Transcript of April Oliver interview with John Singlaub

APRIL OLIVER: We have a letter on Air Force stationary that says Operation Tailwind's men on the ground attest to CBU-15 [sarin nerve gas] being accurate and effective every time it was brought in...It is a letter signed by General Clay and sent to Air Force General Killpack.

GENERAL SINGLAUB: What was [General Creighton] Abram's job at the time?

AO: I think he was the top Air Force guy in the theater...

SINGLAUB: Oh yeah, right.

AO: So we know about CBU-15, GB [synonymous with CBU-15 or sarin nerve gas容d.], sarin being used at least twice during Tailwind, on the base camp where the defectors were and on extraction...

SINGLAUB: Uh-huh.

AO: But this letter makes it sound like it was more than those two times.

SINGLAUB: Not necessarily. It could mean that they tested it in the desert first. This was the first time it was used in a combat situation. At least that is how you could read that statement.

AO: But let me read the statement again. It specifically says that the men on the ground in Tailwind say that CBU-15 was accurate and effective every time it was brought in, meaning, it seems, on this specific mission.

SINGLAUB: Well, I guess that's right. It does sound like multiple delivery. It could have been on more than one airplane. It means more than one aircraft were used on that particular mission.

AO: So we know that CBU-15, GB, sarin nerve gas, was used on extraction.

SINGLAUB: Yes. Uh-huh.

AO: And we know that the base camp where the defectors were was prepped with it before the hatchet team went in.

SINGLAUB: Yes. Uh-huh.

AO: I am trying to [get] the precise count on how many times it was used in Tailwind. Getting it right is important. We've also been told that Col. Dan Schungel was shot down during this mission. The number two guy in SOG at the time. That was on day three. It's sort of like you being shot down in Laos.

SINGLAUB: No, it's not. It would be like my deputy being shot down.

AO: Yes, of course, your deputy. Still it has to be a big deal, having such a senior figure down in Laos. Someone so important to SOG. What is the right thing to do?

SINGLAUB: To try to rescue him of course.

AO: But the question here is: Was CBU-15 used a third time to get Schungel out? The Marine CH-53 helicopter pilots say they were made to wear their NBC [Nuclear, Biological or Chemical] gas masks on the extraction attempt. It was the first and only time any of them had ever worn an NBC gas mask.... It was a real messy situation. A CH-53 got shot down that was trying to rescue SOG wounded, and Schungel gets shot down, and then a CH-3 that tries to rescue the CH-53 gets shot down.... It was a bit of a mess. So the question here is: Is this a situation in Tailwind where the CBU-15 is used a third time?

SINGLAUB: To be historically accurate, it would be wrong to just assume that.

AO: I'm trying not to assume anything. And I am trying to be historically accurate. So we know that CBU-15 was used the two times, on the base camp and the extraction.

SINGLAUB: Right.

AO: But was it used multiple times during the course of this operation?

[The following passage constitutes Singlaub's first effort at deniability. 輸.O.]

SINGLAUB: I do not know. I do not know of this except by you. You've brought it up. Tailwind was only a name. I did not know the exact nature of the operation. Well, I did know it was a crossborder operation. I did not know of these agents or of these bomblets. I learned it from you.

AO: General Singlaub, when we first spoke of this months ago, you told me you were in fact aware of the operation.

SINGLAUB: Well, yes, I did. I knew that it did take place. But I don't want to do anything that will associate me with [CNN reporter] Peter Arnett. I think he is despicable. I am sorry you have to deal with him. I really am.

AO: General, let's go on background here, and let me assure you that your name will never be used in this piece except the quote that we talked about. I can read back to you some of the precise quotes that you have given us before about Tailwind that underscore you know quite a lot about Tailwind. I would be happy to do that. And you know more about SOG than just about anybody. And you know you have the best sources possible on this issue. Now, Admiral Moorer is talking to us because he thinks it is important that history be historically accurate. And we have interviewed him for over seven hours. And I think it is important that we get from senior military officials such as you, on background, any statement that can support him. Not that it will ever be used. But just in case. You have already told us in previous conversations that you understood CBU-15 to be used two times in Tailwind, the two times we discussed. But you are steering me away from a third time, is that correct?

SINGLAUB: Yes, it would be wrong to assume that.

AO: I am told that Schungel being shot down was why he never made General.

SINGLAUB: That and some other things. He had quite a mixed track record. His reputation was great at times, but it was not consistent.

AO: So you don't know if CBU-15 was used to pull him out?

SINGLAUB: I do not know.

AO: Is there any way anybody in SOG could go in with this weapon on standby and be surprised by the nature of the weapon when released?

