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Peter Arnett
Born Peter Gregg Arnett
13 November 1934(1934-11-13) (age 88)
Riverton, New Zealand
Occupation Journalist, Anchorman
Notable credit(s) Awarded the 1966 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for his work in Vietnam
Spouse(s) Nina Nguyen (separated 1983)
Children Elsa, Andrew

Peter Gregg Arnett, ONZM (born 13 November 1934, Riverton, New Zealand) is a New Zealand journalist.

Arnett worked for National Geographic magazine, and later for various television networks, most notably CNN. He is well known for his coverage of war, including the Vietnam War and the Gulf War. He was awarded the 1966 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for his work in Vietnam, where he was present from 1962 to 1975, most of the time reporting for the Associated Press news agency. In 1994, Arnett wrote Live from the Battlefield: From Vietnam to Baghdad, 35 Years in the World's War Zones. In March 1997, Arnett was able to interview Osama bin Laden.[1] The Journalism School at the Southern Institute of Technology is named after him.


Some of Arnett's early days in journalism were in Southeast Asia, particularly Bangkok. He started out running a small English-language newspaper in Laos in 1960.[2] Eventually, he made his way to Vietnam where he was a reporter for the Associated Press. He worked with other AP staff in their Saigon office writing a number of important articles, such as "Death of Supply Column 21", which attracted the ire of the American government.[2] In July 1963, he was punched in the nose by South Vietnamese undercover police while covering Buddhist protests.

He went on dozens of missions with troops, including during the traumatic battle of Hill 875, in which a detachment went to try to rescue another unit of soldiers that was stranded in hostile territory. They themselves were nearly killed during the rescue. In September 1972 he accompanied a group of U.S. peace activists, including William Sloane Coffin and David Dellinger, to Hanoi, North Vietnam to bring three prisoners of war back to the United States.

Arnett got into trouble for writing in an unvarnished manner when trying to report the stories of ordinary soldiers and civilians. Arnett's writing often was perceived as negative. General William Westmoreland and president Lyndon B. Johnson and other people in power had battles with the AP over trying to get Arnett removed from his assignment.

Arnett's most famous act of reporting from the Vietnam War was a story published on 7 February 1968, about the provincial capital Bến Tre: "'It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,' a United States major said today. He was talking about the decision by allied commanders to bomb and shell the town regardless of civilian casualties, to rout the Vietcong."[3] The quotation was distorted in subsequent publications, eventually becoming the more familiar, "We had to destroy the village in order to save it."[4] The accuracy of the original quotation and its source have often been called into question. Arnett never revealed his source, except to say that it was one of four officers he interviewed that day.[4] US Army Major Phil Cannella, the senior officer present at Bến Tre, suggested that the quotation might have been a distortion of something he said to Arnett.[4] The New Republic at the time attributed the quotation to US Air Force Major Chester L. Brown.[5] In Walter Cronkite's 1971 book, Eye on the World, Arnett reasserted that the quotation was something "one American major said to me in a moment of revelation."[6]

Arnett was one of the last western reporters in Saigon after its capture by the North Vietnamese Army, and met with NVA soldiers who showed him how they had entered the city.

Arnett was the writer of a 1980 mini-series documentary - Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War.

Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan

Following the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, Arnett was working for Parade and with a contact named Healy entered Afghanistan illegally from Pakistan, both dressed as natives and led by Mujahideen guides. They continued on to a Jalalabad hideaway of approximately fifty rebels. The trip came to an end when Healy fell into the Kunar River, ruining the pair's cameras. Later, Arnett would recount the story to Artyom Borovik who was covering the Soviet side of the war.[7]

The Gulf War

Arnett worked for CNN for 18 years ending in 1999. During the Gulf War he became a household name worldwide when he became the only reporter with live coverage directly from Baghdad. His dramatic reports were often given with air raid sirens blaring and the sound of US bombs exploding on Baghdad in the background. Together with two other CNN journalists, Bernard Shaw and John Holliman, Arnett brought continuous coverage from Baghdad for the 16 initial intense hours of the war (17 January 1991). Although 40 foreign journalists were present at the Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad at the time, only CNN possessed the means to communicate to the outside world. Soon the other journalists left Iraq, including the two CNN colleagues, which left Arnett as the sole reporter remaining there.

His reports on civilian damage caused by the bombing were not received well by the coalition war administration, who by their constant use of terms like "smart bombs" and "surgical precision" had tried to project an image that civilian casualties would be at a minimum. White House sources would later state that Arnett was being used as a tool for Iraqi disinformation and CNN received a letter from 34 Members of the United States Congress accusing Arnett of "unpatriotic journalism".

Two weeks into the war, Arnett was able to obtain an uncensored interview with Saddam Hussein.[8] The Gulf War became the first war to be seen truly live on TV, and Arnett was in many ways the sole player reporting from the "other side" for a period of five weeks.

About halfway through the war the CIA approached Mr. Arnett. They believed that the Iraqi military was operating a high-level communication network from the basement of the Al Rashid Hotel, which is where Mr. Arnett and a few others from CNN were staying. The CIA wanted him out so the Air Force could bomb the hotel, but Mr. Arnett refused. He said he had been given a tour of the hotel and denied there was such a facility.[9]

Baby milk factory controversy

One of Arnett's most controversial reports during the Gulf War was a report on how the coalition had bombed a baby milk factory. Shortly after the report, an Air Force spokesman stated "Numerous sources have indicated that [the factory] is associated with biological warfare production". Later the same day, Colin Powell stated "It was a biological weapons facility, of that we are sure". White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater stated "That factory is, in fact, a production facility for biological weapons" and "The Iraqis have hidden this facility behind a façade of baby-milk production as a form of disinformation."

The image of a crudely made hand-painted sign reading "Baby Milk" in English and Arabic in front of the factory, and a lab coat dressed in a suit containing stitched lettering reading "BABY MILK PLANT IRAQ" only served to further the perception that purportedly civilian targets were simply being made to look like that by Saddam Hussein, and that Arnett was duped by the Iraqi government. The sign appeared to have been added by the Iraqis before the camera crews arrived as a cheap publicity ploy. Newsweek called the incident a "ham-handed attempt to depict a bombed-out biological-weapons plant near Baghdad as a baby-formula factory."

Arnett remained firm. He had toured the plant in the previous August, and was insistent that "Whatever else it did, it did produce infant formula". Described as being a veritable fortress by the Pentagon[citation needed], the plant, Arnett reported, had only one guard at the gate and a lot of powdered baby milk. "That's as much as I could tell you about it ... [I]t looked innocent enough from what we could see." A CNN camera crew had been invited to tour this plant in August 1990. They videotaped workers wearing new uniforms with lettering in English reading, "Iraq Baby Milk Plant".

Interviewed later, Michel Wery, the plant's French contractor who helped build it, gave an interview in which he stated that the plant was producing solely baby milk when it started up in 1979, and was not equipped to breed pathogens. The plant closed in 1980, he said, when the last French technicians working for his company left Baghdad.[citation needed] Wery said he had heard that production had restarted after the United Nations embargo put in place in the fall of 1991, but he doubted whether that was possible after a 10-year lull. Two dairy technicians had been in the plant at least four times since to make repairs; one stated that, during a visit in May 1990, it was all normal dairy equipment and that the plant was actually canning milk powder. The suspicious uniform stitching was actually part of the original uniforms supplied by the French, and in fact the footage showing the uniforms was shot in August 1990.[citation needed] Part of the problem in reconciling the various U.S. and foreign accounts is that administration officials said they were constrained by security considerations from revealing exactly how they knew about the plant. At the same time, the New Zealand technicians and the French builder were not at the plant after May and cannot be certain of what happened after their departure.[citation needed]

White House reports diverged at this time. One official claimed that the plant was converted in 1990. Another claimed that it was a "backup" bioweapons facility, which had not yet been converted. A third said that it was not a bioweapons facility, but that it was used to make items crucial to bioweapons research; all three claimed insider information. In a confidential memo from December 1992, a State Department employee discussed the issue of the plant and reported that there were no hidden chambers or inappropriate machinery, and that it appeared to be a perfectly normal factory for producing powdered milk.[citation needed]

The Iraqi baby milk factory, camouflaged on the right[citation needed]

The plant had undergone security modifications since May 1990[citation needed]. Amongst these were camouflage paint on all the buildings in the complex, a security fence, and the positioning of two SA-2 Surface-to-air missile batteries[citation needed]. In addition, the Iraqis had claimed that they were getting powdered milk for the plant from Nestlé, but Nestlé said that was false. They said they had supplied no products to this plant[citation needed].

Colin Powell gave the president a briefing a week before the plant was bombed. Powell told President Bush that intelligence based from agents inside Iraq stated that the Iraqis had altered the plant into a biological weapons plant.

The Iraq Survey Group visited the facility in May 2004 and found that it was inoperable and had been out of operation for some time prior to the invasion. The plant was searched extensively and no evidence was found of WMD production, although the production facilities and factory floor were littered with remnants of baby milk production, including large piles of powdered baby milk that had congealed into solid masses.

Operation Tailwind

In 1998 Arnett narrated a joint venture between CNN and Time magazine, NewsStand, which described what he called "Operation Tailwind".

The report, titled The Valley of Death, claimed that the United States Army had used Sarin against a group of deserting U.S. soldiers in Laos in 1970. The men allegedly involved were an elite Green Beret A-Team. The report was expressly approved by both CNN Chairman Tom Johnson and CNN President Rick Kaplan. In response, The Pentagon commissioned another report contradicting CNN's. CNN subsequently conducted its own investigation which concluded that the "journalism [in the Valley of Death] was flawed" and retracted the story. In the event, all 12 men of the Green Beret A-Team were wounded in action during Operation Tailwind, which had absolutely nothing to do with sarin.

Three or more of the individuals responsible were fired or forced to resign, for the US Government had insisted that the report was flawed.[10] Arnett was reprimanded.[11]

The co-producers of the report, April Oliver and Jack Smith, were dismissed. They sued Time Warner, the parent company of CNN, claiming they had been wrongfully fired and Time Warner ultimately paid millions of dollars to settle their lawsuits, along with other suits brought by military personnel who claimed to have been libeled in the Oliver/Smith report. Senior producer Pam Hill and others resigned. Oliver was later quoted by the World Socialist Web Site (International Committee of the Fourth International) as saying that:

His [Arnett's] firing was a direct result of Pentagon pressure. Perry Smith [a retired USAF major general and former CNN consultant who resigned in protest over the Tailwind report] told the Wall Street Journal last July that CNN would not get cooperation from the Pentagon unless Peter Arnett was fired. [...] They will do anything to stem the flow of information.
— April Oliver[11]

Interview in Iraq

On assignment for NBC and National Geographic, Arnett went to Iraq in 2003 to cover the U.S. invasion. After a press meeting there he granted an interview to state-run Iraq TV on 31 March 2003, in which he stated:

Now America is reappraising the battlefield, delaying the war against Iraq, maybe a week and rewriting the war plan. The first plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance. Now they are trying to write another plan… So our reports about civilian casualties here, about the resistance of the Iraqi forces, are going back to the United States. It helps those who oppose the war when you challenge the policy to develop their arguments.
— Peter Arnett[12]

When Arnett's remarks sparked a "firestorm of protest", NBC initially defended him, saying he had given the interview as a professional courtesy and that his remarks were "analytical in nature". A day later, though, NBC, MSNBC and National Geographic all severed their relationships with Arnett.[13]

In response to Arnett's statement on Iraqi TV, the corporation stated:

It was wrong for Mr. Arnett to grant an interview with state-controlled Iraqi TV, especially at a time of war and it was wrong for him to discuss his personal observations and opinions.

Arnett responded:

My stupid misjudgment was to spend fifteen minutes in an impromptu interview with Iraqi television. I said in that interview essentially what we all know about the war, that there have been delays in implementing policy, there have been surprises.
— Peter Arnett

Later that day, Arnett was hired by the British tabloid, The Daily Mirror, which had opposed the war. A couple of days later he was also assigned to Greek television channel NET television, and Belgian VTM.

Academic career

He retired as a field reporter in 2007. He now lives in Los Angeles and teaches journalism at Shantou University in China. The Peter Arnett School of Journalism was named for him at the Southern Institute of Technology in New Zealand.[14][15]

Personal life

In 1964 Arnett married a Vietnamese woman, Nina Nguyen; they had two children, Elsa and Andrew. In 1983 Nina and Peter separated. They divorced more than 20 years later.

Elsa Arnett attended Stuyvesant High School in New York and Harvard University. After graduating she went into journalism, became a reporter, worked for several months on The Washington Post as an intern and then joined The Boston Globe.[16] Elsa Arnett is married to a former White House lawyer John Yoo.[17]

In popular culture

Peter Arnett appeared in Robert Wiener’s book Live from Baghdad. He appeared as a character in the 2002 HBO film of the same name where he was portrayed by actor Bruce McGill.

The book as well as the film features Arnett’s works as part of Wiener’s crew in Baghdad that he joined after tensions between Iraq and the West heightened toward an imminent military encounter. CNN sent Arnett to Baghdad because of his experiences in covering military conflicts. Arnett was part of the epic live coverage of 17 January Baghdad air strike where he along with colleagues Bernard Shaw and John Holliman bravely kept broadcasting from their Al-Rasheed Hotel room amid extensive aerial bombing by the Western Coalition forces near and around.

See also

  • CNN controversies


  1. Arnett, Peter (5 December 2001 Posted: 2:50 PM EST (1950 GMT)). "Peter Arnett: Osama bin Laden and returning to Afghanistan". CNN News. Retrieved 2007-09-12. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Halberstam, David (2006 Issue 6: November/December). "The Death of Supply Column 21". Columbia Journalism Review at Columbia University. Retrieved 2007-09-12. 
  3. "Major Describes Move". New York Times. 8 February 1968. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Keyes, Ralph (2006). The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When. St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN 978-0-312-34004-9. 
  5. Braestrup, Peter, Big story: how the American press and television reported and interpreted the crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington, Volume 1 Freedom House (U.S.) (Westview Press, 1977) via Google Books.
  6. Cronkite, Walter (1971). Eye on the World. Cowles Book Company. 
  7. Borovik, Artyom, The Hidden War, 1990. International Relations Publishing House, USSR
  8. Arnett, Peter (16 January 2001 11 a.m. EST). "Peter Arnett: A look back at Operation Desert Storm". CNN News. Retrieved 2007-09-12. 
  9. Rosenkranz, Keith, Vipers in the Storm (McGraw Hill), page 299
  11. 11.0 11.1 Grey, Barry (22 April 1999). "Fired CNN journalist on dismissal of Arnett: "They will do anything to stem the flow of information"". pub. Retrieved 2007-09-12. 
  12. "Transcript of Peter Arnett interview on Iraqi TV". CNN News. 31 March 2003 Posted: 0306 GMT. Retrieved 2007-09-12. 
  13. "National Geographic Fires Peter Arnett". National Geographic News. 31 March 2003. Retrieved 2007-09-12. 
  14. Richard Horgan ( July 13, 2012 ), Peter Arnett Talks About His Chinese Journalism Students, July 13, 2012,
  15. Lara Farrar (June 10, 2012), Treading a Fine Line by Teaching Journalism in China, New York Times
  16. Arnett, Peter (20 February 1994). "Live from the Battlefield: From Vietnam to Baghdad, 35 years in the World's War Zones". Booknotes. Retrieved 2007-09-12. "Elsa Arnett is my daughter. She's 25 years of age, born in Saigon. My wife was a Vietnamese woman. We separated a few years ago, but we're still in touch. Elsa, a bright young lady, and she went to Stuyvesant High School in New York, as an accomplished student, went on to Harvard University. I never had a university education. Well, Elsa compensated for that by going to Harvard University and graduating with high honors and, lo and behold, went into journalism, became a reporter, worked for several months on The Washington Post as an intern and then joined The Boston Globe; spent a couple of years there and, thank goodness, agreed to help me get this book done." 
  17. "Defending John Yoo", TribLIVE (Pittsburgh), 15 March 2009. "Dateline D.C. is written by a Washington-based British journalist and political observer."

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