Charging that retired Army Gen. William C. Westmoreland was "rattlesnaked" or "ambushed" by CBS News interviewer Mike Wallace, the general's lawyer, Dan M. Burt, today accused the network of splicing film, misidentifying people and distorting interviews to turn its 1982 Vietnam documentary into a "powerful work of fiction."
CBS lawyer David Boies, defending the broadcast that charged a "conspiracy" by top U.S. military leaders to mislead the public and President Lyndon B. Johnson during a crucial period of the war, told jurors that he expects them to conclude, "like CBS concluded, that the broadcast is true, well-documented and well-supported."
The statements came in U.S. District Court during opening arguments in Westmoreland's $120 million libel action against CBS.
The two lawyers turned the arguments into what Boies called "a light show" and Burt described as a "Star Wars production."
With seven television sets dominating the room and banks of equipment to orchestrate film segments each wanted to show the jury, the two lawyers began looking at whether Westmoreland misled his superiors, including Johnson, about enemy troop strength in Vietnam a few months before the crucial Tet offensive in January 1968.
Burt charged that Wallace and CBS carefully crafted an interview with Westmoreland so that they were vastly more prepared than the general to discuss in detail analyses of troop strength in the period before the Tet holiday.
"You are going to see an ambushed, angry and frustrated 68-year-old man, forced back on a 14-year-old memory," Burt told the jury.
He said that, in the interview, Westmoreland faced a confident Wallace, backed by consultants and other assistants who had "prepared for this for months."
"You will see how, in his own words, he was 'rattlesnaked,' " Burt said of the former head of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV).
Using film not aired by CBS, Burt began by showing Walt W. Rostow, Johnson's special assistant and a National Security Council member, telling Wallace that the correspondent was "wrong" in suggesting that the president was unaware of enemy troop levels in South Vietnam.
In one segment, Rostow seemed to be scolding Wallace, warning him that he should be careful about making such a charge "because you're going to do great damage to the country."
CBS lawyers contended Rostow was unaware that Westmoreland had refused to pass to his superiors a report from his Vietnam intelligence chief, Army Gen. Joseph McChristian, adding 200,000 troops to the Army's analysis of enemy strength.
The documentary suggested that, because of a "conspiracy" by Westmoreland and perhaps others to suppress information on enemy strength, the American people were surprised that the Vietnamese communists could wage the Tet offensive, a simultaneous surprise attack on almost every town and sizable military base in South Vietnam.
Military leaders, including Westmoreland, have argued that the Tet offensive was actually a U.S. military victory because more than 58,000 enemy troops were killed.
CBS and others have contended that the sheer size of the uprising so startled the American people that Tet marked the end of public support of the war.
After Burt spent about three hours arguing, among other points, that CBS selectively edited out comments that did not support its theory about Westmoreland's conspiracy, Boies said, "We have sort of a complaint that he unfairly edited . . . the broadcast itself."
At issue is a 90-minute documentary entitled "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception." It was narrated by Wallace and produced by George Crile. Westmoreland has filed his action against CBS Inc., Wallace, Crile and former CIA analyst Sam Adams, a paid consultant for the program.
Burt said Adams, who was in Vietnam with the Central Intelligence Agency and had argued with Westmoreland's staff about Army troop-strength assessments lower than those of the CIA, had taken a "debate" between two arms of government and carried it to the press.
He described Crile as a hungry young CBS producer who "had never done a show of his own and needed to do a big story. He was ambitious to become a big correspondent like Mike Wallace," said Burt, as Wallace and Crile exchanged smiles at the defendants' table.
Because Westmoreland, who commanded all U.S. ground troops in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, is considered a public figure, Burt must persuade the jury that CBS knew its program was false or recklessly disregarded whether statements in it were true.
Boies asked the jury to consider why Wallace, whom he described as "a man at the top of his profession," would risk his reputation on a program "he knew was false."
He also said Crile "had a bright future" at the network before the program and would not have jeopardized it by broadcasting something that he knew was untrue.
Boies, scheduled to continue his opening arguments Friday, closed today by relating Robert F. Kennedy's end-the-war plea during his 1968 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
On film, Kennedy was seen urging Americans to free themselves from "false hopes and sentimental dreams" about winning the war.
U.S. District Court Judge Pierre N. Leval, who has lectured the jury so extensively on rules in this case that he said he was beginning to feel like a law professor, cautioned jurors that the opening arguments should not be seen as facts.
"They are on the order of salesmanship," he said. "You should take what they say with something of a grain of salt."