SINGLAUB: There is no way he is going in and going to be surprised by this.

AO: Especially when they are issued M-17 gas masks and atropine [a countermeasure or antidote to nerve agents, including sarin容d.].

SINGLAUB: Well, the M-17 gas mask was the standard issue gas mask for all of Vietnam. The only ones I saw were M-17s. Standard issue.

AO: Sir, we have spent a lot of time trying to nail that down and I have talked to a great number of people about this. And they tell me that M-17s were special issue for SOG, and that they were not available inside Vietnam. General Potts, you know him, is absolutely definitive on this point.

SINGLAUB: Well, M-17s were standard issue for defense against lethal agents. We didn't know if the Soviets had given the North Vietnamese any agents. It may not have been standard issue for the troops inside Vietnam.

AO: Was Tailwind unique in the large number of lives that CBU-15 saved?

SINGLAUB: It was unique because of the agents used. I don't think you can say it was unique because of the large number of lives saved. It would not have been used unless it had given us a significant advantage.

AO: And when you say "agent," you mean CBU-15, GB, right?

SINGLAUB: Remember, it was a major decision to escalate to...use of that agent. It was not risk-free. But it was felt that it was unlikely that the NVA [North Vietnamese Army] would complain. They were not supposed to be in Laos. They were unlikely to come to the United Nations and complain about the weapon.

AO: Because it would expose them being in Laos. That's interesting. I have been scratching my head about that, about why they didn't say something about this.

SINGLAUB: Well, the NVA said the only troops they had in Laos were the Vietcong. We frequently complained about how [then prince, now king of Cambodia Norodom] Sihanouk and others were in fact giving sanctuary to the NVA.

AO: Again, we are on background here. So it was decided then that the agent CBU-15/GB could be used because the Vietnamese were unlikely to complain?

SINGLAUB: Yes, in a covert operation in Laos.

AO: Moorer has told us on camera that he never made a point of counting the number of times CBU-15 was used. What do you make of that statement?

SINGLAUB: That it was used on missions at other times than on Tailwind is what I would interpret that as meaning.

AO: Do you know how many times?

SINGLAUB: Nope. I don't know of anyone who would know that accurately.

AO: He has told us that the weapon was largely available for search and rescues.... Is that your understanding?

SINGLAUB: It was not commonly available during my time. "Commonly available" would mean on hand. I do not believe it was available during my time.

AO: Well, I tried to pin Moorer on dates. We have talked to about 30 A1 [jet] pilots at this point and they talk about using it from 1969 to early 1971. Were you aware of it being used on SAR missions at this time?

SINGLAUB: No, I do not know of any use of it.

AO: But we have already established that you know of the use of CBU-15 in this specific instance, on Tailwind. You have told me that in this conversation and before.

SINGLAUB: I am prepared to accept that. That's something you seem to have right. You have enough basis to use that.

AO: Do you know of any lives saved by this weapon, other than on Tailwind?

SINGLAUB: I cannot say; I do not know.

AO: Now, let's talk about a tough situation. Some pilots have told us of instances where the sun is going down, a pilot is downed and surrounded, the weapon is on standby, but he doesn't have a gas mask. What do you do? Is not this a ticklish situation?

SINGLAUB: If you know where he is, you get him one. Otherwise, you use non-lethal substances.

AO: But the pilots tell us in a last ditch scenario it might be acceptable even if he didn't have a mask. Moorer tells us that this would be an acceptable policy.

SINGLAUB: I think so. It is comparable to calling airstrikes in on themselves. Because the enemy is so close, you are asking them to take a chance of survival. During the Korean War, I took responsibility for calling in [an airstrike] on top of my outpost that was being overrun by Chinese. I kept saying, over and over, "I take full responsibility for this; fire for effect, fire for effect!" It broke up the Chinese, and I had our guys under cover. It was a tough, tough call.

AO: But it wouldn't be so tough in this other instance, right?

SINGLAUB: Sure, because there is only one guy on the ground.

AO: Actually, I was about to say "in Tailwind," because the Americans all had the right masks. But you were referring to the SAR [Search-And-Rescue] scenario.

SINGLAUB: Yeah, that's right.

AO: But what I am trying to do here is get inside the head of everyone. It must be tough to make the decision to drop it. A lot of things must go into the decision-making.

SINGLAUB: Yes, and the timing is important, too. You would hope to be able to put the stuff in on the enemy. And then the downwash of the helicopters coming in would blow it away. You then put a man in a mask down a line with the atropine. And you hope to find the pilot and give him the antidote and haul him out.

AO: So was the last resort method taught?

