WASHINGTON - The U.S. military shipped a "small amount" of sarin nerve gas to Vietnam in 1967 but never used it, said then-Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, who was one of several former officials skeptical of a report that U.S. commandos employed the deadly substance to attack American defectors.
Laird and retired Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces for most of the Vietnam War, said separately yesterday that it wouldn't have been logical for troops to use sarin, especially while on the ground. "I have no recollection of any operation like that," Laird said. "It doesn't seem logical to me. And I never approved it."
"To me, it's totally illogical from a practical standpoint," Westmoreland said, to attack a few defectors in such a way.
Defense Secretary William Cohen said he is aware of no evidence that sarin was used during the war, but he ordered an inquiry into whether there is any truth to the CNN-Time magazine report.
The report quoted Adm. Thomas Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, and mission participants. The report said its contents were based on 200 interviews.
The alleged actions were part of the 1970 Operation Tailwind in Laos, which was approved by the Nixon White House as well as the CIA, said the CNN-Time report.
Moorer was quoted as saying that sarin was used in missions to rescue downed U.S. airmen during the war, apparently including operations in which U.S. defectors were killed, according to commando leaders also quoted.
But in an interview yesterday, Moorer said he "had no independent knowledge" that sarin had been used but believed the accounts from men on the ground. "I didn't confirm it. . . . I can't truthfully say I've seen proof." Nor, he said, did he know for certain what the mission of Operation Tailwind actually was.
However, CNN producer April Oliver said yesterday that she interviewed Moorer for eight hours in four sessions and that he opened up only little by little. He also saw the soldiers' taped interviews and was told what the story would say.
"Moorer confirmed everything in that story," she said. "I found him to be very smart and articulate."
The report quoted several former Studies and Observation commandos who took part in the raid. One, Robert Van Buskirk, wrote a book about the operation but did not mention the defectors or sarin in it.
Pentagon officials who reviewed a stack of documents the Defense Department still has not declassified - eight months after the news organizations filed a request to see them - said they don't confirm the story.
Tom Blanton, director of National Security Archive, a research center that unearthed a once "top secret" history of Operation Tailwind, said there is no reasonable explanation for the delay. Pentagon officials said yesterday the declassification has now become a priority.
According to the report, sarin was dropped twice from the air. The next day, Special Forces commandos from the super-secret Studies and Observation Group, wearing gas masks, entered the village and killed about 100 people, mostly civilians, as well as two men they believed to be American defectors.
But retired Rear Adm. Eugene Carroll, who had several tours in Vietnam from 1965 through 1971, said the U.S. military always sought to retrieve its own behind enemy lines.
"You don't go there to kill them. You rescue them," he said. "It's something entirely foreign to our understanding of the U.S. military."
Still, he said, "Special Operations groups are the dirty-tricks people. They go behind enemy lines and sabotage and disrupt in unconventional ways. . . . If the account is valid, you wouldn't keep records of going to kill Americans."
Several lawmakers praised Cohen for ordering an inquiry.
Rep. Jim Gibbon, R-Nev., who served tours in Vietnam from 1967 to 1971 and is a member of the National Security and Intelligence committees, said that he is skeptical but that the report should be investigated.
"It's all war," he said. "We all understand that collateral damage is different than in other circumstances, but it would surprise me that orders would be given to do this."