Black Op Radio #5 April Oliver and CNN's Operation Tailwind Story
The full audio is available as part of Black Op Radio's Season 1 / year 2000 - one of 26 interviews available via direct download for $10.
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You're listening to Black Op Radio, the show NSA doesn't want you to hear. And now your hosts, Anita Langley and Len Osanic.
Len Osanic Welcome to Black Op Radio. We always have a bug or two, it seems.
Anita Langley Why break the tradition?
Len Osanic Yeah. I'm Len Osanic.
Anita Langley I'm Anita Langley.
Len Osanic It's great to have you here. Today we have a guest. April Oliver is going to be with us. I believe she's on hold right now. She was one of the reporters that worked for CNN and did the Operation Tailwind, her and Jack Smith, I believe. She had a very unfortunate incident, they both fired with the whole thing. We're going to try to get her on the line right now.
April Oliver I'm here.
Len Osanic Oh, you are.
April Oliver Yep.
Len Osanic Good to hear you.
April Oliver Glad to be here.
Anita Langley It's great to have you here. Sorry - let me get my notes straight here. Could you give us some personal history?
April Oliver Right. I was a journalist for 15 years, spent a good ten years in public television, five of those with the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour, not exactly a fringe organization. Went to CNN after I had done about five years of international affairs coverage, ranging from work in Nicaragua to South Africa to the Middle East, so got around the world a bit for MacNeil/Lehrer. Then joined CNN's unit, which is called their Special Assignment Unit, that was their unit to do investigative reporting and in-depth feature programming. One of the more highly publicized journalist controversies probably this decade, I did a report for CNN looking at U.S. nerve gas use in Laos in 1970, which received quite disfavorable coverage from the Pentagon and created a bit of a furor, and resulted in the retraction of the story and my being fired, along with Jack Smith.
Anita Langley How did that ... I guess that shook your confidence a little bit.
April Oliver I was absolutely shell-shocked when it happened. I could not believe that an institution like CNN, which had always prided itself in being "the international news network," could be so parochial, and just paving over and really giving such a flimsy excuse. The stated whitewash line was, "Oh, we're not saying it's wrong, she did exhaustive research, she had considerable supportive data, nothing here was fabricated at all. It's just that she didn't have enough. She didn't have proof beyond a reasonable doubt."
Of course, this is a kind of ridiculous line. "She," I mean, I'm one person. There were 44 drafts of the script, if "I" didn't have enough, according to their standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, somebody should have stopped things much earlier than 44 drafts. Moreover, proof beyond a reasonable doubt has never been the journalistic standard. The normal standard since Watergate has been two credible sources. As I'm sure all of your listeners are aware, the way special operations work, you'll never get proof beyond a reasonable doubt. They can always stir up doubt somehow, by the very nature of the way these things are structured.
Anita Langley How much help did you have putting this story together?
April Oliver Television is quite different from print. It is by it very nature an inherently collaborative team effort. There's just simply too much work to do, it's too technical. You have a cameraman, you have a sound man, you have a tape editor. There's a bevy of producers, two, three, four producers working on it at one time. And then there's a whole host of managerial people on top of you. By the time something gets to air, probably as many as 15 to 20 people have had a piece of it somehow or other.
It's inherently collaborative, which makes it all the more surprising that CNN tried to pretend that I was a rogue reporter, when my background is probably the most cooperative good soldier on behalf of the company. If there was a company man, I was it. I always sort of followed the company line, to my detriment. When CNN was trying to question the story and shut the thing down, the very first thing they told us was not to talk to anybody. They didn't want a vigorous defense of it because they were trying to kill it off.
I, stupidly, in my own mind, shut my mouth and should not have. I should have been leaking all over the place to the press, giving them documents and showing the kind of in-depth support that we did have for this story so that my defense of it would be credible. Instead, CNN just basically ... I even have an audio tape of a CNN manager stating at an in-house meeting the day they retracted the story, that the company goal was to crush the story, to bury it, so it was dead and gone forever, which is a very unusual statement, to say the least, for a news organization.
Anita Langley How did your co-workers feel about this?
April Oliver I think it was, it came at a time in CNN history when there was quite a bit of change afoot. CNN had just been acquired by Time Warner. There was a new managerial structure. There was a new president brought in from ABC, who had a lot of big ideas and big spending ways, which created a bit of a culture clash within CNN, which has always been a very low-budget operation.
It just kind of created, this whole thing was so divisive within the organization because, I'm not going to say I was a beloved person within the organization, but I know for sure that my co-producer, Jack Smith, the man with 30 years news experience, was a deeply beloved person within that organization. He is a man known for his integrity throughout the industry. When people saw that he was getting fired in the most kind of humiliating circumstances, and being called all kinds of names in the press by people who really didn't know the first thing about the kind of reporting we did on the story, people knew, they knew something bad went down and this was not a fair or accurate assessment of the quality of this reporting.
Len Osanic There's two things I'd like to bring up, then. You mentioned there was 44 drafts of your final article-
April Oliver That's correct.
Len Osanic And it was titled, "Valley of Death"?
April Oliver Right.
Len Osanic How many supervisors had seen these drafts. I mean, 44?
April Oliver Forty-four drafts. In fact, there are probably more than 44. The last one that I had in my hand was numbered 44. It is mind-blowing. The script writing began in January of 1998 and ended the night before the air date.
