Operation Tailwind: The Fascinating Real Events Behind ‘The Newsroom’s’ Operation Genoa

Everyone that watches Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom already knows that the series covers actual events in the news a year and a half later (and yes, Internet, every single one of your, “I can’t wait until Sorkin covers —— on The Newsroom next season” jokes are hilarious!). This year, however, Aaron Sorkin introduced a season-long arc, “Operation Genoa,” that’s meant to be a fictional storyline coursing through the season. However, the story itself is not completely original; in fact, it’s based on a very real mission that created a huge controversy for CNN in 1998 called “Operation Tailwind.” The facts of each case are actually fairly similar. Sorkin is not trying to hide this fact; he actually spoke about it on The Daily Show a couple of weeks back, but if you missed it, I thought the real controversy behind this season was fascinating.

As we learned from this week’s episode, “Operation Genoa,” the tip that Cyrus West gave Jerry Dantana was news that the Americans used sarin (nerve) gas on civilians during an extraction. In fact, one of the Special Forces members behind the gassing provided the information. If true, what the Special Forces soldier is alleging would be a war crime.

Operation Tailwind, meanwhile, concerned a mission undertaken in 1970 during the Vietnam War to send Special Forces into Laos basically to create a diversion so that the army in Laos could launch an offensive against the North Vietnamese army. The mission was a success; 54 members of the North Vietnamese army were killed and American special forces found a bunker containing a huge cachet of intelligence. However, as part of the extraction effort, some kind of chemical agent was used by either the Americans or the Vietnamese. Who and what kind of chemical agent remains in dispute. Most witnesses claimed it was tear gas, although some claimed it was sarin gas.

The controversy didn’t arrive until nearly 30 years later when, during a CNN documentary about Operation Tailwind, the network claimed that the operation had actually been devised to attack a group of Americans who had defected to Laos and that sarin gas has been used on them. In fact, CNN had a good source: Admiral Thomas Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time of Tailwind. However, after the report, Moorer claimed that he’d “never confirmed anything” and he also claimed that he’d been duped by “trick questions.” A platoon leader, who was part of the operation, also provided evidence to support the claim. However, both sources would eventually be discredited by a Pentagon investigation which concluded that the platoon leader couldn’t have possibly forgotten an episode for 24 years and only just remembered it, and that Admiral Moorer — who was 86 at the time — wasn’t a reliable source because he was old and lived under medical assistance. So, basically, they were discredited for lawyer reasons.

At any rate, true or not, CNN conducted its own internal investigation and concluded that the report was “flawed” and issued apologies and retractions. The two producers behind the story stood by it, and after they were fired, brought wrongful termination lawsuits against CNN. One of the producers would settle for $1 million, while the other would eventually settle for an undisclosed amount. The CNN executives behind their firing would not last long with the network, either.

So, if Sorkin is basing his story closely on Operation Tailwind, we can expect that the multi-million dollar wrongful termination suit being brought against The Newsroom is being brought by Jerry Dantana, who brought the tip to the news network in the first place. Ergo, Dantana is this season’s villain!