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Hidden Truth

April 2, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

TERENCE SMITH: When the Pulitzer Prizes for journalism are announced next Monday at Columbia University, one of the finalists in the investigative reporting category will be a 36-year-old story, published just last fall.

Over four days in October, The Toledo Blade in Ohio published a series entitled “Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths.” It detailed atrocities allegedly committed in the central highlands of Vietnam in 1967 by Tiger Force, a reconnaissance unit of the 101st Airborne — Americans soldiers all.

TERENCE SMITH: Reporters Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss investigated the allegations against this unit, which they say was created initially to “out guerrilla the guerrillas.”

MICHAEL SALLAH: They started venting their frustrations on civilians: men, women and children. They would throw grenades into underground bunkers, creating mass underground graves. They would open fire on elderly farmers, unarmed, of no threat to the soldiers at the time. They would go on so far as a baby was beheaded for its Buddha Band. They would cut off the ears of their dead prey and then they would wear them as necklaces.

MICHAEL SALLAH, reading from transcript: “I thought I was doing my job when I did it…”

TERENCE SMITH: The alleged crimes, never before reported, occurred over seven months in 1967.

Sallah and Weiss spent roughly the same amount of time last year burrowing through a trove of documents, uncovering the hidden truths behind what appears to be the longest series of atrocities committed by an American unit in the Vietnam War.

MICHAEL SALLAH: Most of these incidences could be classified as war crimes.

MICHAEL SALLAH: Unlawful killing of Vietnamese nationals.

TERENCE SMITH: And these are classified documents?

MICHAEL SALLAH: These are classified documents.

TERENCE SMITH: Much of the documentation came from a former military prosecutor, who turned over his files to a member of the Blade’s Washington Bureau.

Among his files were records from a four-year investigation conducted by the Army from 1971 to 1975. The inquiry, the longest war crimes investigation of the Vietnam era, produced accusations against 18 soldiers, but no prosecutions. Sallah and Weiss uncovered more evidence through Freedom of Information requests and from the National Archives.

Then they traveled to Vietnam to interview witnesses in Quang Ngai Province, the Tiger Force’s hunting ground. They also spoke to veterans of the force and reported their attitudes nearly four decades later.

MICHAEL SALLAH: Some surprisingly expressed remorse. They really had clearly bad feelings about what happened, what they did, and how they’ve lived with this ever since.

MITCH WEISS: If these were fog of war killings, you could give them the benefit of a doubt, but with this particular unit, especially towards the end of the seven months, it was, “There’s a village, there are people. Let’s line them up and kill them.” And that’s exactly what they were doing.

TERENCE SMITH: Any idea how many people were killed?

MICHAEL SALLAH: Terry, I don’t know if we’ll ever really know how many. We believe that there were several hundreds. We feel fairly strong that it’s in the hundreds.

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR: If the allegations are true, they are war crimes. They should have been investigated.

TERENCE SMITH: Retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor served two tours in Vietnam. He was also a military correspondent for The New York Times and is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

TERENCE SMITH: Any idea why such an investigation, which allegedly produced accusations against 18 members of this unit, would not have been pursued in 1975?

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR: I have no idea. I mean, there was a moral and a legal obligation to pursue this to its conclusion.

TERENCE SMITH: If that was the obligation then, what is the obligation now?

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR: It remains exactly the same. Time has nothing to do with it.

TERENCE SMITH: Ten days after the publication of the series, the Pentagon announced that it would conduct a review of the old investigation, but would not formally reopen it.

The review is ongoing.

TERENCE SMITH: But the decision when or even whether to publish the series and its explosive findings was not an easy one. Kurt Franck, the paper’s managing editor, says another war, in Iraq, weighed on their minds.

KURT FRANCK: Here we are bringing up, dredging up a war that no one was in favor of, that took place in the ’60s and ’70s, at a time when the United States was at war with Iraq. Well, we knew we would be criticized but we could not sit on it. If we sat on this story, we’d be party of a cover-up as well.

TERENCE SMITH: When the Tiger Force series hit the street, it evoked powerful reactions from readers, especially from Vietnam veterans.

But perhaps because it was published here, in the 150,000-daily-circulation Toledo Blade, it got little immediate attention from many of the nation’s large news organizations. An Associated Press story detailing the Blade’s account ran the day after the first installment of the series in a handful of papers. Among them: The Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Miami Herald and the Blade’s sister paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

No further reporting of the story was done in those accounts.

One paper, arguably the most important in the country, did not run the AP story: The New York Times.

DAN OKRENT: They didn’t run it when they learned about it.

TERENCE SMITH: Dan Okrent is the Times’ public editor. He criticized the paper in his twice-monthly column for its reluctance to cover the story when it broke. Okrent stresses that he speaks only for himself and that his opinions do not reflect those of the Times’ management.

DAN OKRENT: I think the predominant reason was this wasn’t something the Times had developed on their own. And there’s an instinctive “not invented here” feeling that I think exists throughout the news media. We want to put our name on it.

TERENCE SMITH: Who suffers from this?

DAN OKRENT: Readers. Readers. You have, you know, a certain sort of competitive feeling and sometimes combative feeling toward the competition.

That’s not a bad thing except, I believe, when it interferes with what your primary obligation is, which is to inform your readers no matter where the story comes from.

TERENCE SMITH: Both Okrent and the Blade staff credit Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker with putting the story on the map.

Hersh, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for his reporting on the 1968 massacre at Mai Lai, blasted the Times, among others, for ignoring the story. Mitch Weiss:

MITCH WEISS: If it wasn’t for Seymour Hersh’s article, it would have been completely ignored and would have faded off the radar. It would have been The New York Times or the Washington Post. It would have been splashed across front pages all over the country. You would have had ABC, NBC, CBS…

TERENCE SMITH: ABC News did pick up the story for an edition of Nightline and for two shorter stories on World News Tonight. NBC and CBS News have not aired anything on the Tiger Force, nor has the NewsHour.

Dan Okrent says the Times ordered up a story after the New Yorker piece ran. The Times’ top editor, Bill Keller, who declined to speak to the NewsHour, told Okrent that if the Times had developed the story, he’d have put it on the front page.

DAN OKRENT: By the time you do something after the fact, there’s something in the newsman’s code that says, “Well, we can’t just say this is what they said; we have to add something to it.”

TERENCE SMITH: Times reporter John Kifner was assigned to do the adding. In a December 28th story he confirmed the Blade’s account but quoted experts who said that Tiger Force’s atrocities, while horrific, were not unique. That didn’t sit well at the Blade.

MITCH WEISS: Well, the reality is that Vietnam was not one big atrocity. We’re talking about specifics, specific instances of atrocities. And then by The New York Times, you know, saying, “well, Vietnam was one big atrocity,” it diminished, I think, the work and diminished the importance of the work.

TERENCE SMITH: A judgment about that work will be made by the Pulitzer Prize committee next week.