Colleagues,On Sunday 7 June 1998, CNN telecast the first edition of a new show. Entitled “Newsstand: CNN & Time”, the show was to be a joint venture by the two journalistic titans, and to whet the public’s appetite for the fare on offer, they had one whiz-banger of an opening segment:
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN NEWSSTAND.
JEFF GREENFIELD, CO-HOST: NEWSSTAND: tonight CNN & TIME.
“Valley of Death”: the U.S. military and a top-secret target. American defectors.
JIM CATHY (ph), FORMER AIR FORCE RESUPPLY FOR SOG COMMANDOS: I believe they were turn-toads. I believe they were traitors.
ANNOUNCER: The U.S military and a top-secret weapons.
MICHAEL HAGEN, OPERATION TAILWIND VETERAN: Nerve gas. The government don’t want it called that, but it was nerve gas.
GREENFIELD: The U.S. on a top-secret mission. Operation Tailwind.
JAY GRAVES (ph), FORMER SOG RECONNAISSANCE LEADER: Because they were using nerve gas in that shit and not telling anybody about it.
GREENFIELD: A mission in far away secret war, unreported, until now.
ROBERT VAN BUSKIRK, OPERATION TAILWIND VETERAN: They’re shooting anything that moves. This was the “valley of death.” [Note A]
“The Valley of Death.” Peter Arnett reporting, with images of US troops in Vietnam, and Buffalo Springfield playing in the background (I’m not kidding, it’s in the transcript), with the inimitable Steve Stills asking Hey, what’s that sound, and exhorting everybody to look at what’s goin’ down.
Groovy. As for the CNN-Time report, what a scoop, eh? A secret program, launched under the Nixon Administration, to send US Special Forces personnel into Laos - a country that both sides in the conflict had deemed off-limits - to use nerve gas, specifically Sarin (also known as GB), to slaughter US military defectors? Was it the biggest bombshell since the Pentagon Papers? Since Watergate?
Or was it a giant crock of crap?
Yeah, it was a giant crock of crap. This post isn’t about journalistic bias, or the inexplicably persistent obsession of the left-wing elements of the US media with the Vietnam War (and more particularly, the glory days of Woodward and Bernstein), or even the deep-seated willingness of some elements of that community to believe just about anything negative about military folks, and the more calumnious the better; no, it’s about what happens when neophyte writers who don’t know anything about the subject they’re writing about get their hands on a tiny bit of information that looks too good to be true, and are too biased, too lazy or just too dumb to do the research necessary to find out what’s really “goin’ down.”
Basically, here’s what happened. The principal producer on the show, CNN’s April Oliver, interviewed a couple of Vietnam veterans who for reasons that are unclear - possibly over-exposure to the cinematic works of Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone, or an attack of Sudden John Kerry Syndrome - decided to embellish their personal accounts of a relatively minor operation in the course of the war. To a CNN reporter, these fellows no doubt sounded plausible. There were a few fragments of what appeared to be circumstantial evidence; and there was at least a patina of truth to some of what they were saying. After all, Operation TAILWIND really did happen. It just didn’t have anything to do with US military defectors, or nerve gas.
As those of us who have worked in the Policy Group can imagine, the airing at 2200 hrs on a Sunday night of a news documentary critical of the military sparked a burst of activity at the Pentagon. The following morning, then-SecDef Bill Cohen directed the military departments (Army, Navy, Air Force) and the CJCS to investigate the charges and report back to him within 30 days. The order ended up being directed to two key recipients: the US Army and the JCS investigated the allegation that the operation had been intended to hunt down and murder US military defectors; and the US Air Force was directed to investigate the allegation that nerve gas bombs had been dropped in the course of the operation.
