In June, when CNN aired its sensational report that U.S. Special Forces had used sarin, a lethal gas, to exterminate U.S. defectors hiding in Laos in 1970, retired government officials from that era went ballistic. Colin Powell and Henry Kissinger protested. Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Perry Smith, CNN's military consultant, quit the network in anger.
But their protests were to no avail. CNN did not retract the allegations (and in fact repeated them in a Time magazine story), and the public did not hear about the protests. Until Smith decided to use the Net.
"It allowed me to do in three days what [fired CNN producer] April Oliver did in eight months," Smith told Forbes magazine in a story titled "Humbled by the Internet" in its July 27 issue and on its Web site.
Smith e-mailed a list of questions to 300 of his sources and received first-hand testimony, including some that came through a former Green Beret who had already sent out 500 e-mails on his own seeking similar information. Perry was told that some of the interviews done by CNN's team had been refuted by sources who gave views contrary to the producer's version. A retired Green Beret living in Hanoi revealed on the Special Forces' site that Vietnamese authorities could not confirm the CNN report.
Irate vets started inundating Thomas Johnson, CNN's president, with protest mail. Then, they called a press conference on June 23 to give their version. By July 2, CNN responded by repudiating its story and issuing an apology, saying that "the facts simply do not support the allegations." Two producers, including Oliver, were fired and a third resigned. (The fired producers issued a 77-page report earlier this week defending their story, and charged that CNN executives simply caved in to the pressure campaign.)
Meanwhile, online, the war was just beginning. The electronic version of the Forbes' story links to greenberet.com, which is an impressive, if somewhat frightening, site.
The dark background resembles camouflage fatigues or a range of mountains at night -- a perfect environment for specialists in covert and dangerous operations. Flashing yellow letters invite the newcomer to visit the "Operation Tailwind Information Center." Organized as a military command post, this "center" offers access to the documents, witness accounts and media reports about the sarin gas fiasco.
The dominating tone of the site is one of unsuppressed anger. Scornful adjectives fill up the screen, denouncing the Time and CNN reports. There are personal attacks on some of those involved -- "Tailwind Ted" (Turner, who, at times, appears as "Mr. Jane Fonda"), "Baghdad Pete" (Arnett) and, of course, "Hanoi Jane" (Fonda) herself, who though she had nothing to do with the piece in question, is not to be forgiven for her anti-war stands 30 years ago.
The core feature of the site is a "Body Count": 14 squares with name tags. Three of them correspond to the dismissed journalists, and 11 squares remain to be filled.
The visitor willing to sign up is then served the following "Declaration of War":
"A state of war exists between the honorable Military Veterans of the United States of America, specifically those of the Viet Nam War era; and Cable News Network (CNN), Time-Warner Inc, and all allied news and media organizations.
"Collectively it is hereby authorized and directed to employ any and all assets of aforementioned persons and organizations against CNN; and, to bring the conflict to a successful termination; and HONOR back to those who served so selflessly."
An electronic fatwah.
Digging deeper allows the volunteer to receive all kinds of instructions in a decisively military fashion with "objectives," "executions" and "mission to be carried out in textbook Special Forces fashion." Those wishing to choose a fighting "unit" and get actively engaged in the battle, however, need a password to proceed.
The grass-roots veterans' campaign against CNN is one of the largest and most successful to date in which citizens angered by a powerful institution have used the Internet to organize their response. Given the damage already inflicted upon CNN, it is sending a clear message: Traditional organizations of all kinds (governments, corporations, media, etc.) are newly vulnerable in the age of the Net. Whether these grass-roots efforts are good or bad, humanitarian or murderous, well-meaning or threatening, they have unprecedented power in the global networked environment that we now all share.