Newsweek Debunks CNN Nerve Gas Story

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Newsweek magazine, in its June 22nd edition, has begun to blow holes in the wild accusations made by CNN/Time Magazine that the U.S. Military used lethal chemical agents to kill defectors in Laos in 1970.

Newsweek reports that Robert Van Buskirk, CNN's source for the wildest of the allegations, spent time in a West German Prison in 1974 after being accused of selling arms to terrorists.

Contacted by Newsweek and given an opportunity to comment on Newsweek's revelations, Peter Arnett, who first made the sensational allegations said "It's a pretty factual account" and "It seems fair" referring to Newsweek's account of CNN's investigation.

Van Buskirk told Newsweek that he had forgotten the events of the raid for 24 years and only recalled the events during an interview with CNN's April Oliver, who apparently was Arnett 's assistant during CNN's investigation. Van Buskirk says that he even remembers the day he repressed the memory--Easter Sunday of 1974, while he was in the West German prison. Van Buskirk told Newsweek that he had a vision of Christ on that Easter morning, after a night of heavy drinking followed by nightmares.

Newsweek was able to find several helicopter and fighter-bomber pilots who flew close air-support missions for the Tailwind team. These pilots kept diaries of their missions. One pilot, Art Bishop, says his diary records the payload he carried as "CBU-30-Tear Gas". It is unclear why the Peter Arnett/April Oliver eight-month investigation failed to locate Art Bishop or any of the other pilots. It is not even clear whether they did interview these men and simply discounted their testimony because it did not fit in with the theory they were determined to prove.

Apparently firing the first shots in what will no doubt be a protracted and embarrassing rear-guard action to cover for April Oliver, CNN Vice President Pam Hill told Newsweek that Oliver has "multiple confidential sources" to back up the story. If this is true, it is not clear why CNN relied on allegations from unreliable sources such as Van Buskirk and Mike Hagen. If Van Buskirk's account turns out to be bogus, and each passing day it appears more and more likely that it is, it must surely cast doubt on the information supplied by the "confidential sources", since CNN apparently used these sources as corroboration for Van Buskirk's lurid account of the mission.

Peter Arnett is apparently attempting to shift responsibility for the shoddy reporting. Quoted by CNN, Arnett said "I'd like to point out that April Oliver, Jack Smith, and Amy Cassada did the back breaking work of interviewing over 200 people, including many who participated in that mission. They should be up here sitting with me, not to share the blame, but to share the acclaim of breaking such an important story."

It is highly unlikely that Arnett would have wanted to share a Pulitzer Prize with his colleagues, but he seems to find it important that their names be mentioned just in case there are embarrassing repercussions.

Even Time magazine appears to be backing away from the story, telling Newsweek that Time staffers "had minimal involvement" in the Arnett/CNN story.

In any event, it does not appear likely that Robert Van Buskirk, Mike Hagen, and Craig Schmidt will be welcome at the 30-year reunion of their SOG team. And that's how it should be.

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Creation Date: Wednesday, June 17, 1998
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 17, 1998
Copyright © Ray Smith, 1998