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Oliver sues CNN, source in Tailwind mess

Sarin nerve gas fiasco spawned defamation suit

April Oliver, one of the CNN producers fired after the news cabler retracted its “Valley of Death” Operation Tailwind report last summer, filed suit against her former employer on Friday.

Oliver also filed a countersuit against retired U.S. Army Gen. John Singlaub, alleging the formerly confidential source in last year’s Tailwind story defamed her.

Last fall, Singlaub filed a defamation suit against both CNN and Oliver, alleging that Oliver revealed Singlaub’s identity as an anonymous source on CNN’s Tailwind piece.

The June 7 CNN report stated that the U.S. military used sarin nerve gas on its defectors in Laos during the Vietnam War.

Oliver’s countersuit against Singlaub argues that the former CNN producer only revealed his identity as a source after Singlaub publicly denied that he had confirmed the Tailwind story for Oliver.

The Tailwind imbroglio was CNN’s most embarrassing moment.

After the Pentagon complained that report was false, CNN hired First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams to investigate the story. Abrams’ report concluded that there had not been enough evidence for CNN to go with the story.

CNN chairman Tom Johnson then retracted the Tailwind report and fired producers Oliver and Jack Smith.

CNN founder Ted Turner said he was more disturbed by the Tailwind debacle than anything in his life. Turner, vice chairman of Time Warner, speaking about himself and all CNN employees, added, “If committing mass suicide would help, we’d do it.”

In addition to the firings of Oliver and Smith, Pamela Hill, the senior executive producer of “NewsStand — CNN/Time” — the program on which the Tailwind story ran — resigned after Abrams’ investigation.

Reporter Peter Arnett was reprimanded by CNN brass over his involvement in the Tailwind story and recently ankled the network.

Oliver filed her suits in Washington, D.C. Superior Court. The former CNN producer said that her countersuit against Singlaub could have an impact on the overall relationship between journalists and their sources.

“Sources cannot confirm a story in private, then deny the story and sue the journalist,” Oliver told Daily Variety. “This is unacceptable to all journalists.”

As far as her wrongful-dismissal lawsuit against CNN, Oliver said her motivations were to defend her professional reputation and to get the facts out about the Tailwind story.

“The first motive here is defensive,” said Oliver. “I’ve been fired and sued. I had a spotless reputation before this. Since (being fired by CNN), I’ve had trouble getting work.”

Oliver still staunchly defends the accuracy of the Operation Tailwind story. “I think I turned up one of the great secrets of the Cold War,” she said. “But I’ve paid a very high price for it, because my company did not have the guts to stand behind me.”

A CNN spokesperson said the Time Warner-owned web does not comment on pending litigation.

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said that while most major news organizations investigated Tailwind after CNN and concluded the nerve gas attack did not occur, Oliver’s steadfastness to the story is significant.

“Oliver has a very good record, and she is unflinching in her assertion that the story is for real,” Rosenstiel said. “I don’t think we can take that lightly. The press should keep looking at this.”

Rosenstiel said he did not know if Oliver’s countersuit against Singlaub had merit, however, though he said the issue of the relationship between journalists and sources was in need of reassessment.

“We are in an environment when sources are becoming more aggressive and trying to manipulate their statements after the fact,” Rosenstiel said. “This is new, confusing and potentially worrisome.”