Len Osanic So you're talking about eight months.
April Oliver No, four or five months.
Len Osanic Four or five months.
April Oliver January to June. There are many revisions and, any time a little change gets made, you stick in the new revision. It's just laughable, this whole notion that I was a rogue reporter when there are that many drafts of the script floating around. One of the things Rick Kaplan was trying to do, who is the president of CNN, he was trying to say that, "Oh, well, they surprised me. Why did you keep this a secret from me?" I finally decided that what Rick Kaplan and Tom Johnson were trying to do was adopt the line of the special ops general, you know, plausible deniability, "I know nothing about it".
Len Osanic Right, so then to make matters worse, they give you a two-week gag order.
April Oliver Yeah, that's right. That's right. If I had to do one thing over again in handling the whole public relations furor, I just would not have complied with that. As soon as a gag order like that comes down, I should have known better, that they did not have their interests in mind. You have to keep in mind that what they did was, they brought in this very big, high-profile lawyer from New York, a guy named Floyd Abrams, who has quite a reputation in the legal field for being a First Amendment lawyer. When they brought him in, I was told by my boss, Pam Hill, that he was there to help us. He was there to help us defend our Constitutional and First Amendment rights, to help our relationship with the Pentagon, which was strained, and to help us with our confidential sources, because he had a lot of experience in that arena. These all seemed very plausible reasons to me. Little did I know, what was really going on was he was there to do me in.
As one of the, a former CNN executive who knows a number of the very senior executives quite well, told me what CNN was simply doing was flying Floyd Abrams' name. They needed somebody credible to be the face to the world of their retraction so it wouldn't look like they were just cutting and running, which is, of course, exactly what they were doing.
The pressure campaign became simply too much for them. It was just something that, I don't think that CNN had a great deal of experience in investigative reporting. I think they were caught by surprise by the degree of the backlash against the report. They shouldn't have been surprised, because I was writing memos right, left and center about how very sensitive all of this was, and how they could expect a furor. Nevertheless-
Len Osanic They were advertising the show ahead of time.
April Oliver Yeah, they knew. They knew. I think one of the really interesting things is that you have, right now, two very big, high-profile press controversies in the public's ear right now. One is this whole press controversy with Seymour Hersh, who wrote a piece in the New Yorker magazine about the Persian Gulf War. The other is the big press controversy having to do with the Associated Press's coverage of the Korean War, basically the killings at No Gun Ri, which won the Pulitzer Prize.
In both of those stories, there's been a really severe and harsh backlash within well-motivated military communities, who have been campaigning in editorials and on the Internet against those stories as being unpatriotic and sloppy journalism. I think what you really have is a group of guys out there who have gotten together on the Internet and who are now mobilized and in contact with each other. In part, because of the success of the campaign against the Tailwind story, they know the blueprint, or they think the know the blueprint, to get the news executives to retract.
I think one of the great legacies of the Tailwind story is that, the way the press really picked apart and bought, [inaudible 00:13:06], bought the Abrams line, the Floyd Abrams line, without even questioning that here was a lawyer in the pay of CNN, who's writing a report, and he wasn't even saying it's not true. He's saying "exhaustive research," but the problem is that "she" didn't have enough. "She" didn't have enough. The people didn't think through what the implications of that is. It's not "she" didn't have enough, it's that CNN decided she had a lot but she needed even more, but they decided that after the fact.
It's a really bad legacy for journalism, because it lets the military know that they can flex their muscle and get what they want out of these news organizations, if they just threaten to cut off the access. For CNN, access to the military is everything. There's a war, their ratings, they don't just triple, they quintuple. That's CNN's bread and butter, that's how they've made their reputation.
When this controversy happened and, all of a sudden, the military is calling them up and saying, hey, we don't need you guys anymore, we have FOX, we have MSNBC, you aren't the only game in town anymore, I think a couple of news executives saw some dollar signs and decided that this little, that in effect, that this little news story that happened to be true but very, very inconvenient and awkward, wasn't so important anymore.
Len Osanic I wanted to ask you just about your rights as a reporter. How did they inform you that you were no longer working there?
April Oliver It was quite a surprise, because I was under the impression that there was still this purported investigation and that we were supposed to brief Floyd Abrams. We had never even had the discussion with Floyd Abrams who made what editing decisions. That was a discussion that was supposed to take place. They kept putting it off, tomorrow, tomorrow, the next day. Then all of a sudden, I started hearing from reporters that he was already done with his report, even though he hadn't interviewed me on the editing process. I said, "What?"
Then I knew what was going down, is that it was just a whitewash and they had no interest in really interviewing me on that fact. They didn't care what I had to say because they didn't hear any, they didn't want to hear that any managers had any real responsibility.
I guess I heard the first time that I was being fired, I heard on a group conference call, a manager named Jim Conner just announced to the staff, with me in the room, that I was being fired, even though no one had told me that. I protested vigorously. Later that afternoon, CNN president Tom Johnson called me up and said, either apologize with ... submit your resignation and apologize or be terminated. I basically told him that no mistake was made, that this was a story that had more than two sources for every line of that script, and that it met every standard of journalism that I know, and that he was going to have to terminate me because I was not going to be cowed into admitting a mistake that was not made.
Len Osanic Not only that, as far as I understand from your press conference, after the show aired, you received other information, other leads, of more operations.
