Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Oliver Sues Source, CNN

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Oliver Sues Source, CNN

Article excerpt

Producer, fired over Vietnam story, seeks retribution

April Oliver, a former CNN producer, is suing a confidential source she used in a broadcast alleging the U.S. dropped nerve gas on American defectors during the Vietnam war.

"What do you do when a source who confirms your story requests confidentiality and then states publicly that you never contacted him," Oliver tells E&P. "I promised to go to jail to protect him. Then he sued me."

Retired Major General John Singlaub, the commander of an elite unit in Vietnam, named Oliver as a co-defendant in a defamation suit he filed against Time-Warner, the parent company of CNN.

Oliver's investigation, which aired June 7, 1998, and was entitled "Valley of Death," was the premiere episode of NewsStand: CNN & Time, a Sunday night magazine program that was a joint project of CNN and Time magazine.

The program alleged that in September 1970, U.S. forces in Laos involved in a CIA-approved mission called Operation Tailwind, dropped Sarin, a deadly nerve gas, on American defectors and Vietnamese women and children.

"I am not doing this for money," says Oliver, who was fired after her investigation was criticized by First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams.

CNN retained Abrams to conduct a post mortem probe of the program after the Pentagon, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and a coalition of veterans groups complained about the broadcast.

CNN then retracted the story, saying that Abrams found the broadcast did not support its conclusions, and CNN apologized. Time Magazine later retracted the story as well.

Oliver also is suing CNN, claiming she was made a scapegoat by network executives who approved every aspect of the original broadcast. "I was at the bottom of the food chain in this," she says.

Oliver says that Frank Cesno, the CNN bureau chief, vetted the broadcast at the urging of Tom Johnson, CEO of CNN. The program, she says, also was approved by Rick Kaplan, the CNN president, David Kohler, the network chief counsel.

"CNN uses the same code of ethics as the United States military command," says Oliver. "It says that the Pentagon will decide not only what we cover, but who does the reporting."

"I always felt that the most important thing I could do is to get the story out there," Oliver says. "This is the best way for me to do it. CNN's behavior has had a positively chilling effect on investigative reporting. They didn't retract the story because it was inaccurate, but because Abrams said it was insufficiently proven."

Oliver also is upset because she says Abrams turned over the names of her confidential sources to Kroll Associates, a division of Kroll- O'Gara, a private investigative agency.

"If I knew that Abrams was handing over all my sources to Kroll, I would have taken a black pen to them," she says. "In fact, I did not know that Kroll was involved until after I was fired."

E&P disclosed last July that Kroll used four former CIA officials and a special forces officer to analyze the CIA-sponsored mission.

"We didn't know that they used CIA officials," Oliver told E&P then. "Those officials would have a vested interest in not confirming what we found."

Abrams, however, insisted that he had been hopeful that the former CIA officials would uncover "information that might support the broadcast."

Oliver's countersuit against Singlaub will include a lengthy report that she and Jack Smith, her co-producer in the "Valley of Death" project, wrote to counter the conclusions by Abrams. …

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