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Cohen: Operation TAILWIND Allegations Scrutinized; Investigation Yields Nothing to Substantiate Charges
Briefing by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Washington, D.C. , Tuesday, July 21, 1998

On June 9th I ordered an investigation into the charges made by CNN and Time about a U.S. military operation called TAILWIND in Laos some 28 years ago. CNN/Time said that the purpose of the mission was to hunt and to kill U.S. defectors, and that the United States used sarin, a lethal nerve gas, during that mission.

We have found absolutely no evidence to support these charges. Today I'm releasing a report and scores of documents about Operation TAILWIND.

Before summarizing that report I'd like to explain why I took the CNN/Time charges so very seriously. If true, the United States would have been in violation of its own policy against the use of lethal nerve gas, and out of step with international efforts to ban the use of deadly chemical weapons. The use of sarin would have endangered and likely killed some of our own troops. The charge would be used to discredit the United States' attempt to curb the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In fact, Iraq immediately incorporated CNN's charges into its anti-U.S. propaganda campaign in an effort to try to deflect attention from its own outlawed chemical and biological weapons programs.

Several weeks after the June 7th broadcast, CNN and Time retracted their reports, noting that they could not support either charge. The retraction followed a review of journalistic techniques that were used to put the program together.

Our review took a different approach. We studied scores of documents and items about Operation TAILWIND which are now available for review. We conducted interviews with soldiers and officials at all levels of command. Several of the soldiers who carried out that extraordinary mission are here with us today.

I would like to repeat again; we found no evidence to support CNN/Time assertions.

With respect to defectors, no document, military order, after action report, briefing paper, or official military history mentions the pursuit of U.S. defectors as TAILWIND's mission. There is no hint, nod, wink, or subliminal reference to such a mission.

On the use of nerve gas, we found no evidence that sarin nerve gas was used or that it was ever transported to Vietnam, Laos or Thailand. Sarin was stored in Okinawa at the time and remained there until 1971. All chemical agents stored on Okinawa during the Vietnam conflict were removed in 1971 prior to the reversion of the island to the government of Japan in 1972.

The Air Force pilots who provided air cover to TAILWIND say they dropped tear gas, not nerve gas. The Air Force men who loaded the munitions on the planes said it was tear gas, not nerve gas. All 16 Americans in TAILWIND survived. This could not have happened if deadly nerve gas had been dropped on them.

Captain Rose, the medic for TAILWIND, is here today. He has said, "I am living proof that toxic gas was not dropped on us that day."

The Marine Corps helicopter pilots who rescued TAILWIND soldiers from Laos deny that sarin was used. They say that Vietnamese troops would not have been able to fire on their helicopters if sarin had been employed.

The official history of the People's Army of Vietnam doesn't record any use of lethal chemical agents by the United States.

I think all Americans should know that the 16 men who conducted this mission were heroes, but they have been hurt by this report. As Captain Rose said after the news report, "It's hard for me to explain to my 20 year old daughter that I did nothing wrong." Captain Rose, Lieutenant Colonel McCarley, Colonel Pinkerton, Colonel Sadler, Major General Singlaub... I can assure you and your colleagues and your families, you did nothing wrong. Quite to the contrary, you did everything right.

Sixteen Americans fought steadily for four days. All of them were injured. All got out alive. The documents that they captured provided an intelligence bonanza.

After the mission, [U.S. Army] General [Creighton W.] Abrams, the commander of our troops in Vietnam, said TAILWIND was a valuable operation executed with great skill and tremendous courage.

Admiral [John S.] McCain [Jr.], the father of Senator [John] McCain, was a commander of the U.S. Forces in the Pacific at the time. He praised TAILWIND for the "valuable intelligence gained" and he offered his highest commendation to the men involved.

TAILWIND was a secret mission, and because of this, the men may not have gotten the recognition that they earned for their valor, and some may not be receiving the benefits that they deserve, and I've asked Under Secretary [of Defense for Personnel and Readiness] Rudy de Leon to make sure that all the participants are receiving the recognition and the benefits they deserve.

