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 years later?

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.

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 battlefield.

Does anyone besides me and Marzullo detect an agenda at work here?

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