A blockbuster of a story launched a highly touted television program. But its central allegation was largely based on a disputed interviewing technique involving recovered memories that the American Psychiatric Association has condemned.
Recovered memories - suppressed horrors dredged up under therapy - drew attention a few years ago when they became the basis of a spate of charges of incest, satanic-ritual abuse and sexual abuse at child-care centers.They were discredited when investigators determined that many of them had been implanted by zealous therapists determined to find a cause for a patient's emotional distress.
More recently, experts have discovered that some Vietnam-era veterans under psychiatric care in Veterans Administration hospitals are especially suggestible. Recovered memories have made a comeback, and veterans, they say, find themselves "remembering" events that never happened.
Some critics assert that that may be the case in a disputed report alleging that U.S. soldiers used nerve gas in the Vietnam War. According to "Newsstand: CNN & Time," U.S. Special Forces troops used the gas, sarin, in 1970 while attacking a Laotian village that was presumed to be harboring U.S. defectors.
By using poison gas in the Vietnam War, U.S. soldiers would have committed an act regarded internationally as a war crime. And in covering it up for 28 years, the Pentagon would be seen as damaging U.S. efforts to expose and eliminate Iraq's suspected caches of nerve gas.
The report by veteran CNN war correspondent Peter Arnett and producer April Oliver, who did most of the reporting, was broadcast June 7 and appeared the next day in Time magazine. As a result of the report, the Pentagon began an investigation.
But the air soon began hissing out of the story. Veterans who had taken part in the mission, called Operation Tailwind, bombarded the Internet and news media with furious rebuttals. Yes, they had used gas, they said - nonlethal tear gas. CNN's own military analyst, the retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Perry Smith, resigned in protest when the network wouldn't retract the report.
In the meantime, Newsweek magazine dropped its own bomb. It revealed that a former Army lieutenant who had participated in the mission, Robert Van Buskirk, was the primary source for the nerve-gas allegation and that he suddenly recalled the use of sarin only near the end of a five-hour interview with Oliver.
But Van Buskirk had failed to mention sarin in "Tailwind" (Word Books), his 1983 book about the mission. He said he had suppressed the memories when he experienced a religious awakening in 1974.
Neither the program nor the article mentioned that the central accusation was based on recovered memories.
Smith said last week that several other veterans who had been interviewed for the report told him Oliver "planted" the notion that sarin had been used in the commando raid. CNN has denied that.