Fired Producers Slam CNN

Two producers of a report alleging the U.S. military used nerve gas charged Wednesday that the investigation that led CNN to retract that story was itself biased. They said it was designed to protect the network's top management.

Jack Smith and April Oliver lashed out at their accusers in a 77-page report, saying they had to respond because they had been slurred journalistically.

Both were fired by CNN earlier this month following a probe by First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, who concluded their allegations couldn't be proven and that they overlooked contradictory evidence because of their strong belief in the story.

The Pentagon, issuing its own report Tuesday, said it could find no evidence that U.S. troops used deadly sarin gas during a 1970 operation in Laos designed to hunt down American defectors.

The two producers said that CNN's top executives, Tom Johnson and Rick Kaplan, said in a meeting that they were concerned about pressure from Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell about the story and the threat of a cable boycott by veterans groups.

They said Abrams' report was biased against them because it was co-written by David Kohler, CNN counsel. The report "suggests that it is designed to absolve CNN management, including Mr. Kohler, of any responsibility," they said.

CNN executives have privately disputed any allegations of bias, saying it would have been less embarrassing for the organization if the Operation Tailwind report had been proven true.

The producers, who stand by their story, say they are being held to a higher standard than most reporters.

"Much of CNN's post-retraction coverage has concentrated on the assertion that the broadcast did not have 'proof'," they said. "Since when is this the journalistic standard? Even in a criminal court of law, the standard is not absolute proof, but proof beyond a reasonable doubt."

Smith and Oliver disputed the notion that they ignored contradictory evidence, saying Abrams' report did the same thing in its haste to condemn them. The claim that they made errors because they believed too strongly in the story is "a personal attack on our journalistic credibility," they said.

The producers said 86-year-old retired Adm. Thomas Moorer, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff at the time of the operation, had read and approved their script before they went on the air. Moorer has publicly disclaimed the report.

They also said they didn't believe a claim that one of their sources had claimed he was suffering from repressed memory of the event.

Kissinger was among the former and present officials who refused to be interviewed for the story, they said. They also said former Secretary of State Alexander Haig told them they would never get anyone in Washington to tell them if there had been any mission with poison gas.

"We invited him to say that on camera and he responded, 'Hell, no',"> the producers said.

Written by David Bauder