WASHINGTON — The U.S. military used nerve gas on a mission to kill Americans who defected during the Vietnam War, CNN and Time magazine said Sunday in a joint report.
The so-called Operation Tailwind was approved by the Nixon White House as well as the CIA, the report said, quoting as its main source retired Adm. Thomas Moorer, a Vietnam-era chief of naval operations and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Former military officials who participated in the operation said their job was to kill defectors in Vietnam from the U.S. military, but it was not known for sure whether the suspected defectors died during a preparatory nerve gas attack or during a subsequent assault with conventional weapons carried out by Special Forces troops.
A companion story on the eight-month investigation in which 200 people were interviewed appears in the current edition of Time magazine, written jointly by a CNN producer and correspondent.
"It was pretty well understood that if you came across a defector, and could prove it to yourself beyond a reasonable doubt, do it, under any circumstance, kill them," said 1st Lt. Robert Van Buskirk, who was a platoon leader in the operation. "It wasn't about bringing them back. It was to kill them."
"We have no historical evidence to confirm we ever used nerve gas in Vietnam or mounted operations against defectors," Pentagon spokesman Jim Turner told AP on Sunday.
The reported use of nerve gas came after Nixon pledged a "no first use" policy on nerve gas. The U.S. had already signed a treaty restricting chemical weapons, but the Senate had not ratified it.
The nerve gas, sarin, is the same gas used three years ago in a deadly terrorist subway attack in Japan.
Several officers who served in Operation Tailwind told the premiere episode of "NewsStand: CNN & Time" that the government liked to call the gas "incapacitating gas" or "knockout gas"--but that its true makeup was widely known.
"Nerve gas, the government don't want it called that," said Mike Hagen, a platoon sergeant in Operation Tailwind. "They want to call it incapacitating agent or some other form, but it was nerve gas."
The report said Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1970, did not admit on camera that nerve gas was used, but confirmed off camera that it was.
"I would be willing to use any weapon and any tactic to save the lives of American soldiers," Moorer said on camera, adding that he had no figures on how often lethal gas was used during the war. "I never made a point of counting that up," he said. "I'm sure you can find out from those that have used them."
The soldiers involved in the nerve gas operations were part of the Studies and Observations Group, a small, elite unit of the Special Forces. CNN quoted John Singlaub, a former commander of the unit, as saying it could be more important to the survival of U.S. troops to kill defectors than enemy soldiers because the defectors' knowledge of communications and tactics "can be damaging."
Van Buskirk said the team attacked a village base camp in Laos after observing American men--believed to be defectors--among the people. He said he even threw a hand grenade down a hole to kill two American men who were fleeing.
"We basically destroyed everything there," Hagen said.
Van Buskirk described the scene as "a mess."
"It was just pieces of human beings," he said, adding that among the more than 100 bodies, soldiers saw more than a dozen Americans they believed to be defectors.
But the gas use didn't stop there, the news show reported.
Former military officials said the gas was used a second time to get the team out of the area after enemy troops arrived.
"They were told to put on their funny faces [gas masks] because war daddy said we are coming in with gas," said Capt. Eugene McCarley, who led Operation Tailwind but says he never considered the use of lethal gas.
McCarley also denies that Operation Tailwind's mission was to kill defectors. "We weren't looking for any village. We stumbled upon it by accident," he said.
One Tailwind veteran described seeing the enemy forces throwing up and in convulsions on the ground.
"I looked down into this valley. All I see is bodies," Van Buskirk said.
Veterans' activist Ted Sampley of Kinston, N.C., reacted with disbelief when contacted about the story late Sunday. He said he remembers only being warned of deserters fighting with enemy troops and of being told to kill those soldiers if found.
"The United States did a lot of things . . . but the use of nerve gas over there, I find it really hard to believe," said Sampley, who did two tours in Vietnam, the last as a member of the Special Forces.