Operation Tailwind - June 14 NewsStand Transcript (2022)

BERNARD SHAW: Last week here, and in "Time" magazine, we reported the story of Operation Tailwind, a covert American raid into Laos in 1970. In the course of eight months of reporting we contacted over 200 people, from the men on the ground, to the pilots above, to those in the military chain of command; participants and officials with knowledge of the mission told us nerve gas was used twice to attack a camp where U.S. defectors had been spotted, and again, to suppress enemy forces, enabling American commandos to escape. The story prompted new information about the mission, a Pentagon investigation, and controversy about the type of gas used. Here are Peter Arnett and John Camp to report the week's developments. First, Arnett.



PETER ARNETT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): These are the veterans of Operation Tailwind -- veterans who recall the gas used in the mission. Their stories appeared last week in our report "Valley of Death."

MICHAEL HAGEN, TAILWIND VETERAN: Nerve gas. The government don't want it called that. They want to call it incapacitating agent, or some other form. But it was nerve gas.

ARNETT: Jay Graves (ph), a leader of a reconnaissance team on Tailwind, also says it was nerve gas. Tell me what was the call sign for the sleeping gas used on Tailwind?

JAY GRAVES, TAILWIND VETERAN: GB. We started out calling it knockout gas, and then it was GB, and then they changed it to something else, which -- I can understand why they was doing that now.

ARNETT: Why were they doing it?

GRAVES: 'Cause they was using nerve gas in that shit and not telling anybody about it.

ARNETT: A lethal weapon President Nixon had pledged never to use first; part of his commitment to a protocol limiting chemical weapons.

(on camera): During our reporting, several current and former military officials, who asked not to be identified, also told CNN that GB -- sarin nerve gas -- was used on Tailwind. Following our report, other senior military officials told CNN the gas was CS tear gas, not sarin. Secretary of Defense William Cohen ordered an investigation to be completed within 30 days.

(voice-over): Cohen's spokesman indicated last week that the gas used was tear gas.

KEN BACON, PENTAGON SPOKESMAN: It looks as if two gases were used -- non lethal gases, tear gas, CS and possibly a vomiting gas called CN.

ARNETT: But in the past week, new voices of Tailwind have come forward to say the gas was not tear gas. John Snipes flew as a Marine chopper crew chief on Tailwind.

JOHN SNIPES, TAILWIND VETEREN: What they told us that it would not be tear gas. It was some other kind of gas, what they called knockout gas, that it would put you to sleep.

SCHMIDT: The gas that was dropped was definitely more potent than tear gas.

ARNETT: Craig Schmidt was awarded the silver star for the Tailwind mission. He says the gas used was altogether more powerful than tear gas.

SCHMIDT: It had a dramatic effect on the amount of resistance we encountered, as soon as it was deployed from the A1-Es. It was almost instantaneous. It was very quick.

ARNETT: Mike Sheppard, a Special Forces team leader, was briefed at a top secret school about a powerful gas available for last-resort use on covert operations.

The symptoms...

SHEPPARD: It would affect the central nervous system: vomiting, convulsions, loss of your bowels, and loss of other bodily functions. There are different terminologies used for that gas. The term nerve gas was never used, that I know of. It was called drop dead gas, sleep gas, knock-down gas. We were told that the gas was not fatal. We were told that the gas, basically, would knock someone down for a period, extending up to eight hours.

ARNETT: Matthew Meselson, a biochemistry expert who has consulted with U.S. government agencies on chemical weapons, says knockout gas, or sleeping gas, simply does not exist.

MATTHEW MESELSON, BIOCHEMIST: There are no gases like that. There's a lot of research been directed towards finding such things. But nothing has ever been weaponized that works like that.

ARNETT: Meselson says the gas described by the commandos fits the description of sarin nerve gas, which the military calls GB.

MESELSON: You have nausea; you defecate; you urinate; difficulty in vision; difficulty in breathing; then convulsions; then paralysis; and then death. All rather quickly.

ARNETT (on camera): Correspondent John Camp picks up our report on the controversy.



CAMP (on camera): During our story last week, Admiral Moorer, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in 1970, acknowledged to CNN that GB nerve gas had been used on Tailwind. Last Monday, he made an additional, clarifying statement to CNN.

"I did not authorize the use of sarin gas by U.S. military forces during Operation Tailwind in Laos in September 1970. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff at the time, I had no documents, operational orders, after-action reports or knowledge of the use of sarin. However, later in general discussions I learned of the operation, including verbal statements indicating the use of sarin on the Tailwind mission."

Most of the men in Operation Tailwind talked about the use of knockout gas on the mission. Late last week, the Pentagon provided General Walter Busbee as their point man on chemical weapons. Is there any such thing as a knockout gas that would put someone to sleep for...

BUSBEE: Sleeping gas, knockout gas...

CAMP: I'm talking about something that could be dispersed from an aircraft.

BUSBEE: No, I've read those in those recent reports, and that's not in the lexicon of the chemical warfare development.

CAMP: Busbee says what the Tailwind veterans describe is consistent with exposure to CS tear gas.

BUSBEE: I've seen healthy, well soldiers running through confidence exercises with CS -- if you get enough, it'll drop you to your knees; it'll cause you to cry, and it'll cause you to vomit.

CAMP: CNN has been told that logistics records show that tear gas was loaded on the A-1 planes used in the Tailwind rescue. And, as we reported last week, pilots on the mission were briefed that the gas was tear gas.

In my opinion is was just as I was briefed; tear gas.

CAMP: Last week, former secretary of defense, Melvin Laird, told the Associated Press the U.S. military did ship, quote, "a small amount of sarin nerve gas to Vietnam in 1967, but never used it." General Busbee says that GB sarin gas was not even available for use in Vietnam.

BUSBEE: Our record search to date indicates that no such munitions with nerve agent fill were ever in Vietnam or the Vietnam theater of operations.

CAMP: Admiral Moorer, and then Secretary of Defense Laird, have said they did not authorize the use of nerve gas. So, if it was used, who could have approved it? Senior military officials at the time of the mission told CNN that approval for the use of nerve gas would have had to come from the Nixon White House. Men on the ground also say they were told the same thing.

SCHMIDT: We were told that it took White House approval to use this gas, because of the secret nature of it this type weapon.

SNIPES: Now, afterwards they told that to use the gas that they had to wake up President Nixon to get him to sign off on it.

CAMP: Operation Tailwind: Whoever authorized the use of gas -- it saved lives.

SHEPPARD: We would not have been able to get out of tailwind without the gas. It just would have been a disaster.

SNIPES: You can't forget it. It's been there for my entire life. And it won't go away, I'm sorry. It's something that's like in granite; it's there forever.

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