For obvious reasons, I’m more interested in the nerve gas allegations. Ironically, I came across Op TAILWIND while doing research not on nerve gas, but on the use of CS or “tear gas” in military operations. CS (the chemical name is O-chlorobenzylidene malonitrile) was originally developed for the US military, which was looking for a more effective irritant compound than CN (2-chloroacetophenone, commonly called “Mace” after the trade name adopted by one manufacturer). ”Tear gas” is a misnomer; a crystalline powder, CS is usually thermally dispersed by heating, producing a fine particulate aerosol that irritates the mucous membranes and provokes coughing. In high concentrations, it has been known to cause vomiting and “intestinal upset” (decorum prohibits a more fulsome description). Although severe reactions are rare, some individuals prove to be hypersensitive to CS, and can display symptoms ranging from prolonged dermatitis to multisystem responses included kidney and liver damage. There are numerous cases of people expiring in jail after being tear-gassed, although the agent itself is not always the cause.
Cast your minds back to the fall of 1970. Nixon, having won the 1968 election in large part on the strength of his promise to extricate the US from Johnson’s Southeast Asian quagmire, was having great difficulty finding a means of doing so. Troop draw-downs were progressing, but “Vietnamization” was proceeding poorly; news of the My Lai massacre and the impending courts-martial were percolating through the public consciousness; Kissinger was discovering, through talks with Le Duc Tho, that the North Vietnamese were, like any professional revolutionaries, prepared to simply wait Washington out; the ouster of Prince Sihanouk by Lon Nol had thrown Cambodia into civil chaos; Nixon had expanded the war into Cambodia as a result; and the Kent State killings had convulsed the nation.
Operationally, General Abrams was facing an impossible situation, restricted by policy from interdicting troop and supply movements on the Ho Chi Minh trail - a situation that would not be resolved until ARVN forces began to launch attacks against the trail early in 1971. One of the proposed means of interfering with NVA and VC movement along the trail was to blanket choke points with CS. Dispersed as a powder, CS retains much of its potency as an irritant; and once improved formulations had been trialled to mitigate the degrading effects of a damp jungle environment, it proved to be both effective and persistent. When deployed via thermal dispersion (e.g., in a grenade or smoke pot), CS in its crystalline form is used. For area denial missions, however, two new versions were produced: CS1, which was micronized CS mixed with 5% silica gel to aid its flow characteristics; and CS2, which improved both flow and persistency by microencapsulating the micronized powder with silicone, making it less likely to “cake” and easier to disperse from carrier vessels equipped with spraying attachments.
The US used a lot of CS in Vietnam, procuring more than 3000 tons of the powder in the first three years of its widespread use (1966-69). At the time, there were three principal munitions for the aerial delivery of CS. The simplest was the BLU-52, a 750-pound repurposed fire bomb casing:
Figure 1: The BLU-52A, a “dumb bomb” for CS dispersal
BLU-52, it turned out, was not a terribly effective means of dispersing CS as an area-denial agent. Although it carried 260 pounds of micronized CS, it simply scattered the agent by breaking apart on impact, producing very uneven coverage. According to a declassified top secret RAND report from 1968 examining the results of experiments in the Panama Canal zone, blanketing a single grid square (1000 m x 1000 m) with enough CS to produce the concentration necessary to achieve the desired irritant effects would require 120 BLU-52A munitions, which in turn would require 20 F-4 Phantom sorties, or 60 F-100 sorties. As laydown attacks require flying at low level, the number of sorties required is always a matter of concern, as more sorties expose more aircraft and pilots to ground fire - a significant problem in Vietnam, given the profusion of small-calibre AA guns that were available to the NVA and VC forces.
A better option was a cluster munition known as the CBU-19.