America and foreign nations should understand that the United States has not and does not use lethal nerve gas. We are in the forefront of efforts to stop the proliferation of these deadly chemical and biological weapons, and that's why we strongly support the efforts of the United Nations Security Council to force Iraq to destroy its stockpiles and end its chemical and biological weapons programs.

Those who read this report and the accompanying documents, I believe they're going to see profiles of courage and honor on the part of these American warriors.

Now I would be happy to entertain any questions you have, and if you have any specific questions about the details of the report, Under Secretary de Leon is here to respond to them.

Q: Was this a CIA-run operation? Did you get CIA documents?

A: This was not a CIA operation itself. TAILWIND was designed to divert some of the attention and the forces that were marshaled in that region from Operation GAUNTLET which was a CIA operation, and we do have CIA documents in this report.

Q: Secretary Cohen, James Webb, a former Secretary of the Navy, has written that he thinks this report reflects an anti-military bias among journalists. Do you draw any such conclusions?

A: I'm not drawing any conclusions. I think the CNN retraction and that of Time Magazine speaks for itself, that the report was unsupportable on the two critical allegations that were made, that the United States sought to kill U.S. defectors and use sarin gas in the process. I think the report clearly was unsupportable, and that's the reason why both CNN and Time retracted them.

Q: Secretary Cohen, despite CNN's retraction and apology for the story, and the Pentagon's own report now that concludes there's no evidence of sarin use or targeting American defectors, there are still some cynics who believe that the Pentagon would never admit this if it were true. What do you say to somebody who believes, despite all of this evidence, that there may be some sort of cover-up here?

A: It was interesting. I saw one of the talk programs following the release of CNN's report and one young woman, as I recall, said why don't they just admit it, then investigate it and get on with it. That is the attitude on the part of some people.

You recall when that report was first filed, I stood here and said we indeed would investigate it, we would investigate it thoroughly. We have spent thousands of hours, literally, with all the services devoting their resources to digging through volumes of information.

I would say that had CNN and Time Magazine not retracted the story, there would be people likely to challenge this investigation saying, well, it's CNN's and Time Magazine's word against that of the Pentagon. Then that would have fed some of the cynicism that you referred to.

I think, however, that because CNN and Time have withdrawn and retracted those reports, that that, in combination with the records that we are now disclosing, should satisfy the most cynical and skeptical of individuals in this country.

Q: Secretary Cohen, since this was a black program, would you expect to have found documents that would have documented the veracity or not of this case and the nature of a...

A: Black programs also have great documentation to them, whether they're undertaken by the Pentagon or other agencies. There are a long record of documents that would be involved in any black program.

Q: In this case are there still documents that any of these agencies involved are withholding?

A: To my knowledge, there has been no withholding of documents pertaining to this operation. Under Secretary de Leon can comment further on that but we have all the information we believe pertains to this operation.

Q: Does this study indicate to you any reason that there should be a more open approach to releasing documents since this was such a long time ago, and also since you say that it's clear that perhaps even some of the men who served aren't getting the recognition that they should be getting?

A: I think any time you can provide information to the public over activities that have transpired in the past without jeopardizing national security interests, we should do so. That's a judgment we have to make on a case-by-case basis, but the further back, obviously, an incident like this occurred, the need for classification tends to diminish. But we have to take it on a case-by-case basis.

Q: Is there anything else CNN or Time should do to make amends?

A: I think you have to ask some of the people involved in that. I think they have made the retraction. I think it was important they make the retraction. Unfortunately, the promotion of the program was repeated many times over. I happened to be in Europe at the time, and it had an impact, certainly on the people that I was dealing with at that time. I think the fact that they came forward and rejected and renounced the program itself and subjected itself to the kind of media criticism that it has been receiving, should send forth the message that great care should be taken before someone were to file a report like this in the future.

Q: Secretary Cohen, you mentioned that perhaps not all of the soldiers had received the recognition that they deserved. My understanding is that some of the comrades, the fellow troops of Captain Michael Rose, the medic, have suggested that he should have been entitled to a Congressional Medal of Honor. Are you going to look into whether or not he would be entitled to that honor?