April Oliver Huge amount. Not only did we receive information, we were able to get, to lay onto tape, a very dramatic story from another, this wasn't from a SOG soldier, this was from a soldier who was in a provincial reconnaissance unit, PRU, who had a very similar mission, that prior to Tailwind, had gone into Cambodia and had been, actually he claimed to have targeted four African American sectors.
That's kind of an interesting angle, because I've done a bit of research on this over the past year. One of the things that I think has not been looked at very carefully but I think is a trend and may, over the next few years, come out as people talk about it more. This is a time in American history when there was a huge amount of racial division and Martin Luther King was telling people, "Don't go, sit down. Don't go, don't respond." Mohammed Ali was not going himself. All this had a great deal of impact on the African Americans who felt that they were fighting the white man's war.
The enemy exploited this with propaganda. Hanoi Jane [sic] (Ms. Oliver is referring to North Vietnamese radio announcer Trịnh Thị Ngọ, who made broadcasts directed at US forces in Vietnam. She was better known as 'Hanoi Hannah') would come on the radio and say, "Black man, don't you know you're fighting the white's man war? Come join us. There's an underground railroad through Laos. We'll get you home. We'll get you free." This had a deep resonance to many African Americans, who felt that they were the ones getting killed while the white officers back at the base were in the cushy jobs. There was a deep racial division out in the battlefield. All that turmoil that was going on back in the States was going on in the ranks as well. I don't think people have really looked very carefully into this.
One of the things that this officer described to us was how he was sent into Cambodia and he told us he knew that they were Americans because they had those "afro things". His thinking, and in a number of these guys' thinking, defectors were a terrible enemy because they were the ones that could do the most damage to their men, because they knew more about their operations than anybody. They could get on the radios and create all kinds of decoys and diversions and they knew the code words and they knew the weapons systems, so they could be far more of an enemy, far more of a threat than the North Vietnamese or the Russians.
Anita Langley What was Project Tailwind, then, for those of us who don't really know very much about it, which is me?
April Oliver Sources inside Special Forces told us that there was a training camp deep inside Laos for defectors. In fact, we have a CIA memo establishing that there was intelligence reported to the CIA of a large training camp in this Operation Tailwind vicinity near Chavane, reported as of August, 1970. The idea was to go in and wipe this training camp out. They sent a very large team of American commandos in, on the deepest raid into Laos ever, some 70 kilometers.
It was three to four days on the ground, scorched-earth tactics. These men were briefed that everything was enemy and they were loaded to bear. They fought aggressively and they fought bravely. In the end, they were in an extreme last-resort situation, in which they were completely surrounded by enemy. Many of them were wounded, they felt they were about to die. They called in what appears to be the last-resort tactic within Special Ops at this time, which was to call in for gas.
Two A-1 Skyraiders came in and peppered the LV with something called CB15, which is sarin nerve gas. One of the huge misconceptions out there is that "it couldn't possibly be a true story because doesn't this female producer know that nerve gas always kills people?" That is simply not true. If anybody thinks about it for a minute, they'll recall that in Tokyo five or six years ago, there was an incident with sarin nerve gas in which 5,000 people were injured and 12 people died. Sarin isn't lethal all the time. It depends on the exposure level, it depends on your weight to some degree, it depends on the concentration, it depends on the weather. As with any chemical weapon, there are a huge number of variables which affect its potency.
In fact, an Aberdeen scientist who worked on the weapon described to me some of its tactical advantages in the battlefield. There are several reasons that the U.S. Military chose sarin over all the different chemical weapons to be the backbone of the U.S. nuclear biological chemical arsenal. Sarin, some 40 million pounds of it, were weaponized as of 1970 to be available to the U.S. Military. The reason it was chosen over all the other neurotoxins such as soman and numerous other ones, luacite [phonetic A 00:23:27] is another one.
Len Osanic When you say 40 million pounds, what would they be using that for? What could they ever use that for?
April Oliver Let me describe, in theory, tactically why it's useful on the battlefield. It is a non-persistent nerve gas, in contrast to VX. It's non-persistent, meaning that it can dissipate in as little as a half an hour. Say, for instance, you're moving people through, there's a pocket of enemy someplace, but you need to move your troops through very quickly thereafter. The battlefield will be completely cleared of the sarin very quickly after you drop it, because it's non-persistent, and you're dropping it in an open area where it will evaporate very quickly, particularly at the temperatures in Laos.
That's a very big tactical advantage on the battlefield if you have a weapon like that, that you can drop, kills the enemy, you can move your people through very quickly to occupy that territory. That has its tactical uses.
The second thing that I think people don't understand, but is extremely important when understanding this particular weapon, is that contrast to all the misinformation that was put out there to help discredit me, is that sarin is not a weapon in which you need a head-to-toe bodysuit. In its vapor form, it is respiratory inhalant. It kills primarily by breathing it. This has huge tactical advantages on the battlefield because it means that the only real protection that you need in an environment such as Laos was a well-fitting, tight, nuclear biological chemical gas mask, that a very good seal.
I think that this prevents the problem of running around in hot, heavy, cumbersome head-to-toe bodysuits, which would be impossible to really maneuver in on a battlefield. All you need is your hip pocket gas mask. It's not that much more weight to carry than a rucksack.