Figure 2: The CBU-19, a primitive cluster munition for CS dispersal
Known as the XM165 while in development, the CBU-19 had originally been designed for crowd control by helicopter. Although it contained much less agent than the BLU-52 - a mere 14 pounds of CS - the fact that the agent was dispersed by 528 BLU-39 grenade-sized submunitions (using the traditional thermal dispersion technique) made for far more even coverage. Testing in the Canal Zone in Panama had confirmed that a grid square could be covered by only 40 munitions, necessitating only 4 sorties by A-1 Skyraiders, or 7 by A-37 Cessna Dragonflys. This made CBU-19 a far preferable munition for area denial missions. Except for one problem - something that’s probably obvious from the designators for the aircraft used in the tests. As the shape of the CBU-19 suggests, the munition was not optimized for use by high-performance aircraft like the F-100 and F-4; it tended to break apart at high speed. If it was to be used, it could only be used by low-speed aircraft like the piston-engined Skyraiders and Dragonflys.
Enter the CBU-30.
Figure 3: The SUU-13 / CBU-30
Figure 4: The SUU-13 / CBU-30
Based on the SUU-13 (“Suspension Unit, Universal”) carrier munition, the CBU-30 was designed for use by high-performance strike aircraft. With 1280 BLU-39 submunitions (more than twice the number carried by the CBU-19) in a downward-dispensing configuration, the CBU-30 carried 66 pounds of CS, and only 14 munitions were required to blanket a grid square with agent. By 1970, the CBU-30 was the weapon of choice for carrying out area-denial missions with CS; the USAF report on TAILWIND notes that the CBU-19 was “little used after 1969.”
Speaking of Operation TAILWIND, let’s get back to it. According to the official report prepared by the US Air Force in response to Secretary Cohen’s June 1998 directive, TAILWIND began on 11 September 1970 when Marine CH-53 and AH-1G helicopters (the latter in a supporting role) carried a combined team of 16 Americans and a Special Commando Unit (SCU) of Montagnard troops into Laos, near Chavane. The American personnel were indeed Special Forces types, from Company B, Command and Control Central, Military Advisory Command Studies and Observation Group (MACSOG). The mission, which was originally intended to be only three days long, had two purposes: reconnaissance and intelligence collection; and to serve as a diversion for a larger operation which was taking place simultaneously to the north.
During the operation, the team received continuous air support by Air Force, Army and Marine assets. Seventh Air Force provided Forward Air Control and Airborne Command and Control Centre support, and flew 76 combat sorties in support of TAILWIND, using the code word “Prairie Fire” to identify infiltration and exfiltration operations. The report notes that “Prairie Fire” was the customary MACSOG code word for cross-border operations into Laos at the time.
According to Air Force records, most of the strike missions in support of TAILWIND employed high explosive fragmentation bombs and napalm. However, one A-1 Skyraider was always loaded with smoke and CS bombs.
Figure 5: A munitions load pattern for an A-1 Skyraider in Search-And-Rescue configuration (from a USAF report on SAR missions in Southeast Asia, 1 July 1969 - 31 December 1970). Note the two CBU-30s on the inboard hardpoints (“stubs”). The M47s are smoke bombs used for concealment
Aircraft so configured (which according to the historical reports of 56 Special Operations Wing were called “Gas Birds”) were kept available for use in operations to extract downed pilots in contact with the enemy. The enemy had apparently become very adept at responding quickly to shoot-downs of US aircraft, and understood that closing with a downed pilot was the best means of staying alive. CS could be used to blanket an area, and if the pilot were incapacitated along with his would-be captors, most considered it a small price to pay to avoid an extended stay in the “Hanoi Hilton” (at best).
One downed US Air Force pilot gave a graphic account of what it was like to be treated to a heavy dose of CS in the course of being rescued:
They laid it all along the top of the ridge . . .[some of] it hit me . . . I might as well tell you what it feels like when that stuff goes off. I ran into a tree and was wrapped around the tree urinating, defecating, and retching all at the same instant. . .It also made me want to sneeze. It was a beauty to have 500 pounders and everything go off because it would give me a chance to sneeze. . .It goes into effect instantaneously. Physically and mentally you can’t control yourself. . .After that every time I’d come up on the air and ask for Vodka (A-1s carrying CBU-19), as soon as I’d tell them where, how far and the heading, I’d tell them “Don’t get it close to me.”
