He asked me to talk to a number of people who had put the show together, and I did so. They answered many of my questions, but in the end, I told each of them that I did not believe the story and suggested strongly that this might well do major damage to the reputation of CNN. But I was unable to stop the show from airing that fateful Sunday night. As I watched, none of the major allegations against the U.S. military seemed to track with reality. All my ethics alarms went off.
In the next three days, I contacted about 200 people, including the Special Forces commander on the ground, three A-1 pilots who flew in support of Operation Tailwind (the secret mission into Laos), and a Marine helicopter pilot who rescued the embattled Special Forces team. I focused heavily on Air Force logistics and munitions records to determine the type of gas those aircraft carried that day. Clearly, the most reliable source for information concerning weapon use in combat is the bomber, not the "bombee." The pilots and the aircraft munitions loaders had a much more reliable knowledge of what fell off those aircraft than the embattled and wounded grunts on the ground.
By the morning of 11 June, I was certain the story was wrong. I called CNN's Johnson, told him he had a major disaster on his hands, and urged a complete retraction—fast. I supplied information explaining why Air Force airplanes could not have dispensed nerve gas, even if President Richard Nixon had ordered it. In the meantime, General Colin Powell had called Johnson on 9 June and told him that this was a bum story, and that if it went uncorrected, it would damage CNN's reputation severely.
I pressed hard on Johnson for two days and nights for a total retraction. By Saturday night it was clear that a retraction was not forthcoming. After another in a string of sleepless nights, I called Johnson just before I left for church on 14 June and resigned as CNN's military analyst.
So how did CNN make such a horrible mistake, and why was it unwilling to retract, especially once General Powell and I both had deemed the story dead wrong? A small, compartmentalized team at CNN was given a charter to come up with a dynamite show to kick off the new series. A hard-working and ambitious producer had caught wind of the nerve-gas tale, established a hypothesis that it had happened, and, through a series of manipulative interviews and careful cutting and splicing of tape, was able to convince herself and her bosses that she had a solid story. And top CNN executives were much too eager to believe her.
What lessons can be learned?
- Having a strong, ethical braintrust for advice and assistance can be very helpful.
- Never assume that high quantity equals high quality in research.
- Leaders should be skeptical of conspiracy theories and keep a sharp eye on any compartmentalized group to make sure it upholds and supports institutional values and ethics.
- Leaders never should assume that people are lying or covering up, especially military people. In fact, in my 63 years of close association with military professionals, despite some notable exceptions, I believe their integrity to be of the highest order.
Editor's Note: On 2 July 1998, CNN retracted the nerve-gas story, fired two NewsStand producers, accepted the resignation of an executive producer, and formally reprimanded correspondent Peter Arnett.
Retired Air Force Major General Smith is president of Visionary Leadership in Augusta, Georgia. He served as military analyst for CNN from 16 January 1991 to 14 June 1998.