George Crile, producer of the controversy-ridden 1982 documentary "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception," was suspended by CBS "from editorial responsibility" for an indefinite period yesterday.
CBS News said it had learned that during production of the program Crile taped telephone conversations with former defense secretary Robert S. McNamara and others without their knowledge.
In a statement, CBS also issued an apology to those who were taped and said that all had been provided with written transcripts of the taped interviews. "While the appropriateness of such taping is debated within the journalistic community," the statement said, "it is forbidden by CBS News policy unless specificially authorized by the president of CBS News or his designee.
"In these instances, such authorization was neither sought nor given."
The tapes had been sought during pretrial proceedings by Dan M. Burt, attorney for Gen. William C. Westmoreland, who is suing CBS News for $120 million over the program. Westmoreland claims the documentary, which linked him to a "conspiracy" to underestimate enemy troop strength during the Vietnam war, libeled him.
Crile, reached at his New York office yesterday, said, "I'm too stunned right now to know really what to think."
He said he was unaware that taping phone conversations without notification to those interviewed was a violation of CBS News policy, knew that such taping was not illegal under New York law, and said he considered it the equivalent of taking notes. The conversations were not used, and never were meant to be used, in the documentary, Crile said, but only as off-the-record background on the subject.
Sources said that in addition to McNamara, those interviewed on the two audio tapes--which Crile turned over to CBS attorneys on Monday--are all men who held official positions during the Johnson administration: former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Arthur Goldberg, former undersecretary of state George W. Ball, former Army chief of staff Gen. Matthew Ridgeway, and Maj. Gen. Winant Sidle, formerly Westmoreland's information chief. CBS News did not disclose the names in its statement.
Burt said late yesterday he was "shocked" to learn of the existence of the tapes, particularly since CBS had earlier notified him that the tapes had been lost or erased. "I just wish that none of this was happening," Burt said. "It's a terrible story. I'm not pleased. It obviously does not reflect well on the network, on the media. This is not something you want to take any joy about."
CBS News insiders yesterday said they shared Crile's bafflement over the timing of what CBS News termed a "disciplinary action," since CBS News executives reportedly feel confident that their defense against Westmoreland grows stronger with each deposition taken (the case is not expected to come to trial until 1984). It was speculated that the decision to discipline Crile at this time had come from the top--CBS Chairman Thomas Wyman, who reportedly advocated firing Crile outright from the earliest stirrings of controversy over the broadcast, and former chairman William S. Paley, still a director, consultant and major shareholder of CBS.
Paley became enraged when he learned of the tapings, one highly placed CBS source said yesterday, and another commented, "This has always been something Black Rock has been muscling into." Black Rock is the nickname for CBS corporate headquarters on Sixth Avenue in New York; CBS News is housed in separate buildings on West 57th Street.
CBS News president Van Gordon Sauter could not be reached for comment. Gene Mater, CBS News senior vice president, said "I honestly don't know" if Paley and Wyman were involved in the decision to discipline Crile. He said neither was present at the late-afternoon meeting yesterday at which the statement was composed.
Mater also said that to the best of his knowledge, none of those whom Crile interviewed and taped by telephone has complained directly to CBS about the matter, though McNamara was quoted in press accounts as calling the taping "unethical."
Crile has nearly completed work on a documentary about Nicaragua, "The Battle for Nicaragua," and CBS had announced that the program would air in August. Mater said yesterday the documentary will be shelved for an indefinite period and work on it suspended. He said Crile will remain on the CBS payroll and will devote himself "full time" to the Westmoreland lawsuit. Crile was scheduled to leave for Honduras today for further reporting on the documentary, but has canceled the trip.
It originally was believed that the tapes containing the telephone conversations had been lost. But Crile found them in his home over the weekend, according to sources. Charges by Burt that Crile had been secretly "wired" for taping during an in-person conversation with McNamara were earlier dismissed by CBS attorneys as "outrageous."
In its statement, CBS asks that Westmoreland and his counsel, who sought access to the tapes, not make the contents public without obtaining the permission of those taped. The statement also says CBS is "vigorously contesting" the Westmoreland suit and expects to win. Burt said, "We've still seen just the tip of the iceberg. The material that will unfold in court will, I think, astonish the American people."