A key witness for CBS Inc. testified today that retired general William C. Westmoreland told him at a 1967 briefing that higher enemy-troop numbers in Vietnam that year were "politically unacceptable."
Because of that briefing and a similar comment later from Westmoreland's intelligence chief, retired Army colonel Gains B. Hawkins said he instructed intelligence officers working for him in Vietnam to reduce official enemy-strength estimates. Hawkins' testimony may be crucial for CBS in its defense of a $120 million libel suit by Westmoreland because it is the first time a witness for the network has testified that he lowered enemy-troop data as a result of comments by the general.
Westmoreland sued CBS over a 1982 documentary entitled "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception."
The retired general says that the show wrongly accused him of participating in a "conspiracy" to conceal higher enemy-troop data from the public, Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson in order to maintain support for the war.
Hawkins' testimony appeared to buttress that of another important CBS witness last week. That witness, retired major general Joseph A. McChristian, told the jury that Westmoreland in 1967 refused to send his superiors a cable showing higher enemy estimates. McChristian said that Westmoreland said the cable would arrive like a "political bombshell" in Washington.
Hawkins, 65, a small elfin man who was known in Vietnam as "The Hawk" and served in the Army for 25 years, made a strong and emotional plea for the network's case as the 16th person to appear in court for CBS.
"Was there any intelligence or evidence that you were aware of that justified those orders that you gave?" CBS lawyer David Boies asked Hawkins.
Hawkins, his face red, his hands clasped tightly, said: "There was none, sir."
"Did you believe those Hawkins' orders were proper orders, sir?" Boies asked.
"They were not, sir," said Hawkins, emphasizing "sir" like a soldier at attention answering his superior officer.
Westmoreland's lawyers have not yet had their chance to question Hawkins in more detail about why he gave orders to cut the enemy-troop numbers in 1967 from around 500,000 to what Hawkins called a "bottom line" of 300,000.
In unused portions of his 1981 CBS interview, which has been shown in court, Hawkins said Westmoreland did not order him to cut the official enemy figures as the military and the Central Intelligence Agency began meetings to iron out their differences on enemy numbers.
"I was never given any specific instruction on this," Hawkins told codefendant George Crile during the interview.
"I deduced it the ceiling , and I defended it willingly. I was not given any specific orders . . . . This was the message that I perceived," he said.
On the stand, Hawkins seemed to say that his two direct superior officers at the time, Brig. Gen. Phillip Davidson and Col. Charles Morris, both of whom testified against CBS, repeatedly tried to get him to cut numbers for enemy estimates in the summer of 1967.
Hawkins said at one point he balked and said to the two: " 'If you don't like these figures, you just make up your own rules, and I'll carry out the orders.' "
From that time on, he started receiving numbers from Morris that, he said, "did not add up . . . they subtracted down . . . to the bottom line figure of 300,000."
Hawkins said he told Crile that the responsibility for such handling of enemy estimates "went back to Gen. Westmoreland himself."
Hawkins also said that in his first briefing for Westmoreland on new higher numbers, the general said, in substance, "What will I tell the president? What will I tell the Congress? What will be the reaction of the press to these high figures?" -- which is almost identical to comments attributed to the general in the broadcast, except that the order of the questions was reversed.
On the stand, Westmoreland testified that at that briefing he merely expressed concern about the "public relations" problem a larger enemy figure would cause. He said that he wanted the official data to separate out "non-fighters."
Westmoreland's lawyers have claimed that their client was defamed by CBS primarily when the broadcast accused him of trying to withhold higher troop data from his superiors, including the president.
The general said on the stand that he reported the new higher data to his two immediate bosses for passing up the chain of command to the president -- his military next in command, Admiral Ulysses S. Grant Sharp, and his civilian boss, the late Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker.
Hawkins also made an effort to defuse criticism in court that one of his quotes was taken out of context in the broadcast.
In the program, Hawkins is quoted as saying of the figures taken by Westmoreland's command to an intelligence session at the CIA in Langley that "these figures were crap. They were history; they weren't worth anything."
In the uncut version of his interview, it is clear that Hawkins is talking about much earlier intelligence figures that came from the South Vietnamese.
CBS witnesses have said that Hawkins used the same word off camera to describe both sets of figures.
On the stand today, when Hawkins was asked whether the enemy-strength figures he took to the intelligence meeting at Langley represented his "best estimate of enemy strength," Hawkins replied: "No sir, they did not. They represented crap."
Boies then asked Hawkins whether he had characterized the figures in other interviews with Crile that were not on the broadcast or in the unused "outtakes."
Hawkins, staring at the jury, began telling of his 2 1/2-hour interview with Crile after which, he said, the CBS staff had made arrangements for him to see a musical in New York.
"The title of the play ironically was 'Ain't Misbehavin'," Hawkins said as everyone in the courtroom, including Westmoreland, laughed.
Hawkins added that he called Crile and told him he would like to relinquish the tickets because "I was mentally and emotionally exhausted and I would just rather stay in the hotel that night and have two or three martinis and a dinner."
He said Crile came over to talk more about the events of 1967.
"I think I opened up to him more then because I was pretty tight," he began, drawing more laughter until he added, "I mean not martini tight."
He said that during that off-camera interview he told Crile the figures he took to the intelligence meeting in Langley were "crap."
Hawkins also testified that he decided to go on camera for the CBS broadcast to tell what he could remember about his participation in what he called an intelligence "fraud" in 1967 because "the war was over then and there was a need for an 'after-action' report."