A: I am not aware of their recommendation, but I certainly will look into it. We had such an award recently at the White House for another medic who performed heroically under very adverse circumstances, and I'd be happy to examine this particular case of Captain Michael Rose who is here with us today.

Q: The producers of the piece, April Oliver and Jack Smith, continue to make the media rounds and they say the story is true. Do you have a message for them?

A: I don't have any message for them. I think that our message speaks for itself. The fact that their superiors saw fit to withdraw their report for its failure as far as journalistic techniques and integrity was concerned, I think speaks for itself. I don't have any comment about that.

Q: Just for the record, when you say there are recognition and benefits they've been entitled to but they're not getting. What are those? Can you specify?

A: I'll let Under Secretary de Leon refer to that. I believe there is one statement made about one of the individuals involved who is disabled, and there's some question about the disability payments, whether they were in the line of duty and a causal connection, but I think the Under Secretary can address that.

Q: Sir, did you say that you would recommend further study to see if there is additional commendation or some kind of reward given to these men?

A: I indicated I will look into that, yes.

Q: Is it your feeling that any documents that CNN was requesting in preparation for this TAILWIND report, that was withheld by the Department of Defense, contributed to the inaccuracy? The reports you're making public today, had they been released before, would they have changed the course of the CNN investigation?

A: I don't know. I can't speak in terms of what documents they requested or were not furnished. I think the gentlemen who are here can tell you that many of their comments were either taken out of context or ignored, so I'm not sure whether or not documentation that currently is being made available would have altered the reporting of that story.

Q: Was the problem here that the operation took place, some of the confusion arising over the various reports, that the operation took place at a time when the U.S. was denying any involvement in any activities in Laos?

A: I don't think the report can lay any foundation or claim upon the story that it was taking place 28 years ago, and had taken place at a time as a secret mission. That mission, in fact, was reported. As I recall there was an AP story that appeared on the front page of the New York Times on October 26, 1970. So within four or five weeks after the activity itself, it was on the front page of the New York Times, so I don't think there was much, if any basis for concluding because it was "a secret mission", if that contributed to this particular story's erroneous reporting.

Q: In that very story that you mentioned there's also a quote from a Pentagon official denying that any casualties from that mission had not been reported. Isn't that one of the underlying reasons that reporters and some members of the public are suspicious of the Pentagon, because they know the government doesn't always tell the full truth?

A: I think every journalist has every right to investigate any allegation or concern. My particular objection to this particular report is that allegations were made that these gentlemen, some of whom are sitting here today, deliberately set out to kill American soldiers and to do so with a lethal nerve gas. That, I think, before you make such a charge as that, you must have overpowering evidence to prove that, before such a report is released for the reasons that I outlined. It certainly cast aspersion upon these gentlemen; it called into question the integrity of the United States, and it certainly called into question... It also provided Saddam Hussein with an excuse to try and divert attention from his own activities. I think it was, in that case, irresponsible.

Q: You said this report concludes definitively that deadly gas was not used, or merely that you could find no evidence that such gases were used?

A: I think if you look at the entire body of evidence as such, if you take the testimony of the overwhelming majority of the people who were involved in the operation, if you look at all the records that have been released, you take that in its totality, and I think you come to the conclusion -- or at least I do -- that there was no basis for the allegation that sarin gas was used to kill U.S. defectors.

Can you ever prove to the satisfaction of every individual that such was not the case? Probably not. But if you are fair minded and open minded, then, I think, you would come to the same conclusion as you read all the documentation and listen to the men who were involved.

Q: Did this investigation address more broadly the question of whether deadly gas, not just sarin in Operation TAILWIND, but whether deadly gas of any variety may have been used during the war at any stage, which would of course be a fairly broad investigation. Or was this narrowly focused on TAILWIND and the specific allegations in the CNN report?

A: This was focused on TAILWIND, but I have no indication whatsoever that any nerve agent or gas or substance that would have been in violation of our policy was ever used in Vietnam. Frankly, we would have seen reporting of it through the Vietnamese press, if not our own.

Q: Just to clarify on that point, Mr. Secretary. You said, if I understood you correctly, at the beginning of your statement, that there was no evidence that sarin was ever in Vietnam, Laos or Thailand. Is there some reason Cambodia is missing from that list?

