Had American defectors-or,
for that matter, any Caucasians-been seen at such a site, and had any poisonous
gas been used, we would have talked about little else, so astonishing would
those occurrences have been. What of the "village" CNN and Time
claim was wiped out? It was, in fact, a "Binh Tram," a logistical
sub-headquarters on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Its inhabitants were not women,
children or American deserters, but North Vietnamese soldiers.
- How could Time and CNN have gotten it
so wrong? They mixed up two different gases. On Feb. 2, 1968, the Joint
Chiefs of Staff authorized the use of CBU-19, a tear gas, for search-and-rescue
operations in Laos. Even the use of tear gas was politically sensitive
then, according to the United States Air Force's authoritative history,
"Search and Rescue in Southeast Asia," published in 1992. Gen.
Creighton Abrams, the commander of all forces in South Vietnam, had to
approve any use of tear gas by special forces in covert operations. Indeed,
using tear gas was so delicate a matter that it normally meant a delay
of perhaps an hour or two while we waited for clearance and then loaded
the special tear gas bombs aboard planes at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand.
- While writing a book on the special forces
in Vietnam, published last year, I tracked down rumors that a "sleeping
gas" of some kind had been used on these missions. All my sleuthing
led to a single answer: the agent was CBU-19.
- The leading expert on the Studies and
Observation Group in Southeast Asia, Richard Shultz, a professor at the
Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, has spent two
years investigating the topic. He has had access to all available documents,
classified and unclassified, and has interviewed every significant military
and C.I.A. official involved with the special forces. And he too concludes
that the special forces never used nerve gas.
- A few months ago, when CNN was preparing
its report, a number of veterans alerted April Oliver, the CNN producer,
that the allegations about poison gas could not possibly be correct. But
the program, when it was broadcast, played down our testimony.
- Instead CNN advanced the claims of one
man, Lieut. Robert Van Buskirk. His claims are especially astonishing since
his own book about the mission, "Tailwind," published in 1983,
does not mention nerve gas or American defectors. The person who knows
the most about Operation Tailwind, Col. John Sadler, the commander of America's
covert operations in Southeast Asia in 1970, declined to be interviewed
- But he has unequivocally rejected Lieutenant
Van Buskirk's version of events. "I did not order this," he told
me after CNN's broadcast, "and I would have had to know if this had
- As for Lieutenant Van Buskirk's claim
that the raid was intended to kill American defectors, "This is simply
not correct," Colonel Sadler told me. "Operation Tailwind was
a diversion to draw North Vietnamese forces away so an allied attack could
succeed in southern Laos. It was a clear-cut mission, and I should know
because I ordered that operation."
- Capt. Eugene McCarley, who led the Tailwind
commandos, has also said the CNN report is inaccurate. I spoke with him,
too, after the telecast. "American deserters were never mentioned
in our mission briefing," he said. "We never saw a single Caucasian
during the operation. There were no defectors there. Looking for defectors
was not our mission."
- He added that no lethal chemical agent
of any kind was used during the operation. When he was interviewed by CNN,
Captain McCarley rebutted Lieutenant Van Buskirk's accusation. But instead
of broadcasting his forceful words, the producers paraphrased and minimized
- Lieutenant Van Buskirk's claims are also
highly implausible on technical grounds. For instance, gas masks alone
don't offer effective protection against nerve agents, which can penetrate
ordinary clothing. These masks, however, did protect troops from tear gas.
Army guidelines required soldiers to wear full chemical protective suits
when they were in areas exposed to nerve gas. No such suits were ever issued
to us in covert operations, and I doubt that any were even available in
- According to Lieutenant Van Buskirk,
nerve gas had been dumped on the "village" the night before he
and his team, without gas masks, attacked it. Yet Army guidelines require
waiting 32 days before sending unmasked troops into an area struck by sarin.
- Other essential equipment was missing
as well. "We did not have a single atropine injector," Captain
McCarley told me, referring to a common antidote for sarin. "If nerve
gas actually had been present, we would absolutely have needed atropine."
- Nor were his men issued field decontamination
kits, small plastic pouches containing a special powder needed to counteract
the poison. What is more, when the team returned, the soldiers did not
go through the lengthy, complex decontamination procedures required after
exposure to nerve gas. Indeed, everyone, including me, went straight to
the club for a drink!
- In its report, CNN said that Adm. Thomas
Moorer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1970, confirmed the use of
sarin. But CNN, which said his confirmation came "off camera,"
quoted snippets that didn't add up to a direct confirmation. Perhaps CNN's
greatest shortcoming was its failure to offer one reason for the military
to have used nerve gas-especially since the potential political consequences
would be so high. Why use nerve gas four months after the Kent State killings,
during the height of the anti-war movement? Wouldn't the North Vietnamese
have gone out of their way to protest and publicize so horrendous a war
- Tragically, CNN and Time magazine missed
the real story-the great sacrifice and courage of the troops in special
forces, who risked their lives, secretly, against tremendous odds and with
no recognition from a nation that showed little gratitude at the time.
If CNN and Time are any measure, there seems little gratitude today, either.
- John L. Plaster, a former Green Beret
officer, is the author of "SOG: The Secret Wars of America's Commandos
in Vietnam," a history of the Studies and Observations Group, which
carried out covert assignments in Southeast Asia.