JS: Not that I know of. Of course, we trained with CS.

AO: But CS is a mild tear gas, quite different from GB. It does little [to] deter an enemy. I really have done a lot of homework here, sir, and I know you know more about this stuff than anyone. But we have talked to a lot of chemical experts, including a career chemical researcher at Aberdeen, [Maryland] named Bill Dee. He was involved in weaponizing sarin. And he points out that you would have to be in a sealed chamber with extraordinarily high levels of CS to get the kind of vomiting and convulsions and diarrhea that you get with GB. That's what the men of Tailwind describe. CS is a mild tear gas. We are told the Army abandoned it because it just wasn't effective against guys all pumped on adrenaline in battle. And that getting potent levels of CS was next to impossible on the open battlefield. And an A1 squadron commander has told us he completely abandoned CS once the GB became available cause CS just didn't work. Early on in this story, some people were trying to get me to believe that it was just CS out there, but I am way beyond that, sir, I really am. I have just talked to too many people and done too much homework.

JS: Well, CS does more than make you cry. It can make you cough. It is much worse than CN. It can affect your respiratory tract and give you coughing spasms. We did start with using CS first. And it worked beautifully when the enemy was confined, as in a tunnel or in some jungle situations with heavy canopy and no breeze until the blades of the choppers dissipated it. Now, April, I am not disagreeing with anything you say regarding GB. But I just don't want you to say CS is merely a mild tear gas.

AO: But you agree that CS was abandoned in favor of GB?

JS: It was not commonly available during my time. It may have been available later.

AO: Let's get this right. Are the years from 1969 to '71 accurate for its availability according to your information?

JS: Yes, that does sound right.

AO: We have been told that the agent might have been available at both NKP [Nakhon Phanom] and Udorn [Vietnam-era American bases in Thailand].

JS: They both had SAR units. That would make sense. The A1s were based out of NKP.

AO: The pilots tell us that CBU-15 and sleeping gas and GB are the same thing.

JS: That is possible.

AO: Again we are on background. Again, from all the pilots we have talked to, it is safe to say that Tailwind is not the only time it was used, right?

JS: You can probably make that assumption from the evidence.

AO: Sir, I am not asking for assumptions. I am asking what you know about this yourself, from your personal sources. I realize you were not in charge at the time. But you are better plugged in than almost anybody I know regarding SOG operations. In all likelihood they will come after Admiral Moorer for being an old man, and cast me as a young girl who wasn't out there at the time, and I want to be able to report that senior military officials confirm what we have reported.

JS: Well, the agent was available in most parts of the world where the troops were stationed. We had our own supply of nerve agent in Germany. And we were issuing gas masks.

AO: You are talking during World War II?

JS: No, during the Cold War. I was there.

AO: What I can't figure out is this: A lot, a lot of people had to know about this. Here I am, 28 years later, and I am talking to literally scores of people who know about the weapon's availability and use back then. Why has it never been reported before this story?

JS: It was a covert operation. Its usefulness and effectiveness depended on its secrecy. You can't have it broadcast all over CNN.

AO: Of course, we are talking about something that occurred 28 years ago.... I was at the Pentagon recently for a Council on Foreign Relations event, as a guest of General Shelton. And his assistant, who gave the briefing, said some interesting things. They know what I am up to over there because of my FOIA [Freedom of Information Act]. And I think they expected a question or two from me on chemicals. Now I did not mention Tailwind because I was in a public setting...but I did ask them about the chemical weapons convention and how they viewed that. And the guy kind of stuttered and said they would never go back to using chemical weapons. But they didn't deny using them.

JS: Yeah, well, with this administration that's probably true.

AO: He seemed to imply that biological weapons had more utility.

JS: The problem with that is, I do not know of any biological agents that are made into weapons.

AO: Okay, back to the story. So the GB was available in Laos?

JS: No, not in Laos, in Thailand. Both those bases are in Thailand.

AO: We have a 1971 manual of chemical weapons and one of the things that is most impressive is the vast array of weaponized sarin in the arsenal. It comes in all forms, CBUs [cluster bomb units], clamshells, mortars. Was it ever used in these other forms besides CBUs?

SINGLAUB: Not that I know of. It was not used in rockets. Honest John had gone out by then. But it was available in artillery shells. There were medium-sized howitzers that had chemical grounds.

AO: But there was no artillery in Laos...

SINGLAUB: There was artillery in Vietnam. But we did not take artillery in on covert ops. We might take a small mortar in some cases. I do not think they carried chemicals, however.

AO: Sounds kind of dicey to carry on the ground. So the preferred delivery would be by air?