A: No reason that I'm aware of that it's missing from that list. My understanding is that the sarin was confined and stored in Okinawa and also in Germany and not transported to Southeast Asia.

Q: Can you describe -- you mentioned that Saddam Hussein had used this for propaganda purposes. Could you describe a little bit about what you're talking about and how effective that has been?

A: I can't say how effective it has been in Iraq, but certainly the promotion of the program, and it was very highly energetically promoted, was telecast throughout the Middle East and throughout many parts of the globe. I think, to the extent that Saddam Hussein could seize upon that and use that telecast as an effort to discredit the United States, may have been successful in his own country. It certainly called into question the United States position as far as urging the strict enforcement of the sanctions that currently Saddam must comply with. So to that extent, it certainly contributed to his effort to discredit the United States.

Q: Mr. Secretary, it's been now two months since India and Pakistan did their nuclear tests. Now the U.S. delegation is in India and Pakistan and in Asia, or in the Indian Subcontinent now, the three nuclear powers are then plain -- India, Pakistan and China. Do you see any nuclear war in the future? And also if these countries have any shopping lists for the Pentagon.

A: We are meeting with India and Pakistan to try and achieve the goals that I talked about previously -- namely to try and persuade both of them to cease and desist from escalating the rhetoric, from further tests, to persuade them not to transfer any of the technology to third countries, and to see if we can't find a way to help reconcile their differences. That is a mission of the delegates who are now visiting with the respective parties.

Q: Do you have any comment on the report of a jump in Chinese ballistic missile production?

A: No. I don't have any comment on it.

Q: Why not?

A: If it's an intelligence report I wouldn't comment, and don't.

Q: What's your sense of the [Secretary of the Air Force-designate Daryl] Jones nomination which comes up tomorrow in the Senate Armed Services Committee? Do you think it will actually sail or not?

A: I don't know. It's a very closely contested vote at this point. I thought the hearing invited both proponents and opponents; very clearly there were some strong opponents, but strong proponents. I think it's too early to tell whether or not it will have the support of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Q: Is he still your nominee?

A: Yes.

Q: Mr. Secretary, given your focus on homeland defense, there's been some reports in the media that under consideration is a new command that would be responsible for the United States itself. Currently there isn't one. Can you comment on that at all? What your thinking is on that?

A: Well, we are reviewing the so-called UCP. We're looking at ways in which we might be called upon to restructure our command structure. No decision has been made. The chairman and the chiefs have been exploring what options would be available, what would be desirable, but there's been no decision made on the homeland defense CINC, as such.

Q: As a senator and now as the secretary of defense, you've had a good perspective on military housing -- both from the committee when [former Secretary of Defense] Dr. [William] Perry was there. Now it seems to be in disarray, these efforts to improve military housing. We heard the other day 200,000 of 300,000 military housing now are substandard. Is there any change of priority trying to rectify this situation?

A: I think we have to do more as far as focusing on quality of life issues. The housing has been a particular problem for us. There are, I think, some 375,000 units that really need to be rehabilitated over a course of time, and we're trying to find ways in which we can leverage the private sector's creativity, ingenuity in working with some government funding to help satisfy that. But I think we have to focus more attention upon quality of life issues and housing, in particular, is one of those issues.

Q: Are you going to give more priority and more money to it or what?

A: We're looking at ways in which we can increase the supply of quality housing for our troops.

Q: Mr. Secretary, do you see in Kosovo, do you see a reaction from Mr. Milosevic as far as restraining his police forces and troops in Kosovo and allowing international organizations some access to find out what's going on? After he went to see Yeltsin in Moscow, did things change? Do you see it as a change?

A: I think there's been some evidence of restraint on the part of the VJ forces as a general proposition. That depends on a day-to-day basis, however. It depends on whether they come under attack from UCK forces and how they respond. But I would say overall there has been a general sense of restraint. That could change overnight, and to the extent that it does, it would invite the kind of criticism that the NATO countries have leveled against Mr. Milosevic.

