As any reader of this column knows, I am naturally skeptical —
perhaps, even cynical — about government. I believe the state will
plummet to the lowest moral depths without accountability, without the
light of day that public exposure brings. My biggest beef is that the
press seldom holds the government to any standards.
Therefore, I was inclined to believe the CNN investigative report
earlier this week alleging the U.S. government used lethal nerve gas
during a mission to kill American defectors in Laos during the Vietnam
War in 1970. However, after having reviewed the findings of a parallel
investigation conducted by a Vietnam vet attached to the accused elite
commando unit, I no longer find Peter Arnett’s CNN report credible.
At the heart of Arnett’s report, the result of an eight-month
investigation based supposedly on interviews with 200 people, are the
claims of Lt. Robert Van Buskirk, a platoon leader in “Operation
Tailwind” who says he threw a white phosphorous grenade down a hole to
kill two suspected U.S. defectors. Take away the allegations of Van
Buskirk and CNN’s report is little more than conjecture.
Tom Marzullo, who served in the same elite unit as Van Buskirk,
points out that the lieutenant is telling a far different story about
that action today than he has in the past.
It turns out Van Buskirk wrote a book called “Operation Tailwind”
back in 1983. Oddly, the book, which didn’t set any sales records,
failed to mention the defectors or any plan to eliminate them. It would
seem to be a strange oversight. Why would Van Buskirk withhold such a
juicy morsel from his own book, only to save it for a CNN report 15
More doubt is cast upon Van Buskirk’s account by the Special Forces
S-2 (Intelligence) officer who planned that raid. He told Marzullo it
was designed to interdict the flow of supplies on the Ho Chi Minh trail
and to draw North Vietnamese army units away from a beleaguered Laotian
unit in the area. No thought was given to killing defectors.
Meanwhile, CNN failed to report some facts about Van Buskirk’s past.
Shortly after his tour of duty in Vietnam, he was arrested by U.S. Army
Criminal Investigative Division officials in Germany for arms
trafficking and forced to leave the military. He also cites reports of
Special Forces colleagues that Van Buskirk had a reputation for “deceit
and unreliability.” No other ground personnel confirm Van Buskirk’s
account of the killings of the supposed defectors.
Marzullo suggests, on the basis of Van Buskirk’s on-air “confession,”
he should be arrested and tried for the murder of two unarmed American
citizens. He feels certain that is one way to learn the truth about this
incident — the only specific allegation of the killing of suspected
defectors cited in the CNN report.
But Van Buskirk’s recollections for CNN didn’t end there. He says his
troops wiped out the supposed defectors’ village base camp in about 10
minutes. After taking heavy casualties and getting low on ammunition,
the commandos called in an airstrike that dropped sarin gas on the camp.
The U.S. using lethal chemical weapons in Vietnam? How did the North
Vietnamese happen to miss the use of sarin gas by U.S. troops? Can you
imagine Hanoi’s potent propaganda machine overlooking such a potential
public relations bonanza back in 1970? The official history of the
People’s Army of Vietnam and its operations along the Ho Chi Minh trail
is conspicuously silent on the use of lethal gas by U.S. forces. Where
was Jane Fonda? Even the U.S. left, which frequently accused the
American military of genocide in Vietnam, never before has raised any
credible allegations of the use of poison gas. It took Lt. Van Buskirk
— and Peter Arnett.
At this point, it’s worth recalling a little of Arnett’s history,
too. Remember Arnett first achieved notoriety as CNN’s “Man in Baghdad”
during the Persian Gulf War. His reports were so sympathetic to Saddam
Hussein’s Iraq that he was granted unusual access. Many U.S. media
critics detected a certain anti-American tone to his dispatches.
Later, Marzullo points out, in September 1997, Arnett produced, along
with April Oliver, another program on the same Special Forces SOG
(Studies and Observations Group) unit. In that piece, a “chemical
expert” was employed to pronounce that the U.S. soldiers were “war
criminals” for their use of non-lethal chemical agents on the
Does anyone besides me and Marzullo detect an agenda at work here?