SINGLAUB: Yes, we had control of the air. We could fly low and slow. We didn't have to worry about radar and MIGs in Laos.

AO: So CBUs delivery by A1s?

SINGLAUB: Yeah, that's right.

AO: And the agent we are talking about here is CBU-15/GB?

SINGLAUB: Right.

AO: Was CBU-15 used on Son Tay [a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp容d.]?

SINGLAUB: No. I have had extensive briefings on that operation. It is possible it was carried. But it wasn't, I do not think. It may have been available. I am pretty certain it was not used. I have had really detailed briefings on that operation.

AO: Do you know of any pilots saved on SARs by CBU-15?

SINGLAUB: I do not know of any.

AO: Any estimate of the number of lives saved by this weapon?

SINGLAUB: I have no way of doing an accurate count.

AO: But it was more than on Tailwind?

SINGLAUB: I think you would have to presume you have enough evidence to cause one to make the decision that there were other cases. Admiral Moorer obviously suggests the same, and I would not contradict him.

AO: Again, we are using you as a blind source here, we will not mention your name. I really think Moorer is a brilliant man and I know his motive here is that he thinks it is important that history get this absolutely historically accurate.

SINGLAUB: Well, Tom is very smart. But I wish you had had the chance to speak with General Stillwell or General Depew. They may have even been more brilliant than Tom...

AO: They are dead?

SINGLAUB: Yes.

AO: So it is fair to say other lives were saved by this weapon?

SINGLAUB: Yeah, that is the only justification for using it.

AO: But you can't give me a number?

SINGLAUB: No, that is correct. I can give you no estimate. I don't see how anybody can.

AO: We have also been told that GB was weaponized into grenades. Do you know about this?

SINGLAUB: Not really.

AO: We have been told of at least two other operations where CBU-15 may have been used by SOG. Are you familiar with Operation Halfback in February of 1970?

SINGLAUB: No, I am not familiar.

AO: What about a recon team saved in Laos in January of '71?

SINGLAUB: No, I am not familiar.

AO: So let's turn to the defectors. One of the most interesting aspects of our last conversation was [the] murkiness you left me with over the question of POWs, whether there could have been POWs at that base camp. At least one recon guy we have talked to thought he was looking at a POW camp. And his team took pictures and when they got back after the operation was over, at least one roundeye in the photo got ID'd as a downed American pilot. Was there some controversy after this operation that some POWs may have been mixed up with defectors?

SINGLAUB: No, I don't know anything of that... I do not know of a case of defectors mixing with POWs. Most cases of defectors they were known as defectors. And as soon as they turned they were kept separately and given different assignments.

AO: Except perhaps at the Hanoi Hilton.

SINGLAUB: It is true there were a few collaborators there.

AO: So there were no POWs at that base camp?

SINGLAUB: I would say if some were defectors, all were defectors. Or at least the majority were. I have no reason to believe that an attack would be launched on a POW camp unless the primary reason was to rescue them.

AO: It was always SOG's job to hunt defectors, though?

SINGLAUB: That's right. It was not in our mission statement, though.

AO: Who kept the files on defectors? I mean, somebody had to know the exact names of who was in that base camp. We were told it was the Puzzle Palace [headquarters of the secretive National Security Agency容d.] who tracked these guys.

SINGLAUB: There was a place where the files were collected and signals recorded of all enemy communications. That would be a place outside the Pentagon.

AO: I am sorry we were told the Puzzle Palace was the NSA...

SINGLAUB: Well, the Pentagon is also sometimes called the Puzzle Palace. The NSA is correct. That information would be closely guarded and handled. Sometimes the NSA in Saigon was called Pentagon East. The NSA guarded that information very carefully, and not everyone had access. Very few had access.

AO: So there were files on each individual defector?

SINGLAUB: That's right.

AO: So the names of the ones in the Tailwind operation were known to somebody in the NSA?

SINGLAUB: Well, yeah. I do not know what category they would put them in. MIA would presume loyalty to the United States, as opposed to deserter. A guy becomes a defector as result of deserting if he works with the enemy. People who went AWOL and deserted and jumped to the enemy were listed as defectors.

AO: It was the NSA's job to track them?

SINGLAUB: It was everybody's job to track them. The NSA monitored enemy communications. It treated defectors as a special category and collected a lot of information on them.

AO: So the defectors are known to the U.S.?

SINGLAUB: Yeah, yeah, the majority of them.

AO: And they are not POWs.... Moorer made it sound as if the Tailwind defectors, in his opinion, might have had an element of coercion to their presence. He makes them sound like deserters who were sick of the war and wanted to go back home through Laos, but got picked up by the Laotian military and made captive.... So would they be POWs or defectors?