A number of people have tried to suggest that I am a person who's ideologically-motivated. That's just simply not true. I actually don't have strong moral feelings about the use of this weapon and tend to believe, in fact, that this was the right weapon to use in this particular situation, as the U.S. itself had not ratified the treaty yet. I certainly can understand that when you're surrounded by enemy and think you're about to die, that you want to use whatever is in your power to try to get out alive. That seems to me a perfectly rational response to an almost impossible situation.
My biggest beef about this whole controversy has always been that, sure, there was a cover-up in 1970, and the American public deserves to know what happened out there in 1970. What was even worse is what happened in 1998, when CNN crushed a story that was accurately reported in order to basically kiss up to the military, who they viewed as being very important to their business agenda. This is not good for democracy. This is not the way the Founding Fathers envisioned the fourth estate working. This was not just a personal betrayal [by A-00:27:17] me, it was a betrayal of the whole profession, and the public should deserve better out of a news organization.
Anita Langley Have you ever before seen stories killed for questionable reasons?
April Oliver It's one of those things where I have never been involved in a story that has been killed like this. I certainly, now that I'm in a position two years later, I've been doing research on that particular trend. One of the ones that comes to mind, of a person who I've had some contact with over the past few months, is Gary Webb. You, of course, are probably familiar with Gary, who wrote the piece for the San Jose Mercury News called "Dark Alliance", about the cocaine smuggling into inner cities by Nicaraguan Contras. Worked up a huge furor. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, a very responsible guy.
Nine months after the story, which a lot of people attacked and said couldn't possibly be true and there wasn't proof beyond a reasonable doubt, nine months afterwards, San Jose Mercury News backed off the story.
Gary Webb ends up in a little, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter ends up in a little podunk town covering parades, and is despairing and desolate. He eventually quit his job and is now working in the California Governor's office, I think, doing investigative work, and has written a quite good book on that episode in his life.
Len Osanic I think his book is called Dark Alliance.
April Oliver Right.
Len Osanic Back to your Operation Tailwind, so you had, as I recall, three tapes that you filmed with these different people who came forward to offer, to buttress, your whole situation, that you had done accurate reporting.
April Oliver We had tapes and beyond tapes. People were coming forward every day. I will say it was a mixed bag. We had people who were coming forward and then we had people dumping all over us, predictably dumping all over us, saying "Don't you know it can't be true because one drop of sarin will kill you?" Wrong.
Len Osanic I think the point I wanted to make was that after the show aired and after the flack came down, you had people come out of the woodwork then.
April Oliver It was impressive, the courage that these people had, too. I remember one guy calling me up, and this was a person who is pretty high up on the totem pole. He was an impressive guy, had been an executive in a government agency. He had been pretty high up in the intelligence network working for [General] Westmoreland. He said, "I sat back in my chair and I watched that program, and I just about dropped out of my chair. I couldn't believe that someone had finally gotten the story. Girl, you're way ahead on the cutting edge, keep going. You hit an iceberg. The thing is, you don't know how big it is yet."
I think that the story of U.S. chemical use is an important one. I don't know how big the iceberg is. I hope that my experience does not deter other journalists from going for the story in other places and other venues. Certainly, I think someone out there should be chasing down, say, Angola. One of the more interesting things that has come out of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission is, the president of the country, Thabo Mbeki, says, that poison gas was used in Angola. Oh, really? Who? Whose poison gas? Where did they get it from? To what end and how many people?
April Oliver One of the captains on the Tailwind mission who had been helpful at various points in the story but cut and ran when the story aired, as the special forces guys circled their wagons, said to my cameraman at one point in time that, "We want soldiers to know that they're not supposed to talk to reporters, and we want reporters to know that they're not supposed to talk to special forces guys, otherwise they're going to end up like her." I think that's a pretty chilling message. Here I am. Because I lost my job and was publicly humiliated and disparaged, I'm the message to other young reporters out there that they're not supposed to go for stories like these, that special ops stories are off limits.
I can understand why for a certain period of time these stories should be or could be off limits. I can understand. I can see that there's a national security rationale for that, but I think 30 years out is questionable. 30 years out is getting to the point where this is not about national security anymore. This is about keeping a little club private that the American public, because they're funding it, deserves to know about.
Len Osanic Right. Brave people like you or Gary Webb suffer the consequences of that. It's just almost a slap in the face to anyone even trust CNN on any other story now. They wonder, are they actually reporting the truth, or are they just feeding us something that could be completely a lie?
April Oliver One of the more interesting things that has occurred I think recently, I don't know if you follow TV Guide at all, but they did a story a few weeks ago regarding, believe it or not, CNN has admitted that they had an internship program for the military, in which they brought in not just any old military soldiers, but psyops warriors. Psychological operations specialists from Fort Bragg were working in CNN's newsroom in various capacities from the satellite division to working the news desk. For anybody who works in the news business, you've just got to scratch your head and say, "What were they thinking?" You have wars going on. How can they objectively cover a war in which the U.S. is participating if they've got military guys in any capacity in their newsroom? Forget context. Let's just talk appearances here. What does the enemy think?
I have to tell you, I did actually have somebody call me before this story was ever, ever reported in the press to tell me about this. He called me because he was worried. This was not an idle worry. The person that called me travels quite a bit in a capacity into the field where there might be a hot zone or conflict, and he was concerned that the presence of U.S. military interns within the CNN establishment could put conceivably CNN personnel at risk in the field, because the enemy might say, "CNN, you're affiliated with the military. We don't need you around." That I think was alarming, that anybody at any level of the CNN management could make those kinds of decisions that this was okay. Somebody should really be called onto the carpet for that. Real questionable decision-making.
Anita Langley How long has this been a known fact within CNN's ranks, that there are people in there?
April Oliver This person called me a year ago, but it has only been publicly admitted ... I think it was the European press broke it in March, and then it moved into TV Guide a little bit after that. I actually have the article in front of me here. TV Guide went out and they interviewed some of these interns. The military psyops warriors themselves say, "I understand why CNN put an end to it. Somebody puts the wrong spin on a program like this, and it looks like their integrity is being compromised."
Len Osanic Did they really put an end to it, though?
April Oliver I can't speak to that.
Len Osanic I doubt it.
April Oliver I can't speak to that. I don't know. Hello?
Anita Langley Hi, sorry. Microphone died out there for a second.
April Oliver That's okay.
Anita Langley If you listen to Colonel Prouty talk, it's a normal situation to infiltrate various organizations that would be radical groups, or even set them up and attract whoever you can attract, news associations, and according to him, there are special rooms set up just for dealing with reporters who get too much information and discrediting them.
April Oliver That's what I think. I think it's quite likely that's what happened to me. It just came from ... I can tell you this. When you go to the websites and you look around, one of the things going on is special operations presence on the web. One of the very visible things in the discrediting campaign regarding our story was a website was set up called greenberet.com that was a very elaborate, highly produced website where they were trying to attract people to actually get on radio shows, and make call-ins on radio shows, and anything to discredit the story, editorials, just create a body of people out there who would create a wave of Internet warriors to question the Tailwind report.
They would sign into a little box and say, "Get your special operation mission here." It was all on a camouflage background. Then you'd double-click onto a place that was an area that said the "body bags report". When you go into the "body bags report", you get me with a knife through my head with blood spurting out. It was quite graphic and quite gruesome, and very much designed to intimidate. All of these are highly produced.
You look at this and you scratch your head, and you think, "My god, where is the press corps? Don't they understand?" I could have predicted what's happening now in the news with these two other stories, because if these guy could do it to me, they can do it to anybody. They are emboldened, and they think they've got the formula, so no, what Colonel Prouty says does not surprise one little bit.
Anita Langley This may come back to the subject of the iceberg, actually. Perhaps you don't realize how big a story you've stumbled on. If what they're really worried about isn't so much what happened 30 years ago, but if this is a continuing saga, that these weapons aren't made unless there's somebody who wants to try and use one, the Gulf War is a perfect example. There's all kinds of information suggesting that a lot of the things that were used on the American troops came from American soil.
April Oliver I don't want to get into territories that I haven't studied.
Anita Langley Fair enough.
April Oliver I think my own view is that what you are speculating probably has some merit. I do think that part of the size of the reaction out of the Pentagon is that the story that I thought was a 30-year-old story ended up not being a 30-year-old story. It potentially has relevance beyond that.
Len Osanic Yeah. I think [Radio Personality and host of The Power Hour] Joyce Riley shares that opinion. You've heard of Joyce Riley?
April Oliver I don't know Joyce.
Len Osanic Okay. What is the outcome of Tailwind today?
April Oliver There are lots that's going on. I can't really talk about the litigation, because I'm in a mediation situation right now. What happens when there's lawyers involved is things get very careful.
Anita Langley We understand Admiral Moorer has sworn a deposition.
April Oliver That's correct. Admiral Moorer, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time of Operation Tailwind, did a sworn deposition. He said some startling things, including when we asked him what a handwritten note requesting White House approval meant. There was a piece of paper we got from the Defense Department that had chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff across the top, and it said, "The White House will have to decide," signed Moorer. We asked Admiral Moorer, "This date is September 11th, 1970. What does this mean?" He goes, "A request for poison gas use." Really? I think that's interesting on a number of levels, because how many times in our nation's history have we had a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under oath tie his own handwritten note to a request for poison gas use?
Anita Langley Who would have been the person that actually put forth the order? Would that have been him, or would it have been somebody higher than him suggesting it?
April Oliver My understanding, and I queried him quite a bit on this, is that there was a group. They always thought that the National Security Council was too leaky, too big, so when the real decision-makers wanted to get together to make something happen, there was a little smaller group that got together that was called the Washington Special Action Group, otherwise known as WSAG. WSAG was usually a group of four or five men, and it included the Secretary of Defense. Actually it was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but not the Secretary of Defense. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Adviser, which would have been Henry Kissinger, sometimes the Secretary of State, and Richard Helms, the head of the CIA. That little group of men would get together, and they would really make the decisions of what went down.
Len Osanic Okay. That's unbelievable, really. I wasn't aware of that.
Anita Langley Yeah. Nobody has to really take responsibility then, I guess. It's a group decision. Are any of these people able to even be held accountable? I guess maybe they aren't even worried about that.
April Oliver Of course, one of the things that's so very interesting in all of this is that it was Henry Kissinger who was the most upset by our story. Henry Kissinger was calling up the head of CNN, basically calling me all kinds of names and claiming, "Tailwind was just a little operation to blow up a bridge. We sent all these heavily armed commandos out deep into Laos, into this heavily militarized enemy territory, to blow up a bridge."
Len Osanic It wasn't even enemy territory at that time, was it?
April Oliver Pardon?
Len Osanic It wasn't even enemy territory.
April Oliver There were pockets which were enemy-held, but I think that the main thing with that is, it's a ludicrous cover story on the face of it. You don't send 160 commandos loaded for bear deep into no man's land when one little bomb can blow up a bridge. It just doesn't make tactical sense. It's stupid. Moreover, what even made it more stupid was the fact that at the same time Henry Kissinger's calling up Tom Johnson to tell people, "It's not true. It's not true. This is a fabrication." He's sending memos to CNN management with scribbles from his office indicating, in fact, it is true. In the upper right-hand corner of one of the memos that we've got from him, it said, "Tailwind. September 10th, 1970. Commando raid on a North Vietnamese prison camp." Gee, that's not a bridge.
Anita Langley It doesn't sound like it.
April Oliver No.
Len Osanic Where do you go from here, then? Because if all these, or actually your reporting, your investigating have discovered true facts, do they have a leg to stand on? Are you suing them for lost wages?
April Oliver As I can't really talk about that.
Len Osanic Okay, fine. All right.
April Oliver That's all being worked on right now, but I will say this. I do have great faith that there's still hope that people will come forward, and that in the end ... Even though my colleagues in the press have disappointed me greatly, there have been other people who I haven't known, who I never knew prior to the story airing, but who have had great courage and have been very supportive of me and the story. I have been grateful for their support over the past two years. I think that in a democracy, I do think a democracy is different from a communist system, and eventually over time that there's enough strength in this country and enough resiliency that this information will come out.
Len Osanic Yeah. Even on this story or other stories, I would hate to hear that the whole thing dies away and that you are again required no comment at all. Without saying any personal situation, would that be one of the stipulations, that you are no longer allowed to speak on the topic?
April Oliver Yeah, I wouldn't agree to that. I simply couldn't agree to something like that. I took a gag order once. That was one of the worst mistakes of my life, and I can't ever agree to that again.
Len Osanic Right, okay. Can you just go over the WSAG group? I did not know those. Was it four men?
April Oliver Yeah, a small little group, Washington Special Action Group. I don't even know if it exists today or not. I really couldn't tell you that, but I have seen memoranda from WSAG meetings during the 1970s. It was within this little group that, during the summer of 1970, Henry Kissinger actually signed off on deeper incursions into Laos because of enemy problems there. Yeah, I've seen the handwritten memos. Of course, much of the meeting notes from these little WSAG meetings are blacked out still. Even 30 years later, you get the meeting notes and half the page is still-
Len Osanic It's amazing that you've even dug this up, because I know Colonel Prouty has mentioned that, when we talk about the JFK assassination, he's talked about special groups that get together in different instances, that get together and then disband. When they all have a single goal, groups get together like this. At one point, he talked about someone called the Gold Key Club. It would be just this enigmatic special action group that would get together for something. Then when you tell me Helms is involved, he's got quite a background.
April Oliver Yes, he does. Of course, one of the things about this particular mission is, it was such an unusual kind of mission because it wasn't just the Army. It was so large that you have the Marines were basically the transportation unit. They were the choppers carrying the guys in. You had an Air Force component. You had a CIA component. You had basically all services were involved. At this point in time in our force structure, that was very unusual to have combined missions like that with each service involved like that. I think the services were used to fighting by themselves.
I think one of the reasons that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were watching this particular battle so carefully was, it was an early exercise in whether jointedness could actually work on the battlefield. Of course, they had a lot of losses. Some CH-53 helicopters went down, and there was a large loss of Montagnard life. It was very, I think, stressful for a number of senior officers. Particularly the Marines were not real happy with what went down on this mission because they had some losses.
Len Osanic What was the first tip to get you involved in this story? What led you to it?
April Oliver I'd worked on a much lighter, more superficial piece the year before. I was looking at just in general the group SOG. A book had come out, and I was going to do a piece, basically just a general magazine piece, on who were these men, and what did they do, and how brave they are. It was in the course of reporting that piece that a couple of these people quietly took me aside and said, "You know, there's more to the story besides just the courage aspects." SOG was a breeding ground, and an experimental breeding ground, for all kinds of cutting-edge new weaponry. Among those cutting-edge pieces of weaponry was the gas.
Len Osanic It's a few things people wanted to get off their chest.
April Oliver I think part of the reason it happened now was there was a confluence of reasons. One was, when I first started doing the reporting, we actually weren't at war with anybody and people thought it was a safe thing to talk about because there was no great national security issue. I think the two people that people really believed ... The men I talked to are brave men who do believe that this country is different from Iraq, and that this weapon was used mostly in pursuit of the defense of American lives, and that it should be at a certain point in time okay to talk about these things because we are a democracy. Of course, I agreed with him.
They were pretty forthcoming. At a certain point, I just had such a critical mass of information, I had so many people talking to me, and it wasn't just the SOG guys, mind you. It was the Air Force guys, too. Some of our best information came from the A-1 pilots who really had a pretty good fix on the kinds of gases they were carrying and their effects, because they would go through briefing sessions where they were told whether or not to carry atropine on certain missions, which is nerve gas anecdote, and what to do if they got shot down.
Anita Langley There is a question that I have for you with regards to news in general. You mentioned earlier that CNN perhaps wasn't prepared for serious investigative journalism, which opens up a good line of questioning there. A lot of people do wonder how much news is actually researched by reporters, and how much of it is passed through channels and aired on the presumption that it's accurate.
April Oliver I think one of the problems CNN is they're so used to ... They have built themselves as an institution which does live from the battlefield really well, but which hasn't had much experience in in-depth analytical pieces. The normal length of a piece on CNN is something like a minute 15. That doesn't provide a lot of opportunity to do much more than "he said, she said". When my story came along, which was based on eight months of research and 200 interviews, they just had no idea what a story like this could pick up. There wasn't much institutional experience in terms of the way you have to withstand a pressure campaign. These guys didn't have a clue, and should have, because I didn't suggest that it was coming.
In any event, I'm moving on with my life. I am getting a law degree. I'm going to try to be a First Amendment attorney, because I think we need some in this country. I am very sad for the state of journalism in this country right now. It is a very sad situation to see the way journalists turn on each other, and take the disinformation that the military feeds them, and are used as pawns to destroy the lives and the careers of their fellow colleagues. I just think it's very tragic and sad and irresponsible. I do think skepticism is a healthy thing, but I think that journalists need to be skeptical and aware when they are getting used by people to spread disinformation.
Anita Langley Have you noticed any changes in the trends of thinking of journalists? Have any that you know of suddenly come to an epiphany, so to speak, that maybe things aren't always as ideal as the American dream says they should be?
April Oliver Gary Webb and I were talking about this issue just the other day, because both of us are sitting there and marveling at the way that both the Sy Hersh story and the Associated Press No Gun Ri Korea story are being just pilloried by our colleagues in the press. The difference in both of those cases is that the editors at both of those institutions have stood firm in the face of these attacks. Both of us, it might just be a little egotistical thing, and maybe it has nothing to do with it, but we're hoping that our story has had an impact in newsrooms, where it may be now the news managers are beginning to understand that, "Hey, there are organized efforts out there to discredit threatening stories that cut to the heart of establishment power."
If you're going to do one of these stories, your journalist's life is on the line and reputation's on the line. You have to be prepared to back them. You cannot cut them off, because in the end, retracting the story was the stupidest thing CNN could have done. They spawned 1,000 lawsuits by doing that. It kept going. The story kept going and going and going, whereas had they stood firm, it would have been a week or a two-week story, and then it would have faded away.
Anita Langley People would have lost interest pretty quickly.
April Oliver Right, yeah. The American public does not have a long attention span.
Anita Langley Yeah. CNN goes through a lot of news. Really, if you look even two days later, unless it's an ongoing thing like Monica Lewinsky, you just don't see it after.
April Oliver That's right. They've really made a panic decision that I think in the end was just very, very bad judgment.
Anita Langley What percentage of potential stories would you guess actually make it to the air?
April Oliver I can't even venture a guess on that.
Anita Langley You can't? Could you give us a brief idea of how the weeding process goes? Who decides?
April Oliver I think that what happens in the newsroom is very different from what happens in the special investigative unit in terms of the way stories are packaged and handled. I haven't really worked in the newsroom, quick and dirty kind of thing, so I'd hate to speak to that.
Anita Langley Fair enough.
Len Osanic I can tell you, I lost a great deal of faith in CNN after your story and the total caving in of CNN. When I made the mistake of watching them, I keep going back thinking, "Things are going to change," hoping they're going to change, but they're not. That's why we're making our own effort to get real news out there. The day they cut live to I think it was a Lear jet flying in Elian Gonzalez's grandmother, they had a live show. They stopped it. They got a cut. There's a plane coming down, grandmothers are landing in U.S. territory, and whatnot. I thought, "What the hell is going on? Where's the Martin Luther King trial? Where's more on this?" There's just more real news to be done, and if they had a budget for special investigations, as you were implying, they should really be digging up news. It doesn't have to be from 30-40 years ago.
April Oliver They're very ratings-driven. The biggest change for me, when I went from MacNeil/Lehrer, where ratings didn't matter at all, to corporate journalism is that you get into a company like that and your ratings are in your computer the very next day after you put a show on the air. You know down to the minute whether or not your show held audience interest.
Anita Langley Wow. I guess there's not a lot of room for maneuvering under those circumstances.
April Oliver No. It's a pity, because I think that bad decisions get made in terms of the quality of journalism when you're in a quest for ratings. You end up doing the maudlin and sentimental stories that are tear-jerkers, such as a grandmother flying in, instead of what might be more substantive news.
Len Osanic Right. I think a lot of people are looking for more substantive news. That's still a thing regarding ratings, but maybe I'm wrong about that. Summarizing up the Tailwind story, well supported and documented, was just shelved. As you mentioned, there's tapes of other interviews you did actually before the show aired but before you were terminated that substantiates the story.
April Oliver That's right.
Len Osanic You have since gone on to a degree of law. The case is somewhat up in the air. You may be getting, for lack of a better word, compensation.
April Oliver I can't comment anyways.
Len Osanic Yeah, no problem. I think in the nutshell, then, the case is just going to be in limbo forever. We're just probably not going to hear anything more about it, pro or con. Actually, one of the things that I did hear, and is it Pam Hill? Is that her name?
April Oliver Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Len Osanic That after the furor about a week into this story, she said, "Let's do a one-hour show on the other side of the comment."
April Oliver Yeah. That was actually Rick Kaplan who proposed that.
Len Osanic Okay, I'm sorry.
April Oliver We started working on that. I think that had they done that, that was the appropriate thing to do. You get in a big journalistic controversy, the important thing to do is if people who didn't want go on air before all of a sudden want to come forward and talk about it now, fine. Give them the air time. Good God, the one thing CNN has is airtime, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Put them on air. Let them talk about it. That's what we're there for.
Don't crush the story. The one thing the Associated Press has done that I think has been extremely smart in terms of managing the whole controversy they are going through right now is that they have made great use of the Internet and their website. Anytime anyone starts attacking one of their sources, they just put the whole interview out there for anybody to see, to show them that the interview was used precisely in context. That should have been what CNN did, because when these soldiers start cutting and running and saying, "She took me out of context," baloney. Here's the interview. Read it yourself. These men said these things. They said them. This is not something I made up. They said them. It's on tape.
Len Osanic Supported by other documentation.
April Oliver That's right.
Anita Langley You mentioned Seymour Hersh earlier.
April Oliver Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Anita Langley Can you tell us a little bit more about?
April Oliver There's a story, I think it's in either this month's or last month's New Yorker magazine, regarding a retreat of forces during the Persian Gulf War after the ceasefires had already been called. Hersh has done a very lengthy investigation into what he believes to be over-aggressive firing onto retreating Iraqi troops when there's supposed to be a ceasefire in place. The general who was in charge of this particular operation was McCaffrey, General Barry McCaffrey, who had taken quite a vigorous position of defense of his soldiers and his actions, and has mounted quite a campaign on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, and within the New Yorker executive suite, and calling up his friends within the journalistic community and within the military community to disparage Seymour Hersh and his reporting, suggesting that he fabricated things up whole cloth and suggesting that the man is malicious and not a good reporter.
It's quite personal, quite ugly, and very hardball, but it's of course very similar to what they did to me. I talked to Hersh a year or so ago about my story. He even poked around into the Tailwind story a little bit, and came back to me and said, "April, I've got a guy who was out at [inaudible b/00:32:00], and he says GB - grubby - was out there. Didn't any grownups do any reporting after you were done with this story? My God, April, it was out there. This stuff was out there." I said, "Sy, I know the stuff was out there. I've documented it up to the wazoo that it was out there." Then Hersh decided not to do the story because I think he realized he was going to make too enemies on that one, instead picked another war that was more recent to do his big piece on.
Anita Langley How much documentation do you still have? Does CNN actually have this all in their possession?
April Oliver Yeah. Once you move into the legal phase on something like this, you get quite a lot of tapes. It becomes evidence. All the tapes become evidence. In my help, I would say that the good thing about the legal process is that the longer these suits continue, the more of the stuff becomes public domain. If anything good is to become of all this litigation, it is that the public will be able to get to see some of the supporting documents that had been repressed up to this point, including the Admiral Moorer deposition, which has in it ... My lawyer read word for word all of my interviews with Admiral Moorer, much of which was not brought out in the quote CNN investigation of my reporting, which was repressed and quite intentionally repressed, I think, because they didn't want people to know how much I had.
Anita Langley It's been great talking to you. We've kept you a little bit overtime.
April Oliver That's okay.
Anita Langley Thank you.
Len Osanic Yeah. I have to say that I admire your stand. I've listened to your press conference you did. Was it at the Newseum?
April Oliver Yeah, it was at the Newseum. It was up at the Freedom Forum in New York.
Len Osanic Right. Anyway, that's posted on the Internet as well. At our Black Ops page, we have a link to the page about you. I believe it's from England somewhere that people have put that together, and there's a lot more facts there that people can dig up, but it's a very interesting story because it shows somebody with ... You didn't have an axe to grind, just went out and did some investigating, and did.
April Oliver You never know what Pandora's Box you might happen. Honestly, in my wildest dreams, I could not have imagined the furor that I kicked up with this one.
Len Osanic Yeah. It's unfortunate, but all we can do is wish you the best, and if we can help you in any way, let us know.
April Oliver Okay, appreciate it.
Len Osanic Okay. It's been very interesting and delightful talking to you. Thanks for joining us.
April Oliver Thank you.
Anita Langley Good luck with your law degree there.
April Oliver Okay, thank you.
Len Osanic All right, then. Good night.
April Oliver Bye-bye.
Len Osanic That was April Oliver, and it was a very eye-opening interview.
Anita Langley Yeah. She's an interesting lady.
Len Osanic I encourage everyone to listen to the press conference I spoke about. I think I have a link to it at our website, but I'll make sure I have one up by tomorrow. Okay, I guess let me see. In the near future, we have David Ratcliffe, who did the book Understanding Special Operations. I'll have to double-check the date, but I believe it's the-
Anita Langley The 27th of June, it says. That's a ways away, right?
Len Osanic Yeah.
Anita Langley Perfect. We have a whole lot of people that we're trying to get on schedule. We have 10 or 15 people all up in the air.
Len Osanic It's just a matter of shuffling them around. Right. In the next day or two, we'll post a new schedule with us guests, all interesting people, and if you want to email in, we'll add you to the email list and we'll send out the updates to let people know. I think that just about wraps it up for tonight, eh?
Anita Langley One more show.
Len Osanic Show number five. Okay. I hope you enjoyed it, and if you have any comments or suggestions, please email us.
Anita Langley Good night.
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