I've indicated before that we need both parties to the table, that we are not prepared to support UCK's desire for independence and we do not want to take any action that would lend support for that effort. So we want both parties to the table, both parties to exercise restraint. Again, that restraint can be broken on any given day so it's premature for me to say that that restraint is going to be in any kind of perpetuity. I think we have to continue to work on that issue.

Q: Do you see any improvement or any encouragement about the UCK going to the table?

A: I think it's still a matter of trying to get everybody to the table now. We have to work and continue to work very hard at that.

Q: Secretary Cohen, as you've probably read recently, several leaders of the Indonesian Special Forces, Kopassus, have been arrested in connection with recent disappearances and deaths of civilians there.

Given the U.S. relationship with Kopassus in the past, do you have any second thoughts about what that relationship should be in the future? Should the U.S. continue to train with them? And if that's to change, in what direction you think it should change.

A: We continue to have a variety of programs that you have reported on. The IMET [International Military Education and Training] program is one that we think is very valuable for many countries across the globe; the JCET [Joint/Combined Exchange Training] program, which you specifically reported on, we think is very much in our interest to continue to be able to deploy and train in various parts of the world so that we can benefit from that deployment.

I would also point out that [Indonesian defense minister and commander of the armed forces] General Wiranto, I believe, has exercised some considerable restraint on the part of his military given the situation in Indonesia. We have worked with General Wiranto. We intend to continue to encourage him to exercise the kind of restraint that we think is necessary. We're always reviewing our programs to make sure that they measure up to our standards, and to the extent that we can discover if there are any human rights abuses, we certainly want to eliminate them and not deal with individuals who are known to engage in that.

But we think the programs we've had, IMET and JCET, have been very beneficial not only to other countries, but to our military in particular.

Q: Mr. Secretary, we talked about the Secretary nominee for the Air Force. We still have a pending vacancy in the Navy and there's not that much time left for the Senate to be in session. Do you expect a Navy Secretary nominee to be coming out in time to get confirmed by the Senate before they go home?

A: The answer is yes, before they leave in October, I believe. They would have time during either the remaining part of this month or certainly in September, they would have time to conclude their consideration of a nominee.

Q: Have you made a recommendation to the White House?

A: I have.

Q: Mr. Secretary, due to their nuclear tests, Pakistan is in trouble deeply economically. They have paid for F-15 or 14 I believe, a number of planes are still in Arizona. What is the future of those planes? Because they need money. And obviously, this is also part of negotiations of the U.S. team in Pakistan.

A: We are still trying to resolve the issue. As you know, the Pakistani government is considering going to court to resolve the issue, but I have indicated before, I think, we have to resolve it either through compensation, restoring compensation, or the aircraft, but it has to be resolved at some point.

Q: Why haven't Generals [Dennis J.] Reimer [Chief of Staff, U.S. Army] or [Henry H.] Shelton [Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff] spoken out on the issue of TAILWIND in defense of the Army?

A: No reason why they haven't spoken out. In fact General Shelton was with me earlier today and he feels very strongly about the issue. This is an investigation that I ordered and directed Under Secretary de Leon to conduct, so it really is my office that did the investigation.

Q: Mr. Secretary, there are reports out of London that the U.S. and Scotland are going to agree now to permit the two Libyan suspects in Pan Am 103, if it should ever come to a trial, to be tried in the Hague instead of either in the U.S. or Scotland. Some of the families see that as a reversal and a weakening of the position of the U.S. Is that in fact the case? And if so, what would be the reason for taking that action?

A: I don't know if that, in fact, is the case. I just was made aware of that story as I approached the podium, so I'm not aware of the story itself.

Q: Does the Pentagon, do you support that if that were to be the decision?

A: I have not been involved in the discussions pertaining to that so I can't really comment in terms of whether any other agency has been involved in that kind of negotiation, but it's something that I will look into as soon as this conference is over.

Q: Would it, sir, be appropriate to introduce these heroes?

A: They would like, I think, to be introduced. General, would you like to introduce your colleagues and bring them up?

 

Published by the American Forces Information Service, a field activity of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), Washington, D.C. Parenthetical entries are speaker/author notes; bracketed entries are editorial notes. This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission.