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Cohen To Probe Nerve Gas Charges

June 9, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ 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’s skeptical of a report that Special Forces employed the deadly substance to attack American defectors.

Laird and retired Gen. William Westmoreland, the American commander of U.S. forces for most of the war, each said separately Monday that it wouldn’t have been logical for troops to use the dangerous chemical, especially while on the ground.

``I have no recollection of any operation like that,″ Laird said Monday in a telephone interview. ``It doesn’t seem logical to me. And I never approved it.″

Westmoreland said it didn’t make sense to employ nerve agents, which then-President Nixon had declared wouldn’t be used in a ``first strike″ situation, and it was unlikely the U.S. military would target the few Vietnam defectors with deadly gas.

``To me, it’s totally illogical from a practical standpoint,″ Westmoreland said in an interview. ``We used some (tear) gas for some operations to overcome the enemy resistance, but not sarin nerve gas.″

Defense Secretary William Cohen said he’s not aware of any evidence that sarin was used during the war, but on Monday he ordered an inquiry into whether there’s any truth to a CNN-Time Magazine report that special forces employed it in 1970 in Laos.

``I have found no evidence _ at least as has been presented to me _ that would validate that report,″ Cohen said. ``But it is a serious allegation, obviously.″

He said he asked the heads of each of the military services to search for any information that might indicate sarin gas was used or U.S. defectors targeted.

``It is always possible,″ he said. ``So we will continue to look at it.″

The CNN-Time story quoted a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Thomas Moorer, and Special Forces leaders about the alleged nerve gas program.

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 gas 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 Special Forces leaders also quoted. Moorer, who was also chief of naval operations, could not be reached for comment on Monday.

But retired Rear Adm. Eugene Carroll, who had several tours in Vietnam from 1965 through 1971, from operations officer at the heart of the Navy’s air campaign to running a carrier, said the American military always sought to retrieve its own behind enemy lines.

``You don’t go there to kill them. You rescue them,″ he said in an interview. ``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.″

Rep. David Skaggs, D-Col., a member of the House intelligence committee who was a Marine in Vietnam, said he found the story ``absolutely stunning and appalling if it is substantiated.″ He said he had asked the committee staff to see what the CIA knew.

Several Republican lawmakers also praised Cohen for ordering an inquiry.

Rep. Jim Gibbon, R-Nev., who served Air Force tours in Vietnam from 1967 to 1971 and is a member of the national security and intelligence committees, said he’s skeptical U.S. military leaders would approve the use of sarin, although it 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.″

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