Clearly, CS got used from time to time. Not so sarin. The USAF investigation into TAILWIND turned up a number of documentary records that, in addition to demonstrating the lack of any foundation for CNN’s charges, at least help to explain why the producers made the mistakes they did. During the broadcast, Peter Arnett (he of “Reporting to you from under a coffee table in Baghdad” fame) made the following statement:
ARNETT: Oliver asked Admiral Moorer about a special weapon the military called CBU-15, a cluster bomb unit that was filled with GB, sarin nerve gas. Moorer confirmed that nerve gas was used in Tailwind.
Actually, Admiral Moorer (who was CJCS at the time of TAILWIND) never confirmed any such thing. Here’s the transcript of his interview with April Oliver:
OLIVER: So, CBU-15 was a top secret weapon?
MOORER: When it was it should of been. Let me put it that way.
OLIVER: What’s your understanding of how often it was applied during this war?
MOORER: Well, I don’t have any figures to tell you how many times. I never made a point of counting that up. I’m sure that you can find out that from those that used them.
OLIVER: So isn’t it fair to say that Tailwind proved, that CBU- 15 G-B is an effective weapon?
MOORER: Yes, I think -- but I think that was already known, otherwise it never would have been manufactured.
Oliver never asked Moorer whether the US had used nerve gas in Vietnam; she asked him about “CBU-15 GB”. Thing is, at the time there was no such thing as a “CBU-15”, either loaded with “GB” or anything else. I don’t know what Moorer heard; he was 85 at the time of the interview, and might have thought “GB” was some sort of designator rather than Sarin; surely he would have responded differently to allegations about nerve gas being used in Vietnam.
A word about nomenclature. The CBU-14 and CBU-25 were both used in Vietnam, and both were based on the SUU-14, a different universal suspension unit from the SUU-13 used for the CBU-30 CS munition. The CBU-14 and CBU-25, moreover, were cluster bomb dispensers; CBU-14 dispensed large grenades for use against light vehicles like trucks, while CBU-25 dispensed smaller grenades for anti-personnel use. It helps to go back to the ammunition expenditure records. The USAF report included a 39-page printout from the Southeast Asia Database (SEADAB) of all operational missions flown in Laos during the period 11-14 September 1970. The vast majority of air-delivered weapons, not surprisingly, consisted of the classic Mk-82 500-pound HE bomb (either in the Slick, i.e. normal, or Snakeye, i.e. retarded configuration). The strikes during that period also included Mk-83, Mk-36 and Mk-117 bombs, laser-guided Mk-82s, LAU-3 and LAU-59 rockets, Mk-20 antitank missiles, CBU-24 and 25 cluster bombs, the AGM-12 Bullpup missile, Blu-32 firebombs, air-delivered sensors, M47S smoke bombs, MK-24 flares, CBU-49 mines, BLU-27 firebombs (the casing upon which the BLU-52 CS bomb was based), AIM-9 Sidewinders, AIM-7 Sparrows, and even leaflets.
But there were definitely some tear gas bombs used. According to the strike mission database, in Mission 1624, two USAF A-1 Skyraiders that took off from Nakhon Phanom airbase on 13 September expended four “CBU30RIOTCTRL” at 0225 hrs. While no target is listed (which is not unusual in the database), the same aircraft are listed as having also used sixteen CBU-25 cluster bombs and four LAU-3 rockets against “Personnel/Any”. Roughly two hours later, another pair of A-1s (Mission 1478) expended two more CBU-30s against “Personnel/Any”. It should be noted that “Personnel/Any” is a very common notation in the strike database, accounting for roughly half of the identified targets. “Personnel/Any” received another four CBU-30s courtesy Mission 1479, another pair of A-1s, at 0540 hrs on the 14th of September; and two more at 0815 hrs (Mission 1623). All of these missions were flown by the 56th Special Operations Wing (SOW), and were listed as “Armed Recon” missions.
Figure 6: An entry from the SEADAB database showing CBU-30s expended by 56 SOW A-1 Skyraiders, at 0815 hrs on 14 September 1970 during an ‘armed recon’ mission in Laos
The USAF historians conducting the report cross-referenced the SEADAB database with the CACTA, the Combat Air Activities Database, for the period 11-14 September 1970. Swinging through 49 pages of printouts looking at the names of the thousands of items of ordnance expended during those three days is a bit of a pain, but the CACTA records do show that a USAF Skyraider, call-sign “Hobo”, expended CBU-30s on 14 September 1970.
Well, what was going on during those days? You guessed it - extraction of the TAILWIND team. As of 12 September the team was in heavy contact with the enemy, and declared a “Prairie Fire emergency”, triggering massive air support, which operation personnel later described as “magnificent”. The first attempt at extraction, under heavy fire from enemy forces in contact, took place on 13 September and was unsuccessful, resulting in the loss of a Marine CH-53 (the helicopter was destroyed, but the crew was saved). The second extraction attempt, at 1500L on 14 September, succeeded (another Marine CH-53 was lost in this attempt). Both exfiltration attempts were supported by dozens of aircraft flying strike sorties - including, according to the reports of the operation, the use of CBU-30s by 56 SOW Skyraiders (call-signs Firefly 24 and Hobo 46 on the 13th, and Firefly 44 and Hobo 20 on the 14th).
As for sarin...well, there’s no such thing as a “CBU-15” among lists of US chemical munitions or other explosive ordnance, and there is no record of any nerve agent munitions ever being shipped to Southeast Asia, let alone being used in theatre. The CNN allegations were vigorously denied by everyone interviewed in the course of the USAF investigation. The most convincing denials were provided by those most knowledgeable about munitions handling; the transport and storage of the types of air-deliverable unitary nerve agent munitions stockpiled by the US in those days required special equipment and procedures, none of which were in place in Vietnam. LCol Wilfred Turcotte (Ret’d), commander of the 456 MMS at the time of TAILWIND, said during an interview that the idea of having sarin in Vietnam was a “startling concept” to him; the men who worked in his squadron loading munitions onto aircraft did so with no protective gear and often worked “stripped to the waist”. The munitions depots had no protective equipment, masks, aprons, gloves, decontamination equipment or medical treatment kits for dealing with nerve agent. The lack of any safety precautions pretty much precludes the presence of a nerve agent - especially a highly volatile one like sarin, which has very high percutaneous toxicity, and which vaporizes quickly in hot temperatures, forming lethal gas clouds.
So why did CNN automatically jump to the conclusion that the US had used nerve agent in Laos? It seems they had been given some documents that raised questions. One of them was a shipping label for 2.75” rockets sent to the theatre in January 1970 that contained the notation “poison gas”:
Figure 7: The suspicious shipping label
Leave aside the fact that the US has never put nerve agent into 2.75” rockets (the M-55 sarin-filled free-flight artillery rockets that the US has been destroying for the past decade are a little over 4” in diameter). This mystery was resolved by referring to Department of Transport regulations, which require any munition carrying a chemical agent to be labelled as “Poison Gas” regardless of the agent in question. The rockets referred to in the shipping label, according to the USAF report, were probably XM99 CS rockets for Army use; these were still experimental in 1970, but the Army was eager to deploy them.
(You’ve seen something similar to the XM99, incidentally; they were based on white phosphorous incendiary rockets, one version of which were packaged in rectangular four-rocket pods for multiple-launch applications. Rae Dawn Chong can be seen using one of these pods as a shoulder-fired weapon to blow up a car following her and Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Commando”.)
Matrix: Where did you learn how to do that?
Cindy:I read the instructions.
Cindy:I read the instructions.
She didn't read it very thoroughly, as she was holding the thing backwards. Hey, it ain't about the realism - later on, Arnie slaughters a battalion of enemy troops with an 8" belt in his M-60.
Well, what about the “CBU-15”? The USAF historians researching TAILWIND found more than 2000 mentions in the SEADAB of “CBU-15 Anti-Material” munitions being dropped by Skyraiders. They knew this was an error, as CBU-15 was not then a designator for any explosive munition, and it seemed unlikely that a nerve agent weapon could’ve been dropped secretly more than 2000 times without anyone noticing. As it turned out, the problem originated in the transfer of the database during the period 1972-1974, when “415” was selected as an item code for the CBU-14 anti-material cluster bomb mentioned above. The error was transmitted through to the 1974 edition. The bottom line is that in 1970, when the dropping of non-existent “CBU-15 Sarin gas bombs” was supposedly taking place, “CBU-15” was not a munition code anywhere in the US military; the card code was “415”, and this referred to CBU-14’s. When the 1970 SEADAB tapes were re-run using the 1970 card codes, the munitions came up with their proper designators: CBU-14, CBU-24, and CBU-25 (all high explosive cluster bombs) and CBU-30 (“Tear Gas”). Mystery solved.
So, what came of all of this? CNN officials got to sit down to a healthy meal of crow. The network conducted a review of its reporting in the “Valley of Death” series and, on 2 July 1998, slipped the following out with a minimum of fanfare:
Our central conclusion is that although the broadcast was prepared after exhaustive research, was rooted in considerable supportive data, and reflected the deeply held beliefs of the CNN journalists who prepared it, the central thesis of the broadcast could not be sustained at the time of the broadcast itself and cannot be sustained now. CNNs conclusion that United States troops used nerve gas during the Vietnamese conflict on a mission in Laos designed to kill American defectors is insupportable.
CNN should retract the story and apologize.[Note B]
I said this wasn’t going to be a screed about journalistic integrity, but I have to point out that the reason the network ended up airing such an enormous crock of nonsense in the first place was precisely because the story “reflected the deeply held beliefs of the CNN journalists who prepared it” - specifically, their deeply held belief that the government of the United States is sufficiently execrable that it would use nerve gas to murder American citizens (a belief that resonates today in the “9/11 Truther” movement, I might add). Or as Buffalo Springfield put it,
Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid...
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid...
See, the reporters’ beliefs were the cause of their ludicrously scurrilous allegations, not an explanation or an excuse for them. The “Valley of Death” series exemplifies what happens when supposedly objective researchers who know bugger-all about the subject they’re studying succumb to confirmation bias and use ideology in the place of evidence. The best that can be said of Miss Oliver and her cohorts in this debacle is that at least they didn’t manufacture fake documents to support their story. That’s more of a CBS thing, I guess.
Sure sells books for worn-out journalistic hacks, though.
Incidentally, I seem to recall Arnett doing most of his Baghdad reporting from a prone position under a coffee table while SLCMs buzzed past his window. I could be wrong, though.
By the way, while the US didn’t use nerve agent in Vietnam, the Soviets DID use nerve agent in Afghanistan. Some governments really are execrable. Just something to think about.
There’s a lot more to be said about Op TAILWIND and the use of CS in Vietnam, and the place that the history of such events holds in the evolution of international efforts to prohibit the use of riot control agents in warfare - efforts that culminated in paragraph 5 of Article I of the Chemical Weapons Convention, under which States Parties to the Convention undertaken never to use riot control agents “as a method of warfare”. But that’s more of a paper than a CoP post, and frankly it’s a lot less interesting than uncovering the real history behind allegations about secret programs to nerve-gas US defectors, so let’s leave it for another day.
If you’re interested in a copy of the Op TAILWIND report, you can get it here.
Trust me...it’s groovy.
Trust me...it’s groovy.