DoD News Briefing

Thursday, July 2, 1998 - 1:30 p.m.
Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD PA


Q: Ken, what is the Pentagon's reaction to CNN's statement today retracting its report on Operation TAILWIND?

A: First, I saw the statement made by Tom Johnson the Chairman of the CNN News Group read on television. I have not yet had a chance to read the entire report which I understand is 54 pages long. We're obvious gratified that CNN retracted a report that we believe was not accurate. All the work we've done in reviewing the report suggests the two charges it made, one that sarin nerve gas was used during Operation TAILWIND in Laos in September of 1970 and that that mission, Operation TAILWIND, was designed to track down and kill defectors. We believed those charges were wrong and that's what our review shows so far. We hope that that review will be complete by the end of next week or early the week after.

Second, I was glad that CNN apologized to the men who participated in Operation TAILWIND. They felt, I think, personally betrayed and hurt by the report. They performed a valiant mission. Every single man in that mission was injured. They were running low on ammunition by the end of the mission. They believe the mission was highly successful in collecting very valuable information about the logistics procedures of the North Vietnam Army, the way they resupplied themselves up and down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. That was the primary benefit of that mission to the war effort in 1970.

So seeing that apology I think was very helpful to the men who participated in that mission and felt betrayed by the original report.

I guess my third comment is that the original show, which ran on June 7th, ran with a lot of hype and hoopla and a lot of promotion that served to carry these allegations all around the world, and I hope that CNN is as energetic in making this retraction and clarification so that people do understand what the true facts of this mission were.

I think that these shows are seen all around the world. They have a considerable amount of impact and I hope the retraction will get the same publicity that the initial charges did.

Q: What effect will this have, if any, on the completion of the Pentagon's own investigation?

A: It will have no impact on it. Our investigation will continue. It's, as I say, nearing the final stages now. I went to a meeting yesterday in which we reviewed the progress of each one of the services and the historian of the Joint Staff. We've been quite aggressive in assembling documents. We've tried to talk to people who participated in all aspects of the mission. Principally, those are the 16 special operators who actually participated in Operation TAILWIND, the pilots who flew the planes that protected Operation TAILWIND, and the Marine Corps helicopter pilots who evacuated the participants in Operation TAILWIND. We have also talked to the men who actually loaded munitions onto the planes just to make sure that they knew what they were putting onto the planes that participated in protecting this mission.

So the work continues. It's not over yet. We think we have a pretty good picture into what happened, I think a very clear picture into what happened. As I've said, nothing we found so far reaches the conclusions that CNN originally announced. Everything we've found so far backs up the retraction, the forthright retraction that CNN has made.

Q: The men who loaded the munitions on the plane I don't think anyone else has talked to up to this point. What did they say was the gas or the agent employed?

A: They said that they were certain that they were loading tear gas onto the planes, not a more lethal gas such as sarin. They said that had they been loading a more lethal gas onto the plane they would have used entirely different procedures and they would have been thoroughly briefed on what they were putting onto the plane in order to avoid dangerous, potentially lethal mistakes in putting the munitions onto the plane. They had no doubt that what they were putting onto the plane was CS or tear gas, rather than more lethal sarin.

Q: Have you discussed or uncovered any evidence at all that sarin was even present in the theater in Vietnam, anywhere in the area?

A: I certainly have not. That is one of the things that we are still looking at, but to the best of my knowledge, the closest sarin got to Vietnam was Okinawa. After 1969, when President Nixon said he would renounce the first use of chemical weapons and said he was going to begin to destroy our stockpiles of lethal chemical weapons, he renounced the first use of lethal chemicals, we began to destroy those stores on Okinawa, and I believe all of the sarin that was on Okinawa was destroyed at Johnston Atoll in the Pacific.

Q: What timeframe?

A: I don't have the years, but that's one of the things we should address in the report.

Q: Were those cluster bomb munitions or were there some other form of sarin...

A: I don't have full details on that. We should have that in the report. There were some cluster bomb munitions, I believe, in Okinawa, but I don't believe they got any closer than Okinawa.

Q: You said you found nothing to substantiate the claim that Operation TAILWIND was designed to track down and kill defectors.

A: Right.

Q: Does that hold for all U.S. operations during the Vietnam War, or is there... Are you leaving open the possibility that other operations...

A: I don't mean to leave open that possibility, but this investigation has looked principally and maybe entirely at Operation TAILWIND. But we have talked to a number of experts on defectors. First of all, we officially list only two people as having defected to the other side during the war in Vietnam. There were rumors throughout the war that there were many more defectors, but we believe there were only two. One of those died in Southeast Asia in the mid '70s. He, I believe, was married to a Cambodian woman. The other is now back in the United States, turned himself in, I believe, in the '80s or the '90s and is now back living in the Western United States.

I am not aware that there were missions designed to track down defectors, but I have not made an encyclopedic look into that and I don't believe this particular investigation is doing that. It's looking specifically at TAILWIND.

I would be glad, if you're interested in pursuing this and making available to you an expert on defectors who works here at the Pentagon and has spent a lot of time tracing down every single deserter and so-called defector during the period in -- that we believe -- remained in the theater. We have a pretty good account of what happened to most of these people.

Q: There is a fairly detailed account in a book by Monica, the last name escapes me, citing I believe a Marine colonel who claims that he was assigned to assassinate...

A: That came out last year. I haven't read the book, I have read about it. My understanding is that it focuses primarily on a Marine named Garwood who is the defector who now lives in the United States. I do not believe there is evidence to support accounts of trying to track down and kill Garwood. But as I say, I'd be glad to set you up with somebody who can talk in much more detail about that case.

Q: Did the report that you were preparing address the possibility that in some of the designations for these weapons that use different kinds of gases, CBU-15, 19, etc., that there might have been along the line some confusion in which there was something used that was called at one point CBU-15, but it was not sarin gas?

A: It will address that particular point, yes.

Q: Can you share with us anything about that?

A: There were changes in designations over time and it's possible that could have led to an erroneous conclusion. There will be an explanation of these designations and a timeline detailing how the designations changed over time. But, at the very most, that would be only circumstantial evidence that sarin was used. What is very powerful and compelling, I find in this case, is talking to the people who participated in the mission, particularly the medic who has spoken publicly and also who spoke to our investigators here last week, that it's very clear when you talk to people who participated in the mission that had they been operating in a cloud of deadly sarin nerve gas they wouldn't have survived the mission. And in fact tear gas was used specifically in order to protect them and help them survive the mission. It was because tear gas was used that they were able to get onto the helicopters in the landing zone. The tear gas disabled the enemy and gave them enough time to get out. Even so, one of the helicopters was hit on the way out, but all 16 people managed to get out alive.

The story of this mission is really a story of incredible bravery and heroism by all 16 of the Americans who participated in it. I hope that's one of the facts that will come out in our report, and maybe it comes out in the CNN report as well, but I haven't read the lengthy analysis that's been done.

Q: Do you feel the CNN report has damaged the credibility of the United States in dealing with other nations in trying to rid the world of its chemical weapons?

A: That's hard for me to assess. Clearly it doesn't help with our credibility. Clearly, Iraq made some statements after this report came out about, alleging falsely our use of deadly chemical weapons. We have worked very hard in this Department, led by Secretary Cohen, to focus worldwide attention on the risks posed by weapons such as VX and sarin and biological weapons such as anthrax. They are a threat to civil and stable countries and we're trying to address that threat. This report certainly did not help to establish U.S. credibility in this respect. It may have helped in focusing world attention on the dangers of these weapons.

Q: Going back to your comment earlier about your belief that the closest sarin may have gotten to the theater was Okinawa. Can you explain, first of all, whether that would have fit into U.S. policy at the time...

A: It did not fit into U.S. policy at the time. I believe that whatever was in Okinawa got there before President Nixon made his declaration in 1969. Then it was a question of getting it out over time. I think you can appreciate that any lethal material has to be moved carefully, and we had to set up facilities for disposing of it, and we have disposed of that sarin at Johnston Atoll. So my understanding is that shortly after President Nixon made his 1969 policy statement we began looking at ways to destroy lethal nerve gas such as sarin and to move it to the destruction points, the incinerators, basically.


Press: Thank you.