SINGLAUB: No, they are not POWs. They are in the enemy's hands by their own actions. Sure, there may be some who were subject to brainwashing and felt they could get a better deal by collaborating. But the correct term is still defector.

AO: So you understood the target of Tailwind to be defectors. And not POWs?

SINGLAUB: Defectors, yeah.

AO: Was it always a high priority for SOG to go after defectors? I mean, all the SOG recon teams are geared up to go comb the area. This was a big operation. We've been told that defectors were a top priority target for all SOG missions, for elimination.

SINGLAUB: Well, it only takes a few guys to create situations in which Americans are killed. They can set up an ambush. And the SOG guys are not going to be very sympathetic to whatever the reasons are the defectors have for working with the opposition.

AO: They hated 'em?

SINGLAUB: With good reason.

AO: And in Tailwind the objective of taking out the defectors, that problem was taken care of.

SINGLAUB: I can't answer that. That's a logical conclusion. But I was not officially associated with it.

AO: But the objective was to eliminate the defectors?

SINGLAUB: Yeah, that would be a logical mission for SOG. I would have organized and commanded the same thing.

AO: But on Tailwind the defectors were gotten, a group of them.

SINGLAUB: I do not know; I was not officially briefed.

AO: But Tailwind is a very famous mission in SOG history. I know you have a lot of personal sources. Sir, I realize you were not in command and you were not in the loop. We are not reporting that you were.

SINGLAUB: It took place after I left. After I left, Czechoslovakia was my concern. I had no need to know at the time.

AO: But we are talking about history here. I am not asking what you knew back then. I am asking what you know now.

SINGLAUB: That's classified information and I do not wish to embarrass anybody.

AO: Is there anything that you would object to in the statement about the area in Operation Tailwind being a top-priority target?

SINGLAUB: Only thing that I would object to is [the assertion] that it was a "top" priority. Our top priority was getting intelligence. The defectors were not a source of information, but they limited our ability to perform. It was not the highest priority, and it was definitely not in my mission statement.

AO: But it was part of the recon teams' mission to get intelligence on defectors?

SINGLAUB: The recon teams might just report on American soldiers. Then the info would be handed over to the Army or the DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency]. And the intelligence would be shared and analyzed.

AO: Or CIA?

SINGLAUB: Yes.

AO: Would the mission to kill defectors have to have political approval預t the White House?

SINGLAUB: The President would have to approve such a decision. It may have been delegated to his national security adviser. But general political approval would be gotten by the SACSA from State or the NSC or the President.

AO: Well, on Tailwind, with the use of both CBU-15 and the mission of killing defectors, did Kissinger know and approve of Tailwind?

SINGLAUB: [Long silence.] I do not know that I can say that. The decision would sometimes be made by the President. I can't say for sure whether Henry made that decision or not.

AO: But the White House approved it.

SINGLAUB: Yes, I can say the White House approved it. If you count the National Security Council as the White House.

AO: So the White House did approve Tailwind?

SINGLAUB: I have to assume that they did. That kind of operation would not take place from an okay in the field. Abrams could not approve it alone.

AO: So Tailwind was an operation that was approved by the White House, that Abrams oversaw, but that SOG commanded?

SINGLAUB: That is generally what I understand it to be.

AO: So who is on the top of the chain of command葉he White House?

SINGLAUB: No, that is not correct. They make the decision to do it. They are not in the chain of command the way the Secretary of Defense would be. Now, the White House might meddle

AO: So who was in the chain of command?

SINGLAUB: All military forces under [former U.S. Secretary of Defense] Melvin Laird.

AO: For Tailwind?

SINGLAUB: Yup.

AO: How "with it" is Laird today?

SINGLAUB: Oh, he is not senile; he is with it. He is very active with Reader's Digest. [Laird has served on their Board of Directors容d.]

AO: Is there anything we have missed?

SINGLAUB: I can't imagine what it could be. I have tried to be candid with you. It will be interesting to see how Arnett distorts it.

AO: But for historical accuracy here, would you be interested in helping me fact-check the script...

SINGLAUB: I do not know that would do any good. I have tried to be as honest as I can. I want to be sure you don't get sandbagged by Arnett.

AO: Just one last time, your own personal understanding of Tailwind is that it was a mission in which CBU-15, GB, was used at least twice on the village base camp and on extraction, and that the target was a group of American defectors.

SINGLAUB: You are not going to use my name on this, are you?

AO: No, sir, you are on background as a senior military official.

SINGLAUB: Yeah, that's my view.