The Cable News Network and its parent company, AOL-Time-Warner, have refused to settle a $100 million lawsuit filed by former U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers for allegedly defaming their character in a newsmagazine broadcast, leading the plaintiffs to continue pursuing relief.
The lawsuit stems from a June 7, 1998, “NewStand” broadcast by CNN that claimed U.S. covert operators during the Vietnam War used sarin nerve gas to kill American military defectors in Laos. Time magazine is also named in the suit because it published similar information about the action, dubbed “Operation Tailwind,” which took place Sept. 11-14, 1970.
But as WorldNetDaily previously reported, then-Sgt. 1st Class Denver Minton, one of 16 U.S. Special Forces soldiers involved in the action, says Tailwind was really a top-secret CIA operation into Laos that attempted to create a diversion for the enemy and cause him to pull troops away from their objectives in North Vietnam – not to hunt down American deserters and murder them with poison gas.
Sgt. 1st Class Denver Minton on patrol in Vietnam.
CNN’s version of events eventually was discredited, and the network broadcast a retraction. But that didn’t satisfy Minton, a participant in the suit, and his fellow plaintiffs.
“Saying they just withdrew the story because they don’t have enough evidence to support it is not an apology. In other words, they’re saying, ‘Hey, we think you did it but we just can’t prove it,'” Minton said.
Minton is joined in his suit by Keith Plancich and Mark Kinsler, both former U.S. Army sergeants and Special Forces soldiers.
Minton’s attorney, Mitchell Cook of Key West, Fla., told WorldNetDaily CNN had agreed to an undisclosed sum of actual damages but said it wouldn’t pay punitive damages.
“I don’t agree with that at all,” Cook said. He also said the network may try for a summary judgment, but if it’s unsuccessful the case will proceed to court.
Meantime, Cook said, more depositions and discovery will occur in the case.
The lawsuit also names as a defendant Peter Arnett, a former CNN reporter and broadcaster who produced the “Valley of Death” episode. April Oliver was the broadcast’s co-producer, but Cook didn’t say she was listed as a defendant.
Minton described the operation as one filled with danger. He said when he and his fellow “Spec-Op” soldiers landed in Laos during the first minutes of the operation, they discovered they were “close to one of the biggest ammo dumps I’ve ever seen.” He said he and his fellow soldiers proceeded to “start blowing bunkers and so forth.” Before long, the noise and commotion aroused North Vietnamese troops, who “were coming in by the hundreds.” Minton said they had to fight their way out of the area.
“We did what [the CIA] wanted us to do,” Minton said. Asked directly if his team went to Laos to kill Americans, he remarked: “We did not kill any Americans, did not use any nerve gas, and in fact didn’t even see any Americans – or civilians, for that matter. We were just being shot at by [the North Vietnamese Army.]”
CNN is represented by attorney Kevin Baine of the Williams and Connolly firm in Washington, D.C. Baine did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Following CNN’s initial broadcast of the story and before its June 14, 1998, follow-up, Plancich called the network and told the person on the other line that the story wasn’t true. Plancich asked to speak to whomever was in charge of the Tailwind broadcast, asking that CNN further investigate the story before broadcasting another segment. But, according to court documents, Plancich was never allowed to speak to anyone else, and the June 14 broadcast aired on schedule.
Also prior to June 14, CNN’s military adviser, Gen. Perry Smith, advised CNN and Time magazine producers to stop broadcasting or publishing the Tailwind stories because of his belief the stories were, in fact, false.
Smith had served as a consultant to CNN since the Persian Gulf War.
“I had tried very hard for a week to convince (top executives) to do a major retraction, but to no avail,” said Smith. “Lots of people at CNN were solidly with me on this, but not the top bosses and the team that put that terrible special together.”
CNN relied on much of its story from a single source, though Arnett claimed to have based his report on eight months of work and 200 interviews. However, charges hung primarily on the claims of one man – Lt. Robert Van Buskirk, a platoon leader in Operation Tailwind.
Van Buskirk recalled throwing a white phosphorus grenade down a hole to kill two suspected U.S. defectors during the 1970 mission. He also claimed to have witnessed the use of the nerve agent sarin gas on a base camp used by a group of defectors.
Doubts about Van Buskirk’s version of events were cast when another Special Forces veteran, Tom Marzullo, pointed out Van Buskirk had authored a book in 1983 called “Operation Tailwind,” in which he made no mention of the defectors or the sarin gas. Van Buskirk’s superiors also discounted his story.
Also, CNN did not report that shortly after his tour of duty in Vietnam, Van Buskirk was arrested by U.S. Army Criminal Investigative Division officials in Germany for arms trafficking, after which he was forced out of the military.
Historical records for the North Vietnamese Army also make no claims the U.S. ever deployed lethal chemical weapons in its conduct of the war or in the Laotian incursion.
Kinsler, the third plaintiff in the case, was a sergeant in the Special Forces at the time of Operation Tailwind, but he wasn’t in Laos nor was he in any way involved with Tailwind.
Cook decided to include Kinsler in the suit because CNN had used his picture once in one of the Tailwind broadcasts. The picture showed him holding special weapons used by assault teams.
Minton remains bitter about the ordeal.
“[CNN] has never apologized for the story,” Minton said, adding the network withdrew the story but only because the company couldn’t substantiate all its claims.
“People still come up to me and say to me, ‘I know you really can’t talk about it, but you really did do that, didn